“If you can sit quietly after difficult news, if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm, if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy, if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate and fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill, if you can always find contentment just where you are, you are probably a dog.” So suggests Jack Kornfield, a meditation teacher, writer and psychologist. 
If you are reading this, chances are you are not a dog, and finding such exalted levels of contentment does not come so easily to you. Why? Obviously, there are many reasons, but one big reason is your big brain: more specifically your huge thinking cortex. Our brains evolved to help us survive — and survive we have. Ours is a very successful species: but are we happy? Are we anywhere near as happy as our best friend – the dog? Evolutionary scientists have discovered that happiness is not necessary for survival, and much of the survival techniques that our brains developed make it very hard to be happy as well.
Professor Ronald Siegel, a meditation teacher and clinical psychology professor at Harvard, imagines one of our great, great, etc. ancestors a million years ago on the African plains noticing a beige shape behind a tree: the alert hominid who believed the shape to be a lion and ran away was more likely to survive and pass on his genes, even if the shape was merely a beige-colored boulder, than another hominid who thought, “meh – it is probably just a big rock,” and casually loitered in the area.  Sure, maybe it was a rock and there was no reason to be anxious, but the brain that evolved an overly pessimistic worldview was more likely to survive than the carefree lad skipping through the savanna thinking everything was just hunky-dory. The surviving brains evolved to make the mistake of thinking a boulder was a lion rather that the more deadly mistake of thinking a lion was a boulder. We evolved to be anxious, fearful and cautious. Our survival depended upon it. Our happiness does not.
Our large cortex developed the ability to remember the few bad times and near misses we have had in life, and it developed the ability to think ahead and be prepared for potential disasters that may be lying in wait for us. If you can catch yourself thinking from time to time, you will notice that your thoughts are generally replaying past events, or thinking about some future ones that have not yet happened, and most likely will never happen. We are draw toward future pleasures and repelled by past pains. It is not surprising that we are rarely present for what is actually happening right now. Rarely does this moment present an opportunity or a threat: so we think about what has been, what might have been, and what may yet still be.
Man’s best friend, napping beside you on the floor, completely content from whatever food you just gave him, is not lost in these kinds of thoughts. He is not blessed with the large cortex you have. He is just happy the way life is: right now, right here. Rabbi Schwartz once said, “True happiness is wanting what you already have.” But we don’t want what we already have; we want more; and we are also afraid of losing what we already have. Fear and desires do not lead to happiness; they drive it away.
In our yoga practice we are given the unique opportunity to become more dog-like: we even have poses named after dogs. And after cats, in case you believe cats to be more contented pet. But beyond the poses, we are also given a chance to whittle the cortex down to size. We do not have to let our thoughts dictate our state of mind. Instead we can become aware of present experience with acceptance.
Awareness of present experience with acceptance is the basis of mindfulness practice. With such awareness we start to understand how the mind is the source of its own unhappiness. With practice, mindfulness can begin to undermine the natural programming wired into the brain that leads to fear, anxiety and suffering. The tools of mindfulness can limit the amount of mental energies spent in remembering the past or imagining the future.
Mindfulness can also reduce the negatively bias we all possess. A rat running down a maze that receives a big electric shock in a certain corridor, will not go down that corridor ever again: one negative lesson is all it takes. The same rat finding a nice piece of cheese down another corridor may have to repeat that experience 5 times before it remembers where the cheese is. We are like this rat: we are more attuned to the negative than the positive. This is the negativity bias. As Rick Hansen, also a meditation teacher and writer, explains: carrots come and go, but just one stick can kill you. Sticks are more powerful than carrots. We remember sticks more than carrots. Rats, however, don’t lose sleep at night worrying about running the maze again in the morning. Our big brains allow us to think about our experience, past and future, and imagine what might happen. Hansen notes that our minds evolved to be Velcro for bad experiences and Teflon for good. 
The negative is stronger than the positive. This is why politicians run negative campaigns: people remember the bad things said about opponents much more easily than the good things politicians say about themselves. If 20 people smiled at you today but one person snapped at you, which do you talk about at dinner? We are wired to perceive and remember the negative. There are many people whose first reaction to anything, any comment or situation, is immediately negative, without thinking. This automatic reaction is a deep program (samskara) buried in their psyche and hard for them to notice or change. It has helped them survive; it was not intended to help them be happy.
Fortunately, we can begin to reduce our negativity bias and start to create new mental patterns that lead to contentment and joy without giving up the other benefits our big brains provide. We can actually have our cake and eat it too! (And why not? If you go to the trouble of baking a cake, why shouldn’t you be allowed to eat it, as long as you share some with your friends.) Many people who are instantly negative have acquired this ability to override the automatic response by pausing before reacting, noticing the negative tendency, and letting go of it before expressing their view. Then, a more balanced response is possible, even though it is not the first impulse.
Mindfulness practice changes the negativity bias in the brain. And, we can practice mindfulness anywhere, anytime, including on your yoga mat. We simply become aware of present experience with acceptance. Now, simple does not mean easy – it takes time and commitment to build a new habit, but the practice is very simple. Try this right now as you are sitting: stop reading for a few seconds, close your eyes, and become aware of the present experience of your breath, accepting it however it is, for 3 breaths.
Simple, right? Easy? Maybe not … but with practice it does get easier. Whatever is happening right here in this moment can be used in the practice. You may choose to be aware of the breath that is occurring right now, or – if you are doing yoga – choose the sensations that are occurring right now. Notice the sensations: become aware of the present experience of the posture, with acceptance. Don’t try to change the experience, unless you know that it is improper, painful or harmful.
This is where Yin Yoga can be so valuable: while we marinate in the postures in Yin Yoga, the urge to move will arise. Discomfort will make us want to change our position. Here is our old friend, the negativity bias arising – we want to run away from the discomfort and find some pleasure in a new position. But, with awareness of present experience with acceptance, we resolve to remain still. In the stillness we observe the raw experience of the moment. When we allow the thinking that our big cortex adds to the experience to float away – not pushing it away, that would not be acceptance – we discover that what is actually happening is not what we thought was happening. The present moment is not to be feared or captured. It is to be noticed and let go of.
The Buddha observed that we place all experiences into one of 3 categories: pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. And, of course, we seek the pleasant, push away the unpleasant and ignore the neutral. Our ancestors found this strategy to be essential for survival. But we know that it comes at a cost: it costs us contentment. In our Yin Yoga practice we turn this around and rest in the unpleasant, release the pleasant, and try to change nothing. This is counter-intuitive. We are programmed to expect the worst, and when it comes, to run away from it. We are driven to seek pleasure and think about it constantly, at the cost of missing the present moment. But in our meditation and yoga practice we train the brain to accept the present experience and maintain awareness of it.
Instead of trying to acquire pleasure or fleeing pain, which leads to frantic living, anxiety and stress, we develop the skill to live our lives more authentically, by becoming more and more aware of present experience with acceptance. We learn the basic skill while on our yoga mat, but soon this skill starts showing up at other times during the day. As our habit builds, we will find that we are spending less time feeding our negativity bias and reacting to thoughts in our head, and more time enjoying the reality of the present moment. It is a simple mantra to remember and put into practice. Do so every time you are doing your yoga and soon you will be doing this regularly throughout your daily life:
Awareness of present experience with acceptance.
- — See A Lamp in the Darkness by Jack Kornfield, page 7.
- — See The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being by Professor Ronald D. Siegel.
- — See the blog Take in the Good by Rick Hansen posted on November 18th, 2009.