What do you think about when you first wake up?
Lean into good on first waking.
Waking up is like the sun rising. At first it's mostly dark, as glimmers of consciousness begin to light the shadows. Emerging into full wakefulness, the fogs and veils dissolve and the whole plain of your mind comes into view. It's quiet: a restedness in the body, sleepy still, not yet much internal verbal chatter. There's an intimacy with yourself, abiding as the core of your being.
During these first few minutes, your mind and brain are very receptive to influence. If, hypothetically, a loud alarm suddenly began clanging, you'd probably feel rattled for hours; on the other hand, if someone you love suddenly began telling you how much he or she cared about you, you'd probably feel good for hours.
So, at this delicate and lovely time in the morning, why not influence your mind and brain yourself?
There is a traditional saying that the mind takes its shape from whatever it rests upon. For better or worse. Instead of resting it upon planning, worrying, or stressing about your day, how about taking a little time to receive and embrace something more positive? Which would set up your whole day for the better -- especially if you are prone, as many are, to anxiety or the blues in the morning.
Then as your day unfolds, from time to time, you could return to the feelings and intentions you established when you first awoke -- to replenish yourself in a quick pit stop on the road of life.
This practice is really natural and simple: On first waking, rest your mind upon one or more things that are good for you.
For example, you could relax into your body, feeling the truth that you are actually all right right now. Or you could open to gratitude. Or bring to mind someone you care about -- perhaps sleeping beside you -- and soften into love.
You could be aware of a deep purpose, or aspiration, or guiding light. Give yourself over to this calling, letting it carry you along. This is a personally important practice for me. Another one I do is to find refuge in things that support me. For example, classic refuges are a teacher, a body of teachings, or the community of the taught; people also take refuge in mindfulness, the power of reason, practice, inner light, the fact of connection, or their sense of something Divine. Take a moment to get a feeling for each refuge and let it sink in.
Or consider our three fundamental needs, loosely linked to the three-stage evolution (to simplify: reptile, mammal, primate/human) of the brain: avoid harms, approach rewards, and attach to others. When we experience that these needs are met, the brain naturally defaults to its home base, its Responsive mode, in which the body refuels and repairs itself, and the mind dwells in a basic sense of peace, happiness, and love (in terms of our needs to avoid, approach, and attach).
Since "neurons that fire together, wire together," time spent in the Responsive mode gradually strengthens its neural substrates -- like deepening the keel of a boat so you can sail through life without its winds knocking you over. And what better time when the mind/brain is like a sponge, during the first minutes after waking? So I'll often try to find a sense of peace (relaxed, safe, not at war with anything or anyone), happiness (there is enough, fortunate, contented), and love (feeling cared about, compassionate, and kind) -- and once found, let these sink in.
These early moments are precious, open with possibility, graced by stillness, sacred. They are a gift. May we receive them.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence (from Random House in October, 2013; in 4 languages), Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (New Harbinger; in 24 languages), Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time (New Harbinger; in 12 languages), and Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships (Penguin). Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and an Advisory Board Member of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, he's been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA, his work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, CBC, FoxBusiness, Consumer Reports Health, U.S. News and World Report, and O Magazine and he has several audio programs with Sounds True. His weekly e-newsletter - Just One Thing - has over 94,000 subscribers, and also appears on Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and other major websites.