Train Your Brain for Resolutions You Can Keep

By Austin Harris

Have you ever kept a New Year’s Resolution all the way through Day 365?

Have any of your family, friends or co-workers? Anyone you’ve ever known?

We almost always feel silly about our New Year’s Resolutions soon after we make them, laughing at ourselves for ever imagining we could sustain them.

Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time, by Rick Hanson PhD, offers 52 succinct practices showing how it’s possible to use your mind to change your brain.  The seemingly simple practices may be easy to underestimate, Hanson says, but they will gradually change your brain through what’s called experience-dependent neuroplasticity.

“It’s a two-way street: as your brain changes, your mind changes; and as your mind changes, your brain changes,” Hanson explains.  “This means—remarkably—that what you pay attention to, what you think and feel and want, and how you work with your reactions sculpts your brain in multiple ways.”

According to Hanson, everyone has the capacity to develop a “buddha brain,” supporting the cultivation of virtue, wisdom, mindfulness and other invaluable traits.  You can see mind practices as muscle building for the mind, Hanson suggests.  Any single trip to the gym makes little difference, but over time, making the mental practices a habit will build the “muscle” that is the brain.

Hanson draws on his forty years of spiritual practice, and a dual career as a neuroscientist and Buddhism teacher, to show the value of these practices and then explains how we can perform these brief actions in daily life.  Hanson’s methods for taking in the good with little daily experiences we often look right past encourages readers to cultivate self-compassion in a way that, unfortunately, is rarely taught or practiced in the West.

The 52 practices are divided into five sections: Be Good To Yourself, Enjoy Life, Build Strengths, Engage the World and Be at Peace.  Hanson offers a number of ways to use his book, including taking “a week for each one of the 52 practices,” allowing for “a transformational year of practice.”  Whichever way you decide, he says, the best way to sustain your willingness to practice is to keep the work simple and focus on one thing at a time.

In the “Get More Sleep” practice, Hanson lists the many pitfalls of sleep deprivation and the benefits of getting more sleep.  In busy lives we tend to look past some of the simple truths he points out, like questioning the reasons we don’t get enough sleep—the extra hour of TV or house chores.  The author then outlines many practices which can get us the amount of sleep we need to improve our health and wellbeing.  Many of the practices are little actions we can do to tell the mind it’s time to get some sleep (relaxing your tongue, lips, jaw and eyes; or resting a finger or knuckle against your lip).

“Dream Big Dreams” encourages us to access our inner core by asking “What are the dreams that matter to me most?”  We are guided through a simple mental exercise of imagining ourselves as we were at different life stages, before asking “those individuals,” “What are your dreams?”  This exercise encourages us not to dismiss our dreams as silly or impossible and offers techniques to free us from snap judgments, so we can clearly hear the intentions behind the really big dreams of our past.

Just One Thing teaches us changing the brain is no lightweight activity but is a practice that can transform your life.  Hanson believes ultimately we can’t stop the brain from taking the shape the mind rests upon, but the choice of where to rest the mind is ours.  If it regularly rests on thoughts of worry, self-criticism and anger, we sculpt a very different brain than a mind cultivating traits of relaxation, self-compassion and letting go of clinging.  “You can’t stop the brain from changing,” Hanson says, “The only question is whether you’re getting the changes you want.”


Austin Harris is a graduate of the San Francisco State University School of Journalism, where he specialized in online multimedia production. He has an active Buddhism-based mindfulness practice and volunteers regularly at Spirit Rock Meditation Center (Woodacre, CA).

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