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Pam King: What is a healthy mind? Richie Davidson is on a mission to cultivate well being as a skill and relieve suffering through a scientific understanding of the human mind. As a pioneering neuroscientist, a mindfulness and meditation teacher, a global public Advocate and guide, he has been a proponent for healing, well being, and social change.
Finding evidence that awareness, connection, insight, and purpose are the pillars of a healthy mind. And woven through it all is compassion.
Richie Davidson: Humans are born to be kind. They’re born to love. It is part of our nature. And what I mean by that is actually something based on science. If we look at very young infants in the first six months of life, what we see is a preference for interactions that are loving, warm hearted, compared to those that, for example, are selfish or aggressive.
This is not a subtle preference. This is huge and robust. It shows that when we nurture these qualities. We’re not nurturing something de novo just out of nowhere, but rather we’re actually nurturing a capacity that is part of the nature of who we are as human beings to begin with.
Pam King: I’m Dr. Pam King, and you’re listening to With Anne For, a podcast that explores the depths of psychological science.
and spiritual wisdom to offer practical guidance towards spiritual health, wholeness, and thriving on purpose. Perhaps
one of the greatest influences on my spiritual health has been Dr. Richard Davidson, the founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin Madison, where he is also the William James and Willis Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry. Now, this might sound surprising given that Richie is a practicing Buddhist and is a neuroscientist, and I am an ordained Presbyterian minister running the Thrive Center and a faculty member in the School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary.
But it’s true. Richie’s research has revolutionized the way we understand the brain and how plastic and malleable or changeable the brain is. Just like we train our physical bodies and go to the gym, he and his team at the Center for Healthy Minds have shown that we need to train our brains and work them out as well.
As a result, he is changing the way we understand well being. For Richie, well being is a skill. It is something we do and practice. In other words, we are actually active agents of our own well being. And this is why his work has so greatly impacted my own spiritual health. As a Christian, Richie’s research has given me insight into how to modify my own traditional Christian practices to include rhythms of focus, attuning to my body, receptivity, reflection, and silence.
His research has given me a whole new appreciation of Christian contemplative practices or disciplines. Although we can’t control all that happens around us or to us, we do have some control on how we respond. He not only admonishes that we are active agents in our well being, but offers helpful insight into what kind of practices make a difference for our minds.
in order to become more regulated or peaceful, more receptive or open, and even more trusting. Not just so that our personal well being increases, but so that we become more engaged in thriving humans that contribute to a flourishing world.
In this bountiful conversation with Richie Davidson, we discuss two kinds of learning, declarative and procedural that need to be integrated in order to cultivate mental and spiritual health. The four pillars of a healthy mind, how to cultivate a mindset for healthy relational connection, how to understand the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and how this impacts our well being and spiritual health.
We explore and respond to the overemphasis and even hype. on mindfulness that seems to be present in our culture and what a healthy approach to meditation might be in our spiritual lives. Richie leads us through two real time meditative practices to help integrate what we’re learning with a practical way of being.
And we close with an absolutely fascinating discussion of love. and compassion. Richie, welcome to the podcast.
Richie Davidson: It’s great to be here, Pam, and I’m really excited and honored to be part of this. Thank you.
Pam King: I have to say that I hold you in such esteem and regard and so many lives have been transformed through your research and resources that you have made.
I’m just really honored to be able to speak to someone with such wisdom and the capacity to bring about change in human lives and therefore the world.
Richie Davidson: Well, that’s especially meaningful to me coming from you. So thank you so much for the kind words.
Pam King: Some of the things that we have in common are that we are both scientists, and you have had a pioneering and luminous career as a neuroscientist and psychologist.
And we both have a lot of questions about things that I would call spirituality that may not be the word that you’d use. And your life has had such an unusual journey of science intersecting with spiritual tradition, so I’d love to invite you to share a bit how you came to this place and creating the Center for Healthy Minds.
Richie Davidson: Yeah, well, thank you for the invitation to be here and also to address this issue. It’s a question that most scientists don’t ask me, so I, I especially appreciate being asked the question directly. I’ve always Considered spiritual experience to be part of the human repertoire. I think that humans are born to touch into those qualities that we come to label spiritual because it is within our capacity to have experiences that in many ways we can say go beyond ourselves, connect us to something larger.
And I’ve, you know, been fortunate to taste some of those experiences myself in my personal life. And when I began as a scientist, I kept those experiences very much. within privately, so to speak. Uh, and then I had the opportunity for the first time in 1992 to first meet the Dalai Lama. And at the time I met him, I was, you know, doing my neuroscientific research and I was focused on the question of why is it that some people Are more vulnerable to life’s slings and arrows Compared to others and uh, I was mostly focused on the adversity side of the equation I was doing a lot of research on the brain mechanisms that conferred vulnerability to Anxiety and depression and other stress related disorders.
