“Each of us can learn the art of nourishing happiness and love. Everything needs food to live, even love. If we don’t know how to nourish our love, it withers. When we feed and support our own happiness, we are nourishing our ability to love.” –Thich Nhat Hanh
“What was your first thought this morning?”
If you are like most, your first waking cognition was likely self-focused– on a good day, a quick mental list of everything you want to get done and the thought, “I can do this”; on a bad day, a feeling of overwhelm or apathy and the thought, “I want to crawl back under the sheets.”
During an initial consultation, I ask clients to describe their first waking thoughts and morning rituals for two reasons: First, to bring awareness to the constant flood of unconscious mental chatter—sometimes helpful and often unhelpful; and second, to highlight the natural, self-focused tendencies of the human brain that thwart our capacity for deep joy and love.
Cultivating flourishing lives requires intimate understanding of our brain’s wiring.
The human brain, which evolved over millions of years for survival in the harsh wilderness is designed to focus our attention on ourselves and look for anything that could potentially harm us. When not actively engaged in a task, the resting state of the mind activates a network of brain regions called the default mode. The default mode functions to link our past and future to a sense of “self” that needs to be protected. While helpful for survival on the Serengeti, activation of the default mode feels like mild anxiety—our inner police force keeping watch, waiting for any sign of threat to our physical or psychological safety.
When a potential threat is noticed (the e-mail from your boss, the news channel’s announcement of yet another catastrophe, stepping on the scale to see the numbers haven’t changed) the brain responds to preferentially store, recall, and project this negative feeling state —a brain process called the negativity bias. Negative emotional experiences register much more strongly in the human brain than positive emotional experiences.
Recent research by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert at Harvard University shows that the average person spends 46.9% of waking hours in the default mode. “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” the researchers conclude. “How often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged,” says Killingsworth. If serenity and love are what we seek to nourish in our lives, we have to override the default mode network and negativity bias to see beyond a limited sense of self that needs constant protecting.
“During the first few minutes of waking, your mind and body are very receptive to influence,” says neuroscientist Rick Hansen.
As we move from sleep to wakefulness, we have a potent opportunity to establish an open, loving brain state we can call upon throughout our day. Imagine the difference between waking up to the tender voice of a loved one and a warm embrace, versus a blaring alarm and a list of to-dos on our e-mail? The former activates powerful bonding hormones that tell the brain you are safe and protected. The latter activates even more potent stress hormones that tell your brain there is not enough time and you have to fend for yourself.
While we can’t always have a loved one nearby to remind us of our deep belonging and goodness first thing in the morning, we can cultivate a relationship with ourselves that is kind, supportive, and loving. Across humanity’s spiritual and contemplative traditions, the golden hours of the morning are safeguarded for meditation, prayer, and devotion. While traditionally these practices served to solidify group cohesion to a particular belief system, the physiological significance is critical: Orienting our attention towards a loving presence (be it God, Krishna, Allah, the Divine, Creative Consciousness, or the Buddha) interrupts the default mode network and negativity bias, giving rise to feelings of connection, awe, and self-transcendence.
My morning practice is quite simple. I found a lovely prayer bell ringtone, (thank you Apple), and while I still wake with bit of a start, the first thing I do is put my hands on my heart and belly to offer gratitude for being safe and healthy. After five long deep breaths (and yes, I count them, otherwise my busy mind would have me jumping out of bed), I practice loving-kindness meditation (while still in bed). Starting with myself, I offer the life under my hands the wish for wellbeing: “May I be happy of heart. May I feel filled with loving-presence. May I feel held in loving-presence. May I know peace.” Then, I let the images of the people I care about and serve run through my mind. With each face I internally offer the same wish. After a few minutes, I set an intention for my day, “May I see myself in the other. May my presence serve to inspire hope and love in those I meet.”
Find a morning practice that nourishes your potential for love and peace. Keep it simple.
- First, ground yourself in your body by taking a few deep breaths. Awareness of the body immediately brings us into the present, out of thinking.
- Second, offer gratitude for whatever feels authentic to you in the moment – safety, health, life.
- Third, orient your attention towards something bigger than yourself – your purpose or aspiration, the people you love, a commitment to a cause, body of teachings or tradition. Savor the words or images, allowing the feelings of gratitude, connection, love, and hope to build neural structure in your brain.
- Forth, set an intention for your day. What would it look like to really show up to this day? Think about qualities of being (courageous, hopeful, loving, present), as opposed to specific goals. What kind of human being do you want to be? What qualities in yourself are you choosing to feed today?
The golden hours of the morning are sacred. When we elevate ourselves, our presence naturally serves to elevate others. May you give yourself permission to linger in self-kindness first thing in the morning, not just for yourself, but for all those you come into contact with throughout your day.