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small positive actions

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Over a life time we acquire many beliefs and behaviours that are unhealthy. We can even pinpoint their origin. For me they’re grounded in family dynamics, unprocessed losses, uneven role models, scarcity of food, lack of intimacy, abusive pedagogic practices, self-inflicted suffering, and so on. I know about them, at least by name. I also know that negative experiences can lead to pessimism, negativity, and hyper-sensitivity. 

It’s one thing to “welcome everything” (as meditation teachers suggest), but quite another to get out from under these ingrained patterns. Neuroscientists tell us that the brain has a built-in negativity bias which primes us for suffering. “It generates an unpleasant background of anxiety … [which] makes it harder to bring attention inward for self-awareness and contemplative practice … since the brain keeps scanning to make sure there is no problem” (Hansen, p. 42). And, by way of an antidote, “small positive actions every day will add up to large changes over time, as you gradually build new neural structures” (p. 18).

In the days ahead I will pay attention when the negativity bias kicks in. I’ll similarly watch for small positive actions. In my hospital work, for instance, I can ask, What’s going on right now? when I enter a patient’s room and find, as I do consistently, that my worries fall away and I’m filled with compassion. 

source: Hansen, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: the practical  neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger. images: (top);


6 responses »

  1. Peter, I am so glad you are tending to yourself.

    You ask – ‘who is that man bending over the bed who finds himself bathed in compassion? ‘ I wonder if this is the man who can also give such compassion to the person who has a past (and present) full of difficult ‘childhood family dynamics, unprocessed deaths and separations, uneven role models, scarcity of food, lack of intimacy, abusive pedagogic practices, and self-inflicted injuries’? If you saw this person lying in the bed, struggling with such issues, would your heart not open to that being in pain? I feel sure it would.

    But perhaps first, you must feel that pain, inhabit that realm where it has all been shut away for so long…

    I wonder if maybe ‘paying attention to positive actions’ will once again take you away from that realm…

    I offer this extract from a poem called ‘Kindness’…

    …Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
    you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
    You must wake up with sorrow.
    You must speak to it till your voice
    catches the thread of all sorrows
    and you see the size of the cloth.

    Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
    only kindness that ties your shoes
    and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
    only kindness that raises its head
    from the crowd of the world to say
    it is I you have been looking for,
    and then goes with you every where
    Like a shadow or a friend.

    ~ Naomi Shihab Nye ~

    (Extract from Kindness from ‘Words From Under the Words: Selected Poems‘)

  2. thank you for sending the poem, fiona: “only kindness that ties your shoes …”

    you write, “perhaps first, you must feel that pain, inhabit that realm where it has all been shut away for so long …” and I concur. Grieving will be my middle name for a while longer, perhaps for the rest of this life. Each time tears arise and dry up, more gather to be shed, to wash wounds. It is like rain which is followed by sun, only to hope for more rain to make things flourish.

    you also say that “I wonder if maybe ‘paying attention to positive actions’ will once again take you away from that realm… ” I hear your caution! It’s in the shedding of tears that my heart opens; it’s then that the one lying in bed and the one bending over it become one. My intention is to see the goodness in me, where my True Nature resides, the one that takes over when I come to the bedside.


    • Peter, the way you use words is beautiful. I am so glad to find someone who loves poetry as I do! And again, what you have said calls up another poem…

      We are the mirror as well as the face in it
      We are tasting the taste this instant
      of eternity.
      We are pain and what cures pain both.
      We are the sweet cold water
      and the jar that pours.


      • “Who is the potter, pray, and who the pot?” (Omar Khayyam). What would we do without poets? They point us to our own truth, one we might otherwise dismiss as mere dreams. Be well, fiona.

  3. I love catching up with your blog each weekend. You seem to write the very things I need to hear… and you’ve done it yet again! I was surprised to learn about the “negative bias” of the mind… wow. Talk about a light bulb going off. Now I understand (she said!).

    And it speaks to why I love Byron Katie’s “Work” so much – it clears the decks, allows me to fully process those thoughts that take me away from peace. I guess you might call it my “postive action.” Sitting in the pain, allowing it to funnel through the body-mind is another.

    This was a beautiful post… I greatly enjoyed the other posts since my last visit as well. You are such a light, Peter.

    • dear april, yur Jan 16 post on “chaos” by Nisargadatta Maharaj speaks to the our practice of becoming still amid the helter-skelter of what we call the “real world.” May the light shine on us all. peter


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