And the Dalai Lama asked me a very innocent question. He asked, why can’t I use the same tools of modern science that I’ve been using to study depression and anxiety and fear and stress? And apply those tools to the study of kindness and to the study of compassion. And I didn’t have a very good answer for him other than that.
It’s hard, but you know It was hard when we first began to study anxiety and depression and that was the wake up call that really Began this turning Mm-Hmm. and eventually led to the development of the Center for Healthy Minds. And the Dalai Lama came out to inaugurate the center in, uh, 2010. And the mission of our center, as we publicly put it out there, is to cultivate wellbeing and relieve suffering through a scientific understanding of the mind.
And. You know, since that first meeting I had with the 1992, it really has been a quite extraordinary journey. I think if you go back to textbooks of psychology and neuroscience in the early to mid 1990s, I doubt whether a single textbook would have the word compassion in its index. It was just not. Part of mainstream science, and I’m very thrilled to say today, you know, it’s a very different situation.
And I would like to think that our work has played some part in nurturing interest in these areas.
Pam King: No doubt it for sure has. It is truly amazing that in 1992, all definitions, visions, understandings of mental health were absence of disease and pathology.
Richie Davidson: Yeah, absolutely. I often say when I went to graduate school, I was taught to look at people and to try to figure out what’s wrong with them.
And now I try to look at people and figure out what’s right with them. It’s a really different orientation.
Pam King: Absolutely different orientation. Well, thank you for your pioneering work in that. And not just naming that well being, compassion, kindness, wholeness can be a goal, but developing actually a framework, a science around how people can bring about change in their lives to practice well being and to enable well being to be a dynamic skill, not just some status that we either have or don’t have.
Richie thinks of well being as a skill, something to cultivate, something to practice, something you, yes, even you, can get really good at. It’s an opening up this awareness of the possibility that you can approach thriving as a skill that I think is so transformative.
He points out two kinds of learning that need to take place for us. To access and exercise this thriving skill. One is declarative learning, the kind you get in school from reading, from listening to podcasts. And the other is procedural learning.
Richie Davidson: Yeah. So you know, that’s something, it’s a simple idea, but we think quite a radical idea that wellbeing actually is best regarded as a skill.
The science has led us to that inevitable conclusion, and it has led us to that because the core elements or constituents or pillars of well being that we can get into in a moment, those constituents all are ones that We know are associated with particular networks in the brain and those networks exhibit plasticity.
They can change in response to experience and in response to training. And we now think of wellbeing in a way that is fundamentally no different than, than any other kind of skill. We know. that one needs to practice in order to play a musical instrument. You can’t learn to play the violin by simply reading books and attending lectures.
Uh, it requires practice. And in the same way, we think of well being and the constituents that comprise well being. And this really invites an important reflection about the nature of two fundamentally different kinds of learning. And this is something we glean from modern neuroscience. One form of learning we call declarative learning, which is learning about stuff.
So we can learn the value of kindness. And that’s really important. It can teach us why kindness is important, the ways that it can be expressed. And so forth, but it doesn’t necessarily make a person kinder. You know, another quality that may be even more stark in considering this is honesty. You can learn the value of honesty, but it’s not going to necessarily make us a more honest person.
So here there’s a second form of learning, which is absolutely necessary, that we call procedural learning. Procedural learning. Is skill based, it is acquired through practice, and it is instantiated in completely different brain networks than declarative learning. And both forms of learning are necessary for us to cultivate well being.
And in our culture, we know that declarative learning is privileged. In our schools of higher education, it’s mostly declarative learning. And so here is where There really needs to be this complement, and it’s also where the world’s, I think, religious and spiritual traditions play such an important role because they offer a kind of roadmap for the procedural learning that I think is critical and necessary to complement the declarative learning.
Pam King: I want to help contextualize. What these two types of learning are doing even here in this podcast with N4 is about integrating both of these kinds of learning declarative learning that presents insights and information and procedural learning that facilitates an environment of practice and figuring out and working through.
And I personally believe it’s at this nexus. Of these two kinds of learning that we find our path towards spiritual health and thriving And this is what ritchie would call mental hygiene.
Richie Davidson: I often also use the analogy of brushing our teeth when human beings first evolved On this planet. None of us were brushing our teeth and somehow we’ve all managed to figure out how to do that for our own personal physical hygiene and what we’re talking about is something that is important for Personal mental hygiene.
And I think most people would agree that their minds. Uh, are even more important than their teeth.
Pam King: And as our culture has changed or evolved or dissolved or however people’s views might be on that, the frenetic pace that we live at, the bombardment of technology and stimuli, the potential for distraction has increased so much that these, this mental hygiene is, is really a necessary antidote to be intentional about cultivating strengths of mind and is, is all the more important.
