I invite you to imagine that you’re living thousands of years ago.

You and your family are hanging out around the fire, telling stories, having a good time, when suddenly, out of the corner of your eye, you spot a moving shadow.

The first thought that enters your mind is, Tiger.

You don’t know whether it’s a real tiger or not, so what do you do? Do you go investigate the shadow? Or run and hide with your family?

If you hide, you miss out on the opportunity to discover what the shadow was.

But, if you check it out, you risk death.

You and I are descended from people who ran from the shaking bush.

Now, let’s fast forward to the present day:

Our ancestors’ tendency to stay alert for potential danger is still well and alive in our brains, and our negativity bias can make it harder for us to notice opportunities to meet our needs, stay focused on what we really want in midst of heartache and struggle, and to feel the ways we long to feel. It can feel hard to feel good.

The good news, though, is that extensive research proves that with consistent practice we can reshape our brains to notice what’s good and feel good about it.

In a moment, I’ll share with you a practice called Taking in the Good, which can expand our capacity to feel good in relatively no time at all.

But first, in order to depict why this practice can be so powerful, I want to share a quick primer on neuroplasticity—which is the brain’s ability to learn and change.

Neurons are the cells within our body-brains that hold and transmit information. Neural synapses are the connections between neurons in our brains.

Every feeling, thought, and behavior has corresponding connections between the neurons and the parts of our brains and nervous systems.

Our neurons and connections between them grow and shift in response to our experiences. Each time we have a new moment of understanding, new connections form or are strengthened. Each time we feel a feeling, think a thought, or engage in a behavior, we strengthen the neural patterns associated with that feeling, thought, or behavior.

When our neural patterns become strong enough, the new feeling, thought, or behavior becomes a habit, and habit is a feeling, thought, or behavior we engage in largely without conscious thought.

Let me say that again: Each time we feel a feeling, think a thought, or engage in a behavior, we strengthen the neural patterns associated with that feeling, thought, or behavior. And when we practice feeling, thinking, or behaving in a certain way often enough, that feeling, thought, or behavior becomes habitual and arises within us with little conscious thought.

In other words, we little human animals learn new things, develop new skills, and cultivate new ways of being through repeated practice over time.

For example, when we practice speaking up with kindness and courage when someone makes a hurtful comment, we strengthen the parts of our brains associated with speaking up.

When we practice creating an agenda for a meeting beforehand, we strengthen the parts of our brains associated with planning agendas.

When we move through the nervousness of recording a new podcast, we strengthen the parts of our brains associated with recording podcasts.

Each time we notice an urge or pull in our bodies to react in a way that does not serve us, and we consciously choose to act differently, we strengthen the neural patterns related to that choice.

With enough repeated practice, new feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that once took a lot of effort become far easier. What was once a conscious choice becomes largely automatic and unconscious.

And although unconscious habits get a bad wrap, the reality is that nearly all of our brain’s activity is unconscious. If we had to think through every step of tying our shoes, driving to work, or riding a bike, we wouldn’t get anywhere. Where we get stuck is when we unconsciously react in ways that don’t serve us.

So if we notice we are habitually feeling, thinking, or behaving in ways that don’t meet our needs well, we have an opportunity to consciously choose and practice a new way of being.

So, what does this have to do with experiencing more joy?

Well, feelings are habits, and we cultivate habits of feeling by repeatedly practicing that feeling.

When we habitually ruminate on what hurts and replay the same painful memories or scary future possibilities in our minds repeatedly, we train our brains to notice what hurts and to feel the hurt more.

And, when we practice paying attention to what brings us delight and feeling the delight in our bodies, we cultivate a habit of noticing what brings us delight and experiencing more of it.

Now, please do not get me wrong.

Paying attention to what hurts is very important. In fact, turning toward what hurts is key to healing ourselves and the world. When we devote attention to understanding injustice, our brains have an easier time detecting injustice and, potentially, fighting against it. And, when we turn toward the painful emotions within ourselves with curiosity and kindness, we can better understand what our feelings are trying to communicate and meet our needs. That’s super important, and we will focus on how to do that in future episodes.

