Welcome to Joy Lab!: Welcome to the Joy Lab podcast, where we help you uncover and foster your most joyful self. Your hosts, Dr. Henry Emmons and Dr. Aimee Prasek, bring you the ideal mix of soulful and scientifically sound tools to spark your joy, even when it feels dark. When you're ready to experiment with more joy, combine this podcast with the full Joy Lab program over at JoyLab.coach
Aimee: Welcome to Joy Lab, Aimee here. I am here to introduce this next lesson of our podcourse. And we are really diving into the mind and thinking in this lesson. So before I pass it over to Henry for this lesson, I want to note that there will be a meditation after this one.
So, our next episode will be a meditation. It is a perfect complement to what Henry is discussing in this one. He'll refer to that meditation, actually. So, stay tuned for that. If you're in our resilient community, you'll actually have that meditation a bit earlier. So, join us there if you haven't already.
I'll pass it over to Henry for this lesson on overthinking and the second arrow.
Henry (2): One of the very oldest spiritual texts that we have available to us today is called the Dhammapada. And I want to just recite for you the very first lines: "Mind is the forerunner of all things. Begin with mind." So remember we talked about how we create or maybe add to our own suffering by how we react or respond to things in our lives.
And, and there's also a very kind of fundamental kinda background aspect to this, which is that for so many people in today's world, because of all the stress, all the busyness, all the distractions, it's very hard for people to have a quiet mind. So the mind, if it's unquiet as a background, we need to take some very basic steps to try to let it settle, let it quiet a little bit.
Meditation of course is a tried and true way to do that, and we're going to I'm going to offer you some meditation practices that help both with allowing your mind to settle or calm, but then importantly, to be able to use the capacity to observe your own inner experience, to be able to see how powerful the mind is at creating what seems to be our reality.
So let's back up a little bit before we get to that. A lot of you have probably heard this concept, uh, what's known as the second arrow. This is a concept that comes out of the literature on mindfulness. And it's, it's a very old and, and very wise understanding of human suffering and how we exaggerate it.
So imagine back in the day when soldiers would use, you know, bows and arrows and spears and so forth. If you were in the battlefield, in other words, if you're out there living life, there are slings and arrows that are coming at you. And probably you're, someday, you're going to get hit. You're going to be wounded.
In fact, they would say in the Buddhist literature that no one is exempt from that. Everybody experiences that first arrow, which is the pain or the wounding, for example, of a loss of a relationship, or of a job, or a child who's struggling in some way. Or parents who are aging. There's any number of ways that this manifests.
So that aspect of suffering is unavoidable. But then imagine that that soldier who has been struck by the first arrow takes another arrow out of his or her own quiver and stabs it into him or herself right next to the first arrow. That is what we do unconsciously, not trying to do this by any means, but we do this automatically when we have reactive thoughts or emotions in response to that first wounding or injury.
So let me give you a really what I think is a really clear example of this. This is somebody that I saw some years ago now in my own practice and she was a college student. She was in her first year of college and I had seen her early in the fall because she was already on medication. And as I recall, she was taking, I think it was a hundred milligrams of Zoloft or sertraline.
So she was 18 years old. She had been on that medication already for a few years. And when I saw her in September or October, she was stable. She was doing well. She was enjoying the start of school. And then literally just a week or two after my first meeting her, I got a kind of a urgent call from her therapist saying you need to see this person this week.
Um, she is absolutely in crisis. And so I was very curious what had happened in just that short period of time. So I see the student and, in fact she was doing very, very badly at that time. She was much more depressed and she was to the point that she was feeling really hopeless and even a little bit suicidal.
So I asked her "What, what happened? You were doing really well, what's changed?" And she started telling me a little bit about her life as a first year student and what seemed to trigger this episode. The long and short of it is that she was initially, feeling good about making connections with people and those relationships. But then one night when most of the young women in her dorm, kind of gathered together to go as a, as a group to supper, they didn't ask her.
They forgot or for some reason they, they neglected to invite her to come with them. That is all that happened. And she, when she found out about this, she had a huge emotional reaction, which I think you can understand. It hurts to be left out. If it's something you really wanted to be part of, that is a hurt, that's a wound, that is the first arrow.
But then, in reaction to that, that feeling hurt, her mind started taking off and exaggerating the story of this. So she began to to have thoughts like, well, they didn't invite me because they don't like me. Even though there was no evidence for that. And then beyond that, well, they didn't invite me because nobody really likes me.
I actually don't have any friends here at school. I'm unlovable, and you can kind of see where this goes. So that, all of that is additive suffering. In a sense made up by her own mind. And that is the second arrow. So this is something we want to try to get some freedom from. Now, I like to couch this in some of the more modern scientific terms as well.
And so I want to talk a little bit about neuroplasticity. Before I do that, let me read a fuller version of the opening to the Dhammapada because it's really talking about neuroplasticity in a very poetic sort of way.