Now. Over many decades of research, Richie and his lab have come to describe four pillars of well being that help us understand the dimensions of spiritual health and thriving. I asked him to walk through each of them for context before we dove in for a closer look. The four pillars are awareness, connection, insight,
Richie Davidson: Yeah, so the four pillars of well being evolved in an effort to identify the core constituents of well being that also exhibit plasticity, uh, that we know can change in response to experience and in response to training.
And we wanted to identify pillars that have been scientifically examined, investigated in, in, robust scientific research, and also pillars that have been identified in contemplative traditions as being important for the cultivation of human flourishing. And so, we have arrived at four pillars. Now, we don’t consider this You know, the end of the story, this is a preliminary roadmap subject to revision based on what we learn.
But these four pillars as they currently exist are the following. The first is awareness. And awareness is about how we deploy our attention. It also involves self awareness, and it involves a capacity that psychologists and neuroscientists call meta awareness. Meta awareness is the capacity to know what our minds are doing.
Mm hmm. The second pillar we call connection. And connection is about qualities that are important for healthy social relationships. Qualities like appreciation and gratitude and kindness and compassion. All of those are part of the, the connection pillar. The third pillar is one we call insight and insight is unusual.
It’s not present in any other framework for understanding wellbeing that we know of, but inside is. About self knowledge and particularly knowledge of the narrative that we carry around about ourselves. All, all of us, every human being has some kind of narrative. The story that we tell ourselves about who we are.
And that’s a necessary construct to help us navigate through the world. But if we overly identify with it, it can really place blinders. On our ability to interact with the world, the inside pillar, the key to it is not so much changing the narrative, but it’s changing our relationship to the narrative so that we can see the narrative for what it is and just to give a little bit.
More example of this, we know that there are some people who have a very negative narrative. They have negative self beliefs, they have low self esteem, and they hold those beliefs to be a veridical description of who they are. And, of course, that’s a prescription for depression. And one of the key elements here is not so much having them initially change the narrative, but change their relationship to the narrative so that they can see that the narrative is really a constellation of thoughts that are fundamentally no different than other thoughts.
And so the last pillar is purpose. And purpose is about finding our true sense of direction, our true north in life. And here it’s, again, not so much about finding something more purposeful to do with our life, but how can we find meaning and purpose in that which we are already doing, including the pedestrian activities of daily life.
Can washing the dishes, And doing your laundry, be connected to your sense of purpose. And the answer is, of course it could be, but it requires just a little bit of reframing. And so those are the four pillars.
Pam King: Richie, thank you. Those are so helpful. As you said, these all relate to actual parts of our physical bodies, to our brain, our nervous system, that we know can be changed.
And yet, from my vantage as one who, you were talking about insight and narrative, might understand my personal narrative as part of a larger narrative of the Christian narrative of how I understand God working in this world, these pillars can all. influence how I engage with my own spiritual practices, whether they’re for well being or spiritual formation, however one might conceptualize that.
So I’d love to take a little time and just ask you a few more questions about the pillars. And also really importantly, I want to tell our audience that we will also be posting the Healthy Minds app. And the great news is that so much work has been done on this that you and your colleagues through Healthy Mind Innovations have developed a really extraordinary app that people can practice regularly and cultivate these skills of well being and learn about awareness and connection and insight and purpose.
If you are not familiar with that app, I really suggest that You all look into that. It has been really helpful in my own life and very transformative.
Richie Davidson: And for your listeners, just to add one other thing, the app is entirely free.
Pam King: I mean, that is a generous gift to this world. And I know particularly adoption of it during COVID became more prominent in that.
For all of us struggling with anxiety and just trying to figure out how we pursued our purpose in quarantine, et cetera, that it was really helpful to break those down and to step by step strengthen our minds and that we could pursue well being.
I wanted to jump in on the connection pillar. What does it mean to truly be with each other? To genuinely encounter the other in love? and vulnerability, and trust, and gratitude. We know that relationships are incredibly powerful elements in our lives, whether we struggle with these or find them flowing and joyful.
Well, okay, back to connection. So, especially within the Christian tradition, love, compassion, connection is so central. We often conceptualize an anthropology of being relational persons and that relationality is so important. So I’d love to hear you speak a bit about what are some of the psychological capacities that get shaped in connection and what are the types of practices that enable people to become more effective at connection with others?
Richie Davidson: Yeah. Yeah, that’s, I love the lead in and your reference to the importance of connection to the Christian faith. One of the things that I often say, and I’ll say it here, is that humans are born to be kind. They’re born to love. It is part of our nature. And what I mean by that is actually something based on science.
That is, if we look at very young infants in the first six months of life. What we see is a preference for interactions that are loving, warm hearted, compared to those that, for example, are selfish. Or aggressive. And here, the preference is not like 55 percent of infants prefer the pro social, loving, warm hearted encounter.
