Festoon of Fruit and Flowers, by Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-1684)
Remarkable Goodness. Painting: Festoon of Fruit and Flowers, by Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-1684)

“What I am suggesting is that each of us turn from the negativism that permeates our society and look for the remarkable good among those with whom we associate, that we speak of one another’s virtues more than we speak of one another’s faults, that optimism replace pessimism, that our faith exceed our fears.

When I was a young man and was prone to speak critically, my father would say: “Cynics do not contribute, skeptics do not create, doubters do not achieve.” ― Gordon B. Hinckley (via WannaBeSaint*)

Brilliant and wise advice, and also deep, daily practice for most of us.

And there’s a reason for that.

What is it? Not just our cultural bias for equating cynicism with intelligence, dishing out and feeding off of negative gossip, and mocking ‘Pollyanna’ for her relentless positivity, but also the eons of human evolution that physiologically hardwired us toward negativity.

Well, that explains a lot, doesn’t it?

Jeez, what a relief! Didn’t you think that you were the only person who found it challenging to always be thinking happy thoughts like we’re told to by the Law of Attraction gurus?

Three main parts of our amazing brain [Source: Not Yet Identified]
Three main parts of our amazing brain [Source: Not Yet Identified]
This really is another example of where awareness is our friend.

Fortunately, we live in times in which both contemporary neuro-science and consciousness research combine with ancient and timeless wisdom traditions to guide us well and help us out. Here’s a layperson’s snapshot:

Higher consciousness and things like choosing to cultivate greater mindfulness, compassion, generosity of spirit, and positivity are relatively new developments compared to the survival-focus driven by our dear, sweet ‘lizard brains’ — that ancient part of the brain responsible for keeping many generations of our very ancient ancestors alive  generation after generation under often truly inhospitable and (really) dangerous conditions.

Given the eons over which the brain alerted our ancestors to serious and potential threats, it is wired to be “like Velcro for negative experiences,” writes Rick Hanson*, Ph.D., neuro-psychologist, founder of Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, and author of Buddha’s Brain and Hardwiring Happiness.

Fabulous Lizard Brain [Source: Sarah Goshman's Hot Yoga and Lizard Brain blog]
Fabulous Lizard Brain [Source: Sarah Goshman’s Hot Yoga and Lizard Brain blog]
So if we’re operating by default, thanks to ages of human evolution, we’ll look for, think about, and probably perceive or experience the negative stuff a whole lot more easily than the positive.

As Hanson very amusingly wrote, our brains are deeply-wired to say, “Be very afraid … and survive!”

The problem is that this ancient “be very afraid … and run!” conditioning often contributes to unwellness or outright illness now, because always being afraid or in chronic “fight, flight, or freeze” mode is highly stressful to the body and wellbeing.

It doesn’t feel good. It takes its toll. And it doesn’t lend itself to higher, more conscious, or more evolved decision-making or creativity.

But there’s for-real hope, too, which ancient ancestors and Wise Ones also knew.

Hanson’s work, for example, shows that while the brain registers negative experiences and potential threats immediately because of those well-established neuro-pathways, the positive experiences register only when we focus our attention and energy on them for at least 12 seconds.

Source: "Paranoid Advertising" article, Politusic (link below)
Source: “Paranoid Advertising” article, Politusic (link below)

One key reason for this, according to Hanson, is that our amygdala – sometimes called the ‘lizard brain’ or ‘reptilian brain’ in slang terms — allots about two-thirds of its neuro-receptors to processing negative, threat-based information.

This is something that more modern marketers take full advantage of through sophisticated neuro-marketing that focuses on triggering ‘the fear button’ and thus the amygdala to spark a fear-based purchase, rather than the higher brain function that might have us deciding, say, that we don’t really need that particular product right now because we can survive quite nicely without it at the moment.

Add to that the fragmented, attention-zapping orientation of high-tech modern culture, and you’ve got the potential for Lizard Brain Overload (which means an overload of stress, anxiety, fear, fright, flight, and freeze).

Cultivated 'light body'. From the beautiful and evocative imagery of Alex Grey (alexgrey.com)
Cultivated ‘light body’. From the beautiful and evocative imagery of Alex Grey (alexgrey.com)

So if we want to take Mr. Gordon Hinckley’s very good advice about easing up on our bias for “negativism” and looking for “the remarkable good;” or if we actually want to walk our talk (vs. just talking the talk) of whatever religious, spiritual, wisdom, or philosophical tradition we might follow (and hopefully live by); or just more frequently call up the better angels of our Nature, as Abraham Lincoln called them; it’ll take a bit more focus, effort, and ongoing practice on our parts.

But that’s okay; we can give ourselves (and others) a bit of a break. We all learned that practice makes perfect, right?

It makes sense, then, that just about every spiritual and wisdom tradition has emphasized both the desirable virtues or values — judge not, love lots; be compassionate; be not anxious for tomorrow; be notteth nastieth; and so on — and the practices that help us to shift habits of ancient negativity bias into more conscious, healthy, and frankly, more pleasant (or at least more tolerable) thought-habits and the actions that stem from them.

Clytie, by Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896)
Clytie, by Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896)

That’s why such traditions have emphasized practices like meditation, mindfulness, (conscious) prayer (vs. negative or toxic prayer), mantra, and so on.

But don’t you worry your sweet lizard brain about becoming too Pollyannaish — you know, looking for, finding, and emphasizing all of that “remarkable good.”

You’ll still get the red alert to “Run!” in the case you find yourself being chased by a giant wooly mammoth, ravenous tiger, or some modern equivalent.

In the meanwhile, consider that meditation, mantra, relaxation, (and) or mindfulness practice you’ve been thinking about (or thinking about deepening). Turns out they’re very practical after all.

Big Love on the Way,


* Check out Gordon Hinckley’s quote as featured Brian’s “Words Can Never Hurt Me” post at Wannabesaint.

** Find more of Rick Hanson’s articles, books, and work here and at his Wellspring Institute site.

*** Politusic’s “Paranoid Advertising” article.