Sowing Seeds of Joy

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The future of today is grown out of the present moment. Tomorrow's harvest depends on today's ploughing and sowing. 

-Chinmayananda Saraswati

It is Spring in the Okanagan Valley. Mother Nature’s artistic expression is everywhere. New buds are breaking, birds are singing and cherry trees are blossoming in soft shades of dusty rose. It feels as though each day, Mother Nature generously offers us her own creative Mindfulness Bell; a sight or sound here to help us wake up from automaticity and experience the fullness of the present moment.

So with nature’s beauty abound, imprinting our minds with Robin's singing and images of new beginnings, is it accurate to assume that naturally, our minds feel happier?

For some of us, this might be the case. For others, perhaps not. You may be aware of this tendency in yourself, or perhaps someone close to you: regardless of how many miracles are experienced throughout your day, you notice the mind's tendency to dwell upon the negative. You may notice that, even on days when you experience a multitude of meaningful connections, when you sit down at the kitchen table and respond to the question, "How was your day?" it is the challenges that stick out the most - the unpleasantness of that morning’s traffic, a difficult interaction with someone at work or a disturbing image from the news.

Why is this the case? 

Why does the mind tend to fixate on what went wrong, even on days when beauty is abound?

Mamma Nature's Evolutionary Design

We, as humans, are evolutionarily designed to avoid pain and prolong pleasure. This means that painful memories go right into our implicit memory. Our brain holds onto them. In the past, this design was necessary for survival as it provided us the wiring to ward off threat and disaster during the conditions of the time. While this wiring can serve us (consider the curious child who quickly learns to avoid a hot stove in order to prevent herself from getting burnt again), more often then not, it can limit us from experiencing the full range of human emotion – which includes an equal amount of happiness, joy, and peace - by crowding out the positive experiences from our day. 

This limited perception may be particularly true for someone who has spent or continues to spend the majority of time living in a state of stress. When operating in a state of “fight or flight,” the survival brain instinctively looks for what is wrong in a situation. The more we’ve been wounded or the longer we’ve spent operating from a stress response, the more deeply habituated we become at trying to protect ourselves by anticipating what is wrong. Over time, this can create a “negativity bias.”

You may be aware of this quality in yourself or someone in your life. You get on a plane and experience the miracle of flight and land safely with your feet on solid ground and all you can focus on is the fact that your arrival time is 15 minutes late. You're at a yoga retreat and experience the luxury of having a whole weekend dedicated to self care and all you can focus on is the fact that there is no almond milk for your morning coffee.

Sound familiar? 

So, How do we overcome this bias, Ma? 

Positive Neuroplasticity (Whatever we practice, grows)

Research around neuroplasticity reveals what modern yogis practiced since the beginning of time. Our brains are malleable and adaptive. Our brain cells communicate with one another via synaptic transmission. With each thought, a synaptic connection is formed or strengthened. When neurons communicate frequently, the synaptic connection between them strengthens which allows communication between those neurons to become more efficient. As a result, messages traveling the same pathway in the brain over and over become faster and more efficient. With enough repetition, messages become automatic. [1]

If each thought either creates or strengthens a synaptic connection, you can shape your neuronal architecture by choosing what you focus on. Dr. Rick Hanson’s research refers to this as “positive neuroplasticity.” Because positive memories don’t immediately enter our implicit memory, we need to hold onto the experience for 10-15 seconds. So, it’s a real practice. Over time, we can begin to replace habitually negative thinking patterns with positive ones, opening up the potential to dissolve the neuronal patterns that keep us stuck in our woundedness, perceiving the world in habitual ways. 

Sowing Seeds of Joy 

So, the next time you experience something that the mind labels as "pleasant" or "happy" or "joyful," what happens if you marinate in it for a few more moments. Say... 3 more cycles of breath? 

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When you're hugging someone you really care about, what happens if you stay for 3 more breaths?-8.png
When you're hugging someone you really care about, what happens if you stay for 3 more breaths?-7.png

“Around us, life bursts forth with miracles –
A glass of water, a ray of sunshine, a flower, laughter.
If you live in awareness,
It is so easy to see miracles.” 

-Thich Naht Hanh

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