It’s, it’s like 100%. Um, uh, and so this is not a subtle, a subtle preference. This is huge and robust, and this is something that’s really important because it shows that when we nurture these qualities, we’re not nurturing something de novo, just out of nowhere, but rather we’re actually nurturing a capacity that is part of the nature of who we are as human beings to begin with.
And so the, the kind of practices that we have on the app can range from, uh, a practice That, um, you can sprinkle through your everyday life that can take literally seconds and one of them, for example, is appreciation. Appreciation is, uh, I think such a powerful and underappreciated quality. And all, it doesn’t take much.
But one of the things that we could do, for example, before we, uh, go into a meeting with our colleagues, we can think of something. Positive that they’ve done in the recent past and simply allow this natural sense of appreciation to emerge. If you’ve been working all day and you’re about to go back to your family, you can spend a few moments reflecting and appreciating the family that you are blessed in having.
Just these little moments. of appreciation really help to nurture this kind of loving connection. Then there are other kinds of practices that are a little bit more elaborate where, for example, we can bring a person into our mind and our heart and we can reflect on the Uh, a time in their life when they may have been having some difficulty and we can cultivate the genuine aspiration that they be relieved of suffering and we can send them our, um, our positive energy and love as we do that.
And in this kind of practice, we typically begin with a loved one. Where, uh, in, where you have, uh, an uncomplicated loving relationship with someone. It could be a family member, it could be a very close friend, it could even be a pet. And then you move on from there. You move on to others. One target that you can move on to is oneself.
That often is more difficult than doing that for another. And then from there we move typically to what is often called a neutral person. And what we mean by a neutral person is someone that we might recognize but we don’t know much about their life. It could be someone, for example, who works in the same building that you work in.
It could be someone who takes a class that you take whose face you recognize. But you don’t really know much about their life. It could be someone in a grocery store who works in a grocery store that you frequent. A cashier. There are many people in, I think, everyone’s life who would be this kind of category of a neutral person.
And, you know, recognizing that everyone faces challenges, bring them into your mind and heart and just imagine a time in their life when they may have had some Some difficulty and do the same thing. And then finally, we move on to a category that may be especially important. And that’s what we call a difficult person, someone who pushes your buttons, not necessarily starting with the most difficult person, but starting with someone who’s challenging and do the same thing with them.
Bring them genuinely into your mind and your heart in an authentic way. And that’s something that can really be an elixir for the soul.
Pam King: And perhaps an antidote for polarization.
Richie Davidson: Exactly. Exactly. I mean, I think that given the climate that we’re living in, in our country today, it is, it is so essential for a kind of recalibration, really necessary, I think, for us to regain our humanity.
Pam King: In that spirit of integrating the intellectual declarative learning with embodied self aware procedural learning. I asked Richie to guide us. through a meditative, loving kindness practice that imaginatively asks us to call people to mind. Each of these people represent so many things, and taking moments to pay close attention to the feelings and thoughts that emerge reactively, as well as setting an intention for how we’d like to relate to these folks in keeping with our values, I find this an essential kind of practice for real transformation.
in my approach to connection and relationships. But I also find this to be a transformative approach to intercessory prayer, which is a central part of my own spiritual life and daily pattern of faith.
Richie Davidson: For those who are listening or viewing, perhaps close your eyes if that’s something you feel comfortable doing, and if not, you can leave your eyes open with a soft Gaze. And when we do this kind of procedural learning, we like to sit in, uh, a kind of upright and dignified posture really to stay awake, uh, and to be present to the practice.
Uh, and so let’s find a posture that is upright, but not too tight, not too loose, something that’s comfortable. And let’s first begin with a moment of awareness. Bringing our awareness into our bodies, into this moment.
And one of the things that we like to emphasize whenever we begin a period of practice, however short it is, is to reflect for a few moments. On our motivation
and let’s see if we can find within us a place that it has an altruistic motivation for our practice, recognizing that calming our minds and opening our hearts is beneficial not only for ourselves, but is beneficial for all of those others that we touch in our lives, either directly or indirectly. And so let’s spend a couple of moments simply reflecting on that.
Now let’s bring into our mind and our heart a person that is close to us, someone we know and love. And it could be, again, a family member, a close friend. Or it can be an animal.
And so bring that being into our mind and our heart. And let’s spend a few moments reflecting on a period in that person’s or that being’s life that may have been difficult in whatever way.
And as we breathe, on each in breath, Let’s imagine that we are removing the difficulties,
and on each out breath, imagine that we are sending love to that person.
As we breathe in,
the difficulties begin to recede, and as we breathe out,
we’re extending our love and our wishes for that person. Person to be happy and to be free of suffering.