And at the same time, if we dedicate nearly all our attention to fighting injustice or nursing our hurts, it can become harder to imagine and bring forth the futures we long for, for ourselves personally and for the planet.

Therefore, in addition to offering loving attention to what hurts, if we want to cultivate more joy and delight in ourselves and in the world, we must practice turning our attention to what brings us delight and feeling the feelings we want to feel.

This is where the practice that I mentioned earlier—Taking in the Good, from neuropsychologist’s Rick Hanson book, Hardwiring Happiness—comes in.

Taking in the Good adds a new layer to Tracking Glimmers and turns it up a notch. Taking in the Good has three steps—1) Having an experience in which you feel what you want to feel (in other words, Tracking Glimmers), 2) Enhancing the experience in your body, and 3) Absorbing the sensations. In just ten to thirty seconds, Taking in the Good strengthens the neural patterns associated with the positive feelings and expands our neurological capacity to detect and experience joy, beauty, and deliciousness.

We can also apply this practice to any feeling, thought, or behavior we want to experience more of. For example, if you want to feel more confident, be on the lookout for moments when you feel confident and take in—amplify and absorb—the feelings of confidence. If you want to feel more energy, notice moments when you feel even just a little bit more energy such as when you’re going for a walk, eating a nourishing meal, or seeing the smile on a loved one’s face, and take in energy. If you want to be more focused, catch yourself when you’re in the act of focusing on your top priorities, and take in focusing.

I invite you to listen to the steps now and then practice after the podcast ends. Or you can follow along as I go. Remember, the three steps are having, enhancing, and absorbing.

Step One: Have.

There are two ways to have positive experiences: in real-life and in your imagination.

The first way—real-life— is catching yourself in the act of experiencing what you want to experience. For example, I’ve recently been focusing on pleasure. So, this morning, I noticed the soft bed beneath me as I woke up, the textures of the leaves as I drove my son to camp, and the flavors of the coffee in my mug.

The second way to have an experience is to create the experience in your mind’s eye.  Imagining an experience affects our brains in similar ways as having a real-life experience, like how scary movies make our hearts race.

Here are some ways you may create an experience:

  1. Remember a moment when you felt the way you want to feel now.
  2. Imagine yourself in a parallel universe or the future.
  3. Think of someone who seems to feel what you want to feel, and imagine being them.
  4. Celebrate a loved one’s joys.
  5. Watch a heartwarming movie where people experience what you want to experience.

Step Two: Enhance

In this step, rather than rushing by the experience, we dwell in it for a few seconds, bringing our full attention. For example, if you’re smelling something delicious, allow yourself to really smell it. If you’re listening to music that brings you alive, allow yourself to really listen. If you’re enjoying the quiet, take a moment to hear the quiet. If you’re enjoying being held by your couch, see if you can allow your body to settle just a little bit more and notice your entire body receiving support.

Use all the senses accessible to you—sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. Play with amplifying the sensations in your body, making them bigger, stretching them to last longer, taking in just an extra teaspoon of goodness.

When you attempt to enhance the sensations of the experience, you may immediately feel a sense of warmth and aliveness. Or the sensation may be very subtle. Whatever you feel, please do not pressure yourself to feel more or different. Just stay curious about what you feel.

Step Three: Absorb

In this final step, imagine yourself absorbing the positive sensations, inviting them to become part of you.

You might imagine that the cells that are feeling good are like little sponges absorbing the sensation, taking in just half a teaspoon more. You might imagine the pleasant sensations flowing from your heart like a beam of light or a river to the sea. Get curious about what metaphor might support you in absorbing the positive sensations. And linger there.

When the podcast ends, I invite you to experiment with taking in the good—either noticing a real-life glimmer or imagining a pleasant experience and then enhancing and absorbing the pleasant sensations.

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