|"You are Flow" collage by Lani, textures by FlyPaper.|
I was listening to Rick Hanson interview Paul Gilbert in the En*theos's Loving Brain series. What a delight. And I feel like I'm starting to grasp a little bit of this neuropsychology material at least enough to help me understand the whole shift of mind/elephant training towards inner satisfaction and intrinsic rewards. (What follows will be a VERY rough artist-understanding-science kind of description, so bear with me!)
Here's what I "got" from this interview. If we look at our brains evolutionarily, we see that our brains have evolved from the simple brain-stem type brain of the reptile, to the complex 3lbs., 1.1 trillion brain cells, 100 billion "gray matter" neurons, of the human brain.
As Hanson describes it, we have the primitive lizard part of the brain which is in charge of avoiding "sticks" and danger, the mouse part of the brain (primitive mammalian brain) which approaches "carrots" and opportunities (it's this part of the brain that is sent into overdrive this time of year by advertising, but more on that in a minute), and the "monkey" part of the brain (complex primate brain) which is in charge of attaching and bonding.
What I was "getting" from the interview with Paul Gilbert, is that we are trained by our culture to be driven, to use the "approaching" system of the primitive mammalian part of our brain, to achieve the things that the most complex part of our brain is hoping for, a feeling of attachment and bonding with our tribe, family, and or partner. The culture teaches us (very persuasively and compellingly) that we can be loved and appreciated if only we had just a little more of this or that, usually material stuff but it can also apply to non-material achievements. So we are trying endlessly to meet those complex needs with more primitive part of the brain, and not surprisingly, we never quite get those needs met.
And here's the cool thing about inner satisfaction or intrinsic rewards, these are the feelings and rewards that actually help the complex part of the brain feel the attachment and bonding that is already here, all around us. It's all well within our reach and doesn't require a second mortgage or anything illegal. Gilbert and Hanson suggest the best way to awaken ourselves to this happy state of inner satisfaction is by: developing our self-compassion, "getting on our own side", "mindful self-awareness", mindfulness of the world or "seeing the world clearly", "taking life less personally", and of course taking in the good.
So how does this work in a daily art practice? For one thing we can use art to express and explore any or all of these ideas, most importantly when we are working on a piece that is actually making us feel good, that is firing up good brain chemistry, then we are actually "taking in the good" for a bit longer than Hanson suggests is optimal (10-20-30 seconds) for absorbing the good feelings. Of course we may get so involved in flow that we forget to actually feel the process. No worries with that. In my experience, it's relatively easy to sit with a piece for the requisite few seconds and enjoy it before moving into the rest of the day. It's those few seconds of sitting with the good feelings that provide us with inner satisfaction. It really can change our neural circuitry, our enjoyment of life, our feelings of connections with others, and of course it can change our lives.