And as we end this very short period of practice, we always sandwich our procedural learning between two other components. We began with finding our motivation. Let’s end with a dedication where we dedicate whatever insight, whatever benefit we may have gleaned from this very short period of practice, we dedicate it to the well being and the welfare of others.
And reflect on how we can bring a simple practice like this into our everyday lives in ways that can be beneficial to others.
So let’s open our eyes and return to the conversation.
Pam King: Wow, what a gift. Thank you. To experience myself. Loving, feeling connected actually changes my sense of self as, as I’m more connected and more loving and more generative person in the world, which I aim to be able to have the practice of being that and to actively love a loved one is really powerful.
Richie Davidson: Yeah. And what I especially love about this is that for at least most people, it actually doesn’t take that much to, to sort of open their hearts. It really doesn’t because we’re built to do
Pam King: that. And I’ll say like within my own tradition, we, we have a practice of intercessory prayer where we in our minds pray for people, bring them before God, ask for healing or suffering to be removed or to get into college or the need du jour.
But we don’t tend to have the layers of setting intention of opening ourselves to them and spending as much time. It almost is more like a laundry list of going through. Requests where. being deliberate about setting the intention, about calling them, holding them in your mind, beholding them, beholding them in front of God’s presence, or however you may conceptualize that, and breathing in their suffering and breathing out love to them is so powerful.
And it’s much more transformative than just a quick, quick is better than nothing. But, but that for me really shows how we can expand and, and make even more transformative and divifying our, our, our, our, our common prayers.
Richie Davidson: Yeah, that’s great. I love that.
Pam King: We moved on to explore the pillars of awareness and insight.
There are. Fascinating studies on self regarding feelings, how we feel about ourselves, particularly helpful are studies of depression, which contribute to Richie’s understanding of a healthy self concept. These feelings about ourselves are such intimate, automatic things. They are part of what Ritchie calls a default network.
That we don’t even realize that there is a narrative forming out of these feelings. That each of us tells to ourselves about ourselves. Take a moment and think as we jump back in with Ritchie. What’s the narrative or the story you tell yourself about yourself?
Richie Davidson: Yeah, so, you know, the two pillars that are novel in our framework are awareness and insight. Connection and purpose you find in many other frameworks for understanding well being, but awareness and insight are, are pretty unique. And there’s a lot of both. Science as well as contemplative wisdom, which has informed this on the science side, a lot of this has come from research on depression and on the narratives that depressed people tell themselves and also from cognitive therapy.
And derivatives of cognitive therapy that have specifically worked with narratives to both alter a person’s relationship to those narratives and ultimately to change the narratives themselves. But it is from research on depression that we know how powerful a narrative can be in shaping a person’s demeanor, their mood, and even really basic elements of their perception.
You know, it’s it’s deep. Uh, it’s quite amazing to see how pervasive The impacts really can be they are really significant And you know a person If we really attend to the language that they might use that they might say Something like I am sad or I am depressed and we can ask ourselves. What does that mean?
I am sad Does that mean that all of you is sad is every? Sort of morsel in your body sad. What does it mean to actually say something like that? And when we begin to ask those kind of questions, we begin to penetrate the shell, uh, of, of, of a self, we begin to find holes, if you will, and we begin to see that it may be a little bit more permeable than we might have initially expected.
You know, a person may say, well, maybe there is a small piece of me that’s not sad and the rest of me is well, and, and we can then begin to ask, well, what, what exactly is this entity? That we call ourselves another case where this is really powerful is pain. We can say, you know, I’m in pain. Well, what does that mean?
And again, is all of, all of you in pain is all of me in pain. And asking that question begins to break it up. You can see that it is not nearly as homogeneous. And as, as fixed as we might otherwise, uh, have thought. And so the science basically shows us that this narrative that we carry around acts as a filter.
And literally, the world that we interact with, it’s in part influenced by, quote, what’s out there, but actually we’re not seeing what’s out there. We’re seeing our construction of what’s out there. And our construction of what’s out there is filtered through this narrative. And so we can ask ourselves, well, what if we had a different narrative?
How would, how would it be? And how might we experience this particular situation? And, and that can really be powerful in helping to loosen the grip of the narrative. So the narrative is something important. We need the narrative. It’s not a human being. Can I, it would be maladaptive to get rid of a narrative.
But we need to have a healthy relationship to the narrative. We need to understand deeply in an experiential way what this narrative is, what function it can serve, and how to let go of it at the right time. Mm hmm.
Pam King: So having that meta awareness. to be able to understand that I am not all one thing. Even if I’m in pain, it’s not all encompassing.
Or if I have a feeling, an emotion, or a narrative, it doesn’t completely define me, and I actually can have control over what I Tell myself.
Richie Davidson: Absolutely. And, and even, you know, a lot of people I think don’t even recognize that they have a narrative. Yeah, right, right, right. And that the narrative is actually powerfully guiding their behavior and experience in the world.
