This Too Shall Pass: The Science Of Hope

John Stienbeck, a Nobel Prize author, once said “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”

Yup. It simply passed.

When studying the history of the adage “This too shall pass” and its significance to the 12 Step movement it is impossible to ignore the spiritual and philosophical roots of the saying. But what does the evidence actually show?

From Buddhism to Stoicism, from the Apostle Paul and Corinthians 4 to Theodore Tilton’s King’s Ring, the idea that whatever trouble you think you have may not be trouble at all, has been wise counsel for centuries.

Just as “Try looking at it from the other side”, or “The sky is always darkest before the sunrise”, adages like “This too shall pass” urge humans to reconsider how they are perceiving a given situation.

But what do scientists say about looking at a problem as a gift?

In 2006, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert wrote a best-seller called Stumbling On Happiness. In a 2012 interview with the Harvard Business Review, he explained how, though once the realm of only poets and philosophers, for the past two decades, academics of all kinds have been investing time and money to figure out what makes people happy.

“Psychologists want to understand what people feel, economists want to know what people value, and neuroscientists want to know how people’s brains respond to rewards,” he said. “Having three separate disciplines all interested in a single topic has put that topic on the scientific map. Papers on happiness are published in Science [journals and magazines], people who study happiness win Nobel prizes, and governments all over the world are rushing to figure out how to measure and increase the happiness of their citizens.”

While the variables of subjectivity slide all over the place, researchers have managed to come up with some interesting data. In Stumbling on Happiness, Gilbert explains that, no matter how catastrophizing they may be, humans have an incredible knack of bouncing back.

“Although more than half the people in the United States will experience a trauma such as rape, physical assault or natural disaster in their lifetimes, only a small fraction will ever develop any post-traumatic pathology.

“Rather than being the fragile flowers that a century of psychologists have made us out to be, most people are surprisingly resilient in the face of trauma,” he wrote.

In other words, things pass. People move on. They get on with their lives because this too passed. Do we really know what we need to be content? Probably not!

“As it turns out, people are not very good at predicting what will make them happy and how long that happiness will last,” Gilbert said. “They expect positive events to make them much happier than those events actually do, and they expect negative events to make them unhappier than they actually do. In both field and lab studies, we’ve found that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or failing an exam — all have less impact on happiness than people think they will.”

So, in this sense, “This too shall pass” as a mantra to drill into one’s head makes perfect sense.

“A recent study showed that very few experiences affect us for more than three months. When good things happen, we celebrate for a while and then sober up. When bad things happen, we weep and whine for a while and then pick ourselves up and get on with it,” said Gilbert.

So, when you think of an addict, obsessive, fearful and ashamed of past behavior, facing a problem, “This too shall pass” can act as an antidote to anxiety.

Of course, knowing that, as Dr. Gilbert’s research shows, whatever you are going through will be temporary and applying it as an antidote is a whole different matter – a matter of discipline. And when it comes to discipline, few groups of people have more of it than Tibetan monks, especially when it comes to their practice of meditation.

One of those monks is former biochemist, Matthieu Ricard. He is a big believer in training one’s mind to practice habits of well-being to generate a true sense of serenity and fulfillment.

After studies of how his brain works, Ricard was dubbed the happiest man in the world – though he admits he wasn’t very happy about all the press coverage and accompanying obligations which come with a handle like that.

Born in France, Ricard, a writer, photographer and a prominent monk in the Shechen Monastery in Kathmandu, spends his time meditating in isolation, doing scientific research or acting as an adviser to the Dalai Lama in French-speaking countries or at scientific conferences.

With a PhD in cell genetics, Ricard, 71, has been bestowed with the French National Order of Merit for his efforts to preserve Himalayan culture. But it is his scientific research efforts which are most astounding.

When neuroscientist, Richard Davidson, attached 256 electronic sensors to Ricard’s head at the University of Wisconsin as part of a massive, 12-year project researching hundreds of advanced practitioners of meditation, much was gleamed from the experience. It turns out Ricard’s brain had an abnormally large capacity for happiness and a reduced propensity for negativity, a phenomenon known as “neuroplasticity”, putting Ricard squarely in the center of a new field of brain study.

Given that the 11th Step of the 12 Step program urges the practice of meditation, it is a natural fit to see how Ricard and his fellow scientists and meditators have something to offer addicts suffering from old tapes of fear and anxiety.

“We’ve found remarkable results with long-term practitioners who did 50,000 rounds of meditation, but also with three weeks of 20 minutes a day, which of course is more applicable to our modern times,” Ricard told Business reporter Frankie Taggart in 2012.

“It’s a wonderful area of research because it shows that meditation is not just blissing out under a mango tree, but it completely changes your brain and, therefore, changes what you are,” he said.

Meditation is a part of what Ricard calls mind training. It can lead to a greater, gentler understanding of the predicaments we find ourselves in, so we won’t need to panic or fret or stay up all night worrying.

“When things go wrong, we try to fix the outside so much. But our control of the outer world is limited, temporary and often, illusory.  Now, look at the inner conditions. Isn’t it the mind that translates the outer condition into happiness and suffering? Isn’t that stronger? We know by experience that we can be a little paradise and yet be completely unhappy within?

In a Ted Talk from 2004, Ricard stressed the importance of practicing meditation as a means of retraining the brain to cope with stress.

“It takes time. It took time for all those faults in our mind, the tendencies, to build up. So, it will take time to unfold them as well. But, that’s the only way to go. Mind transformation – that is the very meaning of meditation. It means familiarization with a new way of being, a new way of perceiving things, which is more in adequation with reality, with interdependence, with the stream and continuous transformation, which our being and our consciousness is.”

“This is more to say that mind training matters. This is not just a luxury. This is not a supplementary vitamin for the soul. This is something that is going to determine the quality of every instant of our lives.”

In closing, the monk noted how ready most people are to take care of their outward reality when the answer to their perception of what makes them happy actually lies within.

“We are ready to spend 15 years achieving education. We love to do jogging, fitness, we do all kinds of things to remain beautiful. Yet we spend surprisingly little time taking care of what matters most – the way our mind functions. Which, again, is the ultimate thing that determines the quality of our experience.”

First published in EHN Perspectives Magazine

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