Four Pillars of the Science of Training the Mind
Updated: Nov 18, 2022
I’m a big fan of Richard Davidson, he’s a leader in the field of contemplative neuroscience which I’m hugely interested in, and in particular it’s applications to emotional wellbeing. Davidson is a Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison where he is the founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds. I’ve written about Davidson in a previous blogpost which talks about four neuro-scientifically validated constituents of wellbeing that he has identified: resilience, positive outlook, attention and generosity.
Davidson and the team at the Center for Healthy Minds have now developed a set of wellbeing tools, translated from the latest neuro-scientific research, that can be applied easily everyday. They are based on what Davidson calls the “four pillars of the science of training the mind” and reiterate one of his key messages that wellbeing is a skill that with practise, we can get better at:
1. Awareness - the capacity to regulate our attention coupled with meta-awareness which is awareness of what our mind is doing. This is something I talk about with every client that I work with. If we don’t know what our mind is doing, how can we make informed choices about where to direct our attention? This is key in working with unhelpful thinking processes such as worry and rumination. I talk more about this and how to work with it in my Healthflix talk which can be found here. 2. Connection – the qualities that nurture healthy social (and interpersonal) relationships: appreciation, kindness, compassion, gratitude. Turns out we can develop these qualities, simply by paying attention to things that we or others do that reflect these qualities and setting intentions to do things in our everyday that exemplify them. 3. Insight – into how the self actually operates. All of us have a narrative, an ongoing story that we tell ourselves to make sense of ourselves and the world around us. If that narrative is negative it can lead to problems with depression and anxiety. Without an awareness and understanding of the narrative, we can’t know what impact it has on our day, our life. By practising self-enquiry, we can understand the narrative for what it is – a collection of interpretations v’s an accurate reflection of reality, and only then, with that insight, can we see what effect the narrative has on how we experience the world. 4. Purpose – identifying our sense of direction in life. Davidson describes this as “finding self-transcendent purpose, it goes beyond ourselves, it involves serving and helping others”. If we can see everything that we do in our everyday as being a part of our greater purpose, even the routine tasks like house chores, we can imbue these everyday activities with a sense of purpose.
Davidson talks about these pillars in this Ted Talk and the Center for Healthy Minds have developed an app featuring information and practises that support their development. The app, which I really recommend, can be accessed (for free during the Covid-19 pandemic) here.