Pam King: But I think we’re in a beautiful moment where we can enable young people, older people, or any person to have a lens for understanding that, no, you, you have a narrative, these are components of it, and what is the beyond the self component of it, where are those sources of meaning, and then what becomes the motivation sources within your narrative.
So I think there’s a wonderful opportunity.
Richie Davidson: Yeah, no, I, I think that’s extremely well put and it is such an important moment in our nation’s history because traditional religious narratives are less available and also the kind of national narrative. Of what it means to live in America in a democracy is, you know, kind of up for grabs.
It’s not nearly as coherent as it once was. Mm hmm.
Pam King: Mm hmm. I really liked the work of Mary Helen and Mordino Yang on meaning making, talking about the default mode network, which is, you know, been really integral for us for a species to be able to react to anxiety and fear. And, and I think as humans initially, that was prominent.
We didn’t need meaning. to go towards something. Our survival was based on staying alive. We needed fear and anxiety. But as we are less and what I would call surviving oriented culture and moving towards an era where we need narratives, we need meaning to have priorities, to discover purpose, to be able to regulate our goals and our time.
And I would understand that is more of an area where we are more apt to thrive when we have that meaning than survive. That her work showing that the default mode network can intentionally be kind of repurposed or co opted around meaning making. So it’s not just left to ruminate around fear and anxiety.
Um, It’s quite fascinating to me.
Richie Davidson: Yeah, no, I, I agree. I think it’s wonderful work. The default mode or the default network is a, a network of brain regions that. are active when we’re not doing other cognitively demanding tasks. And so if a person were simply given the ambiguous instruction to please simply rest, what most people would do is activate their default.
Network and the default network has sometimes been associated with Mind wandering with rumination, but what it almost always is associated with is something that is self referential It is it is about ourselves the One of the things that that we and others have found with contemplative training Is that it’s not so much that the default network gets put offline or suppressed in some way But that the way the default network is connected to other networks, and the brain changes.
So it’s the connectivity between the default network and other networks that really can change. And in that way, it can be harnessed in the way that you’re describing. It can be a source of meaning making rather rumination and distraction.
Pam King: Well, that’s really powerful from my perspective, because I think like surviving is so much based on being driven by fear and anxiety, where thriving would be being purposeful towards love.
And so that you’re growing towards something as opposed to being reactive. It’s a more proactive and generating meaningful narratives that are based on sources of love and generativity.
Again, I asked Richie to guide us through a practice for awareness and insight. I invite you to integrate some of these ideas with a procedural practice for the sake of insight into your own motivations, stories about yourselves, and your core identity.
Richie Davidson: So let’s do a little bit of practice here. So again, let’s close our eyes for those who are comfortable doing this.
If not, we can leave our eyes open and with a soft gaze, uh, and again, finding our posture, taking a moment to check in with our body.
And again, also being very intentional about Our motivation and, uh, again, seeing if we can find this place within us
that recognizes that practices to cultivate our own well being are beneficial, not only for ourselves, but for others. And in this sense, really is a radical act of generosity.
And now for insight, let’s bring into our mind a situation that has Been challenging in some way in the recent past, it could be a issue at in our work. It could be with our family. Um, too difficult. Uh, but some challenging issue.
And let’s spend a moment to identify whatever this issue is for ourselves.
And now let’s reflect on our own own. Beliefs and expectations about that situation,
what beliefs and what expectations are we bringing to that situation?
And now let’s see if we can envision how things might be different. If we came to this situation with a different set of beliefs and expectations,
envision the situation. Being somehow different
if we came at it with a very different set of beliefs and expectations.
And now we’ll end this very short period of practice. And again, before we end, let us dedicate whatever benefit, whatever insight we may have gleaned. From even this very short period of practice and dedicated to the benefit of others, we
can now open our eyes and re engage.
Pam King: Super wonderful to have the moment too. Reframe might be an under simplifying the process, but to gain new perspective on something that’s hard and really wonderful to experience how something that I might view as a problem or an obstacle or a challenge, just the reflecting on it, then I can then offer the insight I gain is a gift for something beyond me.
Richie Davidson: Yeah, totally.
Pam King: The final pillar. Purpose is incredibly important to me. I see purpose as our telos. That’s the Greek word for end goal, the point of it all. I see purpose is fundamentally tied to our sense of meaning in life and therefore a fundamental component of spiritual and mental health.
Richie Davidson: Yeah. I mean, the fourth pillar is really fundamentally about transcendent values. And what we mean by that is something that goes beyond oneself, a purpose that goes beyond oneself. I mean, it could be simply family, community, in a religious context, it could be God, but it’s, it’s something that goes beyond oneself. It could be to just one other person. But when we can. Take a simple daily activity and reframe it so that we recognize that we’re doing it not only for ourselves, but we’re doing it for others.
