Turning States Into Traits: An Interview With Rick Hanson


“Mindfulness alone is not enough; we must also cultivate wholesome qualities of mind and heart by growing these in neural structure.”

We recently had the pleasure of interviewing Rick Hanson, neuropsychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. His books include Hardwiring Happiness,Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture. He is also the founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. And so much more! We were interested in his take on mindfulness and how to change those mindful moments into lasting, long-term inner strengths. Here are some of the highlights from our chat:

We’ve seen you out there, pushing forward this movement of not just using mindfulness for “in-the-moment,” but to an emphasis on longer term effects and development. Can you tell us more about that?

For me, they’ve always gone hand in hand. To simplify, the great bird of practice has two wings, being with and working with*.

As a clinician, it’s very much about the working with side of it — reduce neurotic tendencies, grow inner resources, healing and so forth. To my surprise, when I started learning more about all this, there was this kind of push back. People would say “Wait a second, that’s all goal-directed, that’s not mindfulness, that’s just reinforcing the ego. What you have to do is radically accept what’s there and just stand in absolute choice-less awareness** stance and that’s all you need…”

I think a very significant error has crept into the world that misunderstands what mindfulness actually is. And second, thinks that, whatever they think mindfulness is, is at odds with wise effort. And that’s deeply wrong. It’s not what the great teachers taught. It’s not how the brain changes.

Can you tell us more about what mindfulness is and how the definition has been blurred?

Mindfulness is sustained present-moment awareness, a kind of meta-cognitive quality of “awareness of awareness” or “attention to attention.” What’s happened in the last 10-20 years, is that mindfulness is now this state of being in-the-now, self acceptance, it’s all groovy man. No, those are all states. And the reason that bare witnessing and choice-less awareness have been conflated with mindfulness is that in a bare witnessing state, there’s nothing but mindfulness.

So the question is, how do you grow the good in someone that’s very good at turning bad experiences into neural structure, even though converting generally beneficial states to traits is the primary way to grow? The working with element is essentially reducing the negative and growing the positive.

I think we’ve gotten a lot better at activation. We need to get better at installation. And yet without installation, there’s no lasting value. There’s no response to treatment. There’s no growth. And yet people who meditate have states but they don’t learn from them, which is disheartening and frustrating.

But how does one engage the mind to move toward the installation?

There are three ways to engage the mind within the natural frame:

  • Be with it.
  • Reduce the negative.
  • Grow the positive.

There’s a proverb, my brain is like a garden. You can witness it, pull weeds, or plant flowers. The witnessing stance is more fundamental, it’s also where we often end up on the trajectory of practice. The brain is a very stable system and it’s also biased negatively. The soil is not particularly fertile for flowers so I think that dedicated practitioners in the west need more efficient, customized methods to our own temperamental variations. Take into account our culture, habits, stimuli. Bare witnessing can be a nonstarter for many people. They feel like they’re trying to breathe through a straw. Even to sustain bare witnessing, you need to just be able to tolerate your own experience. There’s a lot about the conflation of mindfulness with bare witnessing that is deeply wrong. I find it ironic.

That’s why I think it’s very important to be skillful about cultivation. It’s a two stage process. From short term memory to long term storing. From state to trait. From activation to installation. Both are really important, but I think the installation part is the one that we’ve really not paid much attention to.

Stay tuned for more of our interview with Rick Hanson next week!

Spire is a wearable device for mindfulness – it brings awareness through your iPhone to your breathing, activity and state of mind  Learn more at https://spire.io


*Being with refers to those moments of mindfulness. Working with is taking those moments, developing them into positive inner strengths, and using those inner strengths throughout your daily life to deal with different situations, both good and bad.

**When we talk about choice-less awareness, we are referring to a state of awareness without judgment or preference. It is to be aware of what is right in front of you, whether it’s conflict or beauty, and to not judge the situation or your reactions as they come and go. You acknowledge a thought or feeling you have, and then let it go. Now, this is not an article attempting to completely define choice-less awareness. If you’d like to learn more, here’s a great article to get you started.



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