"We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world. Speak or act with an impure mind and trouble will follow you as surely as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart. We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world. Speak or act with a pure mind and happiness will follow you. As closely as your shadow, unshakable."
The term neuroplasticity was first used by the very famous American psychologist William James. And he used this 130 or 140 years ago, which is pretty remarkable. And he talked about neuroplasticity in terms very much like that reading that I just shared with you. Let me give you an image for how I think this works and how important this is.
And then we're going to do a practice to try to start working with this in a deeper way. Imagine that you are standing in front of a tall grass field. It's a meadow and it's just pristine. Nobody has ever walked across it before. And then you walk across this meadow one time. You can look back, and you can see very, very faintly where you have been.
But if you don't walk that path again, it's going to disappear. It won't ever really become a path. That is much like what happens the very first time that we create a new pathway in our brain. For example, through learning something new that you'd never learned before, or perhaps it's something like, you know, learning a series of dance moves that are kind of complicated, but you've never done them before.
If you don't repeat it, it'll just disappear. It won't become embedded in your mind. But then imagine that you do repeat this. You go and walk down that path again and again and again. Before very long, you can look and see that this is really a path. It's even kind of deepened or rutted, much like the reading suggested.
And this is very much like what happens when we repeat something over and over and over in our mind. Um, whether it be a thought or an emotion, if we're going down that pathway again and again, it is going to become semi-permanent. I say semi because there are things we can do about that. And this again is very much like what happens when we have the same unhealthy thoughts about ourselves. If you are constantly repeating a refrain of things that are wrong with you, it is going to become more or less set in place. The more it's repeated, the deeper the pathway gets.
So imagine then that you realize that you're doing this. Because remember up until this time, it's been unconscious. You were not aware of it. But let's say that you make it conscious, and you know that you're doing it. Then you have the capacity to step back and to be able to see what you're doing in real time so that you can, at least some of the time, refrain from walking this path. I think of this very much, if you remember the two wolves story, this is like recognizing that you've been feeding the bad wolf and you don't want to do it anymore. And so you decide to stop. To refrain from repeating these unhelpful thoughts again and again.
You will eventually find that that path begins to disappear. If enough time goes by without reinforcing it, then the pathway gets kind of weak and harder to see. And eventually, it might grow over for all practical purposes. Now, it's still there, and it could be kind of restarted very quickly if you started walking down it again, but creating a greater sense of conscious awareness, at least allows you the possibility of not doing that.
There is another side to this, which we're going to get into in a, in a later section. And that is, imagine that you decide there is a path you really want to create that does not yet exist, or at least it's not very strong. So for example, let's say you wanted to become more generous. You could intentionally begin thinking of yourself as generous and maybe imagining all of the generous things that you will do in the future. Or things you already have done.
And then you might go even beyond that and start acting in more generous ways. So you are then intentionally creating a pathway that really serves you, that's really, really healthy and good. And makes you feel better than you did before. So that's more like, um, like I mentioned in an earlier section about how we can grow ourselves into a bigger container.
Or in fact, we can create a greater sense of who we are as human beings. For now, we're going to stay with how do we learn to stop walking that pathway to stop reinforcing it. And, and this is something that really has power. I want to just give you one simple example of how powerful the mind really is.
This is coming out of a study that was done about neuroplasticity. Actually, it doesn't have any direct bearing on mood, but it tells you how, what we're doing with our mind is having effects on us. So the study looked at a group of young people who were given the assignment to practice playing a song on a keyboard, but with only one hand.
So let's just say they did it with their right hand. They were practicing this song for two hours a day for two weeks. And the researchers, did a fancy brain scan to measure the part of their brain that deals with movement of the right hand. And they did it both before and after practicing this song.
What they found was that with just two weeks of practice, two hours a day, the part of their brain dealing with hand movement grew by about 25 to 30 percent. That's really remarkable. That's a good example of how if we're practicing something, it's having an impact. It's having a direct effect even on something as concrete as the size of a portion of the brain. But then the researchers did something much more interesting. They asked another group to do the same thing. Two hours a day for two weeks, practicing with just their right hand, with one big difference. They were told not to move their fingers.
Just imagine it. So, this is happening purely at the level of thought through the power of imagination. As you might guess, that group had the same 25 to 30 percent growth of a part of their brain that's supposed to control movement, even though they didn't move. Now, again, this may not have direct bearing on mood, but I think it has a, a real direct, message for us, which is it's really important to become more aware of what we're doing with our thoughts, what we're creating, you know, through our minds, whether we realize we're doing it or not. So we're going to try to add conscious awareness so that we can see up close and personal the kinds of thoughts we're creating, and learn from doing that, not to identify too closely with those thoughts. We're trying to free ourselves from the, really the tyranny of thought. Because so many of those thoughts tend to be negative. So we're going to do a meditative practice around this in our next lesson.
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