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Love the World

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Your brain evolved in three stages (to simplify a complex process):

  • Reptile -- Brainstem, focused on AVOIDING harm
  • Mammal -- Limbic system, focused on APPROACHING rewards
  • Primate -- Cortex, focused on ATTACHING to "us"

With a fun use (to me, at least) of animal themes, the first JOT in this series -- "Pet the Lizard" -- was about how to soothe the most ancient structures of the brain, the ones that manage the first emotion of all: fear. The next one -- "Feed the Mouse" -- addressed how to help early mammalian neural systems feel rewarded and fulfilled. The third one -- "Hug the Monkey" -- was about weaving the sense of being included and loved into the primate cerebral cortex.

Of course, these three practices go way beyond their anatomical roots. The three primary motivational systems of your brain -- avoiding harms, approaching rewards and attaching to "us" -- draw on many neural networks to accomplish their goals. In fact, one motivational system can tap the two other ones; for example, you could express attachment to a friend by helping her avoid harm and approach rewards.

Lately, I've started to realize that a fourth fundamental human motivational system is developing out of the other three.

Whether it's our hunter-gatherer ancestors depending upon their habitats for food and shelter, or modern folks making use of the settings of home and work, or the nearly 7 billion members of the human race pressing hard up against the limits of "Lifeboat Earth" -- to survive and flourish, cultural evolution alone and perhaps biological evolution as well are calling us to love the world.

The world is near to hand in the matter/energy, nature and human-made objects all around you. And then in widening circles, the world extends out to include society and culture, the planet itself and ultimately the entire and still often mysterious universe.

When you love the world, you both appreciate and care for it. Each of these actions makes you feel good, plus they help you preserve and improve everything you depend on for air and food, livelihood, security, pleasure and community.

During the last several million years of human evolution, our emerging species had neither much capacity for harm nor much understanding of the effects it did have upon the world.

But now, humanity has great power for good and ill, as well as undeniable knowledge of its impact on both the natural and built world. As the planet heats up and resources decline... and as a species -- us -- that evolved in part through being lethally aggressive toward its own kind must now live cooperatively and peacefully if it is to live at all. It is critically important that a fourth major motivation guide our thoughts, words and above all, deeds:

Love the world.

How? In terms of the aspect of love that is about appreciating, routinely look for opportunities to enjoy, value and feel grateful for little things in your environment.

These range from whatever is close by -- soft pillow cases, flowers blooming, traffic laws, sun rising, libraries, tree shade, shared language -- to the increasingly vast nested nests we all share: the Internet, global institutions, oxygen/CO2 exchanges through which animals and plants give breath to each other, the incredibly rare and fortuitous occurrence of a rocky planet -- Earth -- surviving the early formation of a solar system to find an orbit that allows for liquid water on its surface... all the way out to this universe which bubbled out of nothing: the largest nest of all, the extraordinary miracle in which we make our ordinary days.

In terms of the aspect of love that is about caring for, this means to me a combination of cherishing, protecting and nurturing the world. You naturally cherish what you love. Cherishing something, you want to keep it safe; once it's protected, you want to help it flourish. (As an aside, it's interesting that these three inclinations map to the three underlying motivational systems: the attaching system cherishes, the avoiding system protects and the approaching system nurtures. As with other aspects of evolution, new capabilities and functions draw on preceding, "lower" systems.)

So much could be written -- and has -- about cherishing our world and protecting and nurturing it, yet I must be brief here, with just three suggestions.

For a minute, an hour, or a whole week, touch natural and human-made things around you like you truly cherish them. If you cherished an orange or a cup, how would you hold it?

Protect something from harm. You could save something you might otherwise throw away, from water running in a sink to food in a restaurant. Security is a wholesome aim of the avoiding system, which is achieved in large part by conserving what we've got.

Pick one thing and focus on helping it grow and thrive. Perhaps a plant, or a business, or a project at a local school, or a collaboration among some friends, or a fix-it repair at home.

At the heart of it, I experience this practice as a matter of our relationship with the world. Do we relate to it as an adversary or distant acquaintance?

Or do we relate to the world as a friend, a child, a beloved nest?

Here and there and everywhere, let's all live in a world we love.

For more by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.

Rick Hanson, Ph.D. is a neuropsychologist and author of the bestselling Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (in 20 languages) - and Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time. Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and Affiliate of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, he's taught at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and in meditation centers worldwide. His work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Consumer Reports Health, and U.S. News and World Report and he has several audio programs. His blog - Just One Thing - has nearly 30,000 subscribers and suggests a simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart. If you wish, you can subscribe to Just One Thing here.

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