I used to feel completely discouraged when I found myself recalling negative experiences with relative ease. I began to believe with a fierce sense of certainty that I was sentenced to live this life with a negative slant. Reading The Buddha's Brain by Rick Hanson helped me make sense of this sticky web of misperceptions and truths. In the aforementioned book, I learned our brain actually has a negativity bias hardwired into it! Now, this makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Each species is hardwired to survive and we are no different. Now, imagine our ancestors way back when as hunters and gatherers. If a hunter chose to let down his guard and observe the beauty of a sunset, he could be attacked by the very prey he was stalking. Or, let's imagine a gatherer had come across a ruby-red berry and decided to eat it only to become violently ill seconds later. The tribe would most likely have come to the conclusion that they should avoid eating red berries if they want to live. These negative experiences helped our ancestors survive. The pleasant experiences were not critical to their survival, but the negative ones were! Rick Hanson writes, "Our brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive experiences." I felt validated and vindicated after reading The Buddha's Brain, but then came the question you might be thinking as well - "Great, now what?"
Rick Hanson wrote Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, which speaks to the importance of taking time to absorb the good. We actually need to train our brains to seep in the positive experience for ten, or more, seconds. For example, what does the job promotion feel like in your body? Be curious and intimate with this feeling. Is there a softening in your muscles? A relief? Any tingles or temperature changes? Let yourself experience this moment fully. There's no need to grip it tightly. Merely, let this experience float in your awareness. I often imagine myself floating or bathing in a positive experience as a way to linger longer.
I liken this exercise in expanding our awareness to Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken." The poem ends with this final stanza -
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
When we allow ourselves to fully experience the good, we are taking the road less traveled. We are training our awareness to include what it might otherwise exclude.