October 20, 2011

The Enlightened Brain Review

So why would Cranky Fitness readers want to check out a review of an online course I took this summer called The Enlightened Brain?

Well, because the course was pretty cool!  And perhaps there are a few other tightly-wired, over-reactive types like me out there who could use some research-based tricks (or a whole spiritual path, depending on your proclivities) to tone down the psychological alarm bells and enjoy more tranquility and happiness.

But you don't have to have to be a natural-born stress-bucket to take an interest. Folks who want to know more about the neuroscience of positive and negative emotions, and perhaps even re-wire their brain so as to serve up more of the former and less of the latter, might want to check this thing out.

(Plus, I was in a weird mood and threw in gratuitous pictures of a controversial pop-culture diva--so you can always just weigh in on whether you think she's a genius or find her appalling).

Why I Signed Up for The Enlightened Brain.

Of course y'all don't care, but when has that stopped me from explaining something before? Feel free to skip on down.

If you've always been a bit on the anxious, pessimistic side, it's easy to just throw up your hands and say "Well Baby, I Was Born This Way." (And I'm sure you appreciate now having Lady Gaga lodged inside your head. Oh, and sorry... sometimes she likes to settle in).

Love ya, Lady Gaga!
But wanna stop singing that song now? It's been 27 hours

Yet despite Lady Gaga's reassurance that I don't have to feel badly about my inborn neurotic  tendencies, one thing being a psychotherapist teaches you is that you can change your thoughts, and consequently your emotional reactions to things.  And, though this isn't saying much, I'm definitely more mellow now than I used to be! But I'm still too prone to stressing over minor upsets, and wanted a motivational kick in the pants to try the whole meditation thing again for the thousandth time.

So since I'd previously read Rick Hanson's book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, and was impressed, I thought I'd see if I could beg my way in to his online course and review it.  And thanks to the generosity of the author and Sounds True, the company that hosts it, I got to take it for free.  Hooray! I finished the course a couple weeks back and would have reviewed it sooner, were I not too busy futzing around on the web and plotting how to eat more  kettlecorn without gaining weight doing scholarly research and helping people in need.

What's The Enlightened Brain About and How Did it Work?

To swipe copy from the website (lazy, who me?) the course description is: "Meditation Meets Neuroscience—Practical Tools to Reshape Your Brain for Awakening."

It's technically an "interactive" online course, though it's mostly pre-recorded video and audio presentations by Rick Hanson. Some of these were in a lecture format, and others were guided meditations. There were two live sessions in which Rick took questions, but these were questions submitted earlier offline. While it didn't exactly feel like Rick and I were hanging out drinking beer herb tea and chatting together, he did answer the question I submitted carefully, thoroughly, and quite helpfully. There was a forum thing available too if you wanted to connect with other folks taking the course.

The course lasted six weeks, with numerous short audios and videos for each week. It was self-paced and flexible, so if you got "behind," there was no pressure. And once you sign up you can review it all over again if you, like me, are forgetful. The material stays available for download for a few months after the course is over, and if you get off your butt and download the sessions, you can hang onto them.

The six sessions were:

1. Self-Directed Neuroplasticity
2. Taking in the Good
3. The Neuroscience of Mindfulness
4. Concentrating the Mind
5. Equanimity
6. Beyond the Self

What Was Great About The Enlightened Brain

1. Rick Hanson! I found him to be completely charming. He's warm, funny, and, well, pretty adorable. He's geeky enough (compliment) to be precise and clear, and he doesn't shy away from long words or complicated concepts. However, he always takes a step back after presenting difficult material to rephrase it in language anyone could understand, and he gives concrete examples.

He shares his own struggles, and doesn't try to lecture from a guru/expert perspective, even if it's abundantly clear from listening to him that he knows his stuff. And sure, he's just a video playing on your screen (or an audio track), but he manages to project so much empathy and kindness, it's hard not to feel like he's actually in the room with you. (Oh, and, because he's so enlightened and has worked so hard to transcend "self" and all that, I don't have to worry about him getting a big head should he read this!).