It really can be transformative. So just to give one, you know, super pedestrian concrete example of this in the height of COVID, we were all. You know homebound at least much more than we usually are for most people. I was doing the chores of daily living Much more consistently and we have a cat at home and I was the one who would scoop the litter every night and um You know, when I did it, I actually accompanied it with just a short little practice that I’m scooping the litter, not just, you know, for the cat, but I’m scooping it for my wife, for any other person who enters so that they wouldn’t have to smell it.
You know, it was just a good thing to be doing. And I did it with a lot of joy. It gave me a sense of vitality. And, you know, it It’s just a simple example of how something that we do on a daily basis can be reframed to connect with a sense of purpose that goes beyond oneself, and it can completely change your relationship to that activity.
Pam King: Absolutely. I think in the Western world, we’re very goal driven. And, and often we can have the eyes on the prize or the eyes on the horizon, which I think it’s great to have an eye on the horizon, but losing the purpose of the present moment, that it is a means towards a greater end, a means towards loving others, is It’s hard to do, but so important.
Something I’m very mindful for this all involves slowing down to understand the meaning or purpose of daily actions.
Richie Davidson: Yeah, that’s great. That’s great. And I think we can use everyday activities and develop simple little rituals around them like eating. Everyone eats. You know, typically several times a day and it’s a moment to to express our appreciation to You know, it takes a village to get food on the table And when you reflect on how many different people it actually took to enable you to eat and have some sense of appreciation for that. I mean, everyday life is, is replete with those moments if we just wake up to them.
Pam King: Richie, I’d love to ask you about the skills of well being. One is, are there any downsides or have you seen them twisted or taken in a wrong way?
What are perversions or twisted notions of some of these practices that you’re aware of?
Richie Davidson: Yeah, I think there’s, you know, there are many, um, minefields with this, many, many. One of them is sort of blaming the victim. And so we say that well being is a skill, but we also know that horrific conditions really can impact your well being.
Extreme poverty, um, takes a toll on one’s well being and it’s not so simple to cultivate. Skills of well being in the face of those kinds of adversities. And so, uh, I think that we need to be extremely sensitive to, to that and to, uh, um, be very careful about not blaming the victim. Another big pitfall is there’s a lot of hype about mindfulness in our culture.
And And in my view, perhaps too much emphasis on mindfulness. We can generalize that and by saying that too much emphasis on any one pillar to the exclusion of others is probably not healthy. We need all of them. I often use the analogy of Going to the gym and just working out on your upper body. That would be the equivalent of just cultivating mindfulness.
If that’s all you’re doing, it would be useful for certain things, but ultimately lead to some imbalance. And so we need all of them. And finally, you know, I think it’s really important to underscore the fact that one size does not fit all. You know, people often ask me, well, what’s the best kind of meditation to do?
And I’ll say, I’ll tell you what the best is. The best form of meditation is the form of meditation that you actually do. That’s more important than the specifics. Yeah, doing something that that is regular, that you’re committed to, that is something you can sustain.
Pam King: I’ve often wondered about a strange gap in psychology and neuroscience. Love and compassion are not popular research subjects. Why is that their core, elemental and definitive of human life and thriving. I closed my conversation with Richie on a loving note. We need to understand love and compassion so much more.
I know love means many different things. Scientists slice and dice it differently. Um, it’s a hard concept from philosophy to theology to get ahold of, but one of the ways I understand thriving. Is that as you were saying, as humans were relational, I’d love to hear you speak how these pillars might enable people to both experience and offer love more fully. If that resonates with you at all.
Richie Davidson: Yeah. I mean, it totally resonates and you know, I’m really so appreciative that you brought up love. Uh, I mean, in the scientific arena, at least the one in which I operate, love is still, at least to a large extent. a taboo topic. And I would liken love to what compassion was 25 years ago.
And I’ve actually, it’s so interesting that you brought this up in this way, Pam. I’ve been intentionally using the word love more and more in public, in public talks, because I think it is going to be the next You know, major issue that science needs to embrace. I believe that all four pillars of wellbeing contribute to both our capacity to receive, as well as our capacity to express love.
The current Surgeon General of the United States is someone that I’ve come to know quite well. I consider him a good friend, Vivek Murthy, and he has framed the current predicament in which we’re living in our country today as an epic struggle between the forces of love and the forces of fear. Mm hmm.
And I think it is something really important about this and and love I think is The antidote to fear, um, you know, we’re all Participants in this grand experiment for which none of us have given our informed consent Which is exposure to all the media that that we’re all You know, barraged with, and, and a lot of that are messages of fear.
And I think that for us to recalibrate in the na in the way we need to recalibrate, it’s really the, the most important antidote is love. I think that this is something that’s more important than anything else, and I think that we need to name it and we need to call as much attention to it as we can.
And to disseminate practical strategies for tapping into this quality, which I would consider to be something innate that every human being has the capacity for.
Pam King: Well, I want to ask you a big question. This is something I think a lot about, and that’s what is thriving to you?
Richie Davidson: From my perspective, I would say thriving is nurturing all of the innate capacities that we’ve been given.
And here, the four pillars of wellbeing in our framework are critical, awareness, connection, insight, and purpose. And I think when we are expressing these qualities to their maximum, we are thriving by definition. Uh, and I would say perhaps the most important manifestation of that is our capacity to both receive and to express love.
Pam King: Richie, this has been extraordinary. Thank you for being present and offering yourself, your expertise, your wisdom so generously.
Richie Davidson: And thank you, Pam, for all that you’re doing and for Who you are and what you’re bringing to the world. My life has been enriched by having you as a friend and a colleague. So I really appreciate that.
Pam King: Well, thank you. Thank you so much, Richie.
I’m grateful for Richie Davidson’s integrated approach to spiritual health and mental wellbeing. He makes the neuroscience of spirituality. so accessible and tangible. And though we’ll always encounter obstacles and trials on this journey towards spiritual health and thriving, Richie invites us into an accessible act of meditative attention, which in some ways is so simple.
It is so powerful, but it’s not easy. and it requires making it a habit. The key takeaways that I will carry with me from this conversation are the following. We have a robust and glorious agency to cultivate our personal well being, which emerges from a deep understanding of the mind that is connected to practical wisdom and exercising our mental hygiene.
Transformation comes from the integration of declarative and procedural learning. We make progress when we connect scientific and spiritual truths with habitual practice and showing up daily. Connection and relational encounters are essential in human life, and so much of our felt absence of well being hinges on relational struggles.
But we have the power to shift our relational experiences to more loving places that align with our deepest values. For many, The stories we tell about ourselves are incredibly severe and harmful. To cultivate self compassion in our self awareness, we need to carefully identify those stories and align them to our purpose and deepest values.
Discerning and articulating your purpose will keep you grounded. and directed in your journey towards spiritual health. And finally, in the words of 1 John 4, 18, perfect love casts out fear.
With For is a production of The Thrive Center at Fuller Theological Seminary. This episode featured Richie Davidson, with very special thanks to Nikki Fite and the staff of the Center for Healthy Minds. This season, new episodes drop. For more information, visit our website, thethrivecenter. org, where you’ll find all sorts of resources to support your pursuit of wholeness and a life of thriving on purpose.
I am so grateful to the staff and fellows of The Thrive Center and our With For podcast team. Jill Westbrook is our Senior Director and Producer. Lauren Kim is our operations manager. Wren Jurgensen is our social media graphic designer. Evan Rosa is our consultant producer. And special thanks to the team at Fuller Studio and the Fuller School of Psychology in Marriage and Family Therapy.
I’m your host, Dr. Pam King. Thank you for listening.
Dr. Richard J. Davidson: Neuroscience trailblazer, well-being advocate, and Founder of Center for Healthy Minds and Healthy Minds Innovations. Bridging science, well-being, and human Flourishing.
What is a healthy mind? Do you practice mental hygiene? Dr. Richie Davidson’s mission is to cultivate wellbeing as a skill, and relieve suffering through a scientific understanding of the human mind. As a pioneering neuroscientist, a mindfulness and meditation teacher, and a global public advocate and guide—he has been a proponent for healing, wellbeing, and social change, finding evidence that awareness, connection, insight, and purpose are the pillars of a healthy mind—and woven through it all, is compassion. Includes two real-time meditative practices to help integrate empirical and spiritual insights with a practical way of being.
- Two kinds of learning—declarative and procedural—that need to be integrated in order to cultivate mental and spiritual health
- The four pillars of a healthy mind: awareness, connection, insight, and purpose
- How to cultivate a mindset for healthy relational connection
- How to understand the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and how this impacts our well-being and spiritual health
- The over-emphasis (even approaching hype) on mindfulness that seems to be present in our culture
- What a healthy approach to meditation might be in our spiritual lives
- The science and spirituality of love and compassion
About the Thrive Center
- Learn more at thethrivecenter.org.
- Follow us on Instagram @thrivecenter
- Follow us on X @thrivecenter
- Follow us on LinkedIn @thethrivecenter
About Dr. Pam KingDr. Pam King is Executive Director the Thrive Center and is Peter L. Benson Professor of Applied Developmental Science at Fuller School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy. Follow her @drpamking.
About With & For
- Host: Pam King
- Senior Director and Producer: Jill Westbrook
- Operations Manager: Lauren Kim
- Social Media Graphic Designer: Wren Juergensen
- Consulting Producer: Evan Rosa
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