2. The Format While the course was more expensive than a hardbound book, it was immensely helpful to have a structure and a human face to the experience. A self help book is all too easy to put down... while a series of very short lessons and practices paced over a number of weeks is a lot more engaging and motivating. There was homework too, if you wanted to do it. (And if you're in a helping profession and need continuing education hours, they can hook you up for an extra $36. I intend to go back and do that myself, as this is WAY superior to so much of the usual CE schlock available, and less expensive than most too.)

3. The Content Did you know that changing the way you think and focus your attention can actually change the way your brain is structured? Not just conceptually, but physically! You can carve new neuronal paths, secrete different chemicals, expand "good" regions of the brain and chill out "bad" ones. (Is it pretty darn clear I'm not a neuroscientist?) Basically, you can upgrade your hard drive to one that runs quieter and smoother, has more memory, functions better, and is less prone to crashing. Rick patiently explains how it all works, and gives lots of practical tips and techniques to get you started.

There are lots of different suggestions for finding tranquility and happiness in everyday moments--I find myself using several of these routinely now, and they really do work!

Just a Few Minor Quibbles

We can't leave the "Cranky" out of "Cranky Fitness" entirely, can we? That just wouldn't be right.

1. Technical Issues: There were a few minor glitches... during some of the video sessions, Rick would refer to charts that weren't there; the first live session wouldn't stream properly and kept hanging up; and one of the meditation practices was missing for quite a long time. (Ironically, as I recall it was on the subject of "letting go," and I kept obsessing about its absence, and I emailed support, and then grew unduly irritated when I didn't hear back... Of course I should have just let it go. But I couldn't because I didn't know how yet!)

2. The Buddhist Emphasis: In all fairness, there's a lot of scientific validation for many Buddhist meditation practices and the beneficial effects they can have on your brain. And the course does say "Enlightened" right in the title, not "Optimized" or "Enhanced" or "Super-charged" or something. So I kinda knew what I was getting into. But there are other kinds of meditation, and other psychological techniques out there, that could be useful in reshaping the brain too. These aren't really included much.

Personally, I suck at struggle with most forms of meditation. (And yeah, a major problem is I don't stick with it long enough to get more comfortable. Rick doesn't promise that it will be effortless, he's very upfront that you may need a bit of self-discipline). But slacker or not, I still would have appreciated a few more alternative approaches for brain re-sculpting and focusing my attention. Not that the course doesn't have tips on sustaining focus, it does! (And also includes a fascinating discussion about how dopamine levels affect attention). But there is heavy reliance on breathing as a focus in most of the practices, which never seems to work for me. The course was SO convincing about the benefits of building a practice of mediation/focused attention (and other Virtuous Mental Habits as well) that I feel very motivated to find something that helps hold my attention better than my damn breath.

3. More! More! This is actually more of a compliment than a quibble, but I loved the videos, and would have liked to have seen a few more of them for the lecture parts of the course. (For the meditation practices, where you're often closing your eyes anyway, audio is fine). Oh hell, as long as I'm getting all demanding and unrealistic, how about a few different backgrounds, more visual aids, hmm, perhaps some costumes, wigs and back-up dancers? Hey, I think I know someone who could help!

Anyone have any luck with meditation or other methods for finding happiness and tranquility that don't involve large slabs of chocolate cake? Or heck, got any opinions about Lady Gaga?


  1. Oh, you wrote does anyone have any luck . . . I thought it said does anyone else suck at meditation.

    I suck at it, but I still try it over and over again because I have been told that it will always suck unless I try doing it over and over and over and over again.

    Now, where is the Enlightened Buddha statue give-a-way? I am the first one commenting. I finally have a chance to win something. Surely you did not mean it when you wrote there was no give-a-way in this post . . . oh, you did mean it.

    oh . . . .Well, I still found your post to be a good one!


  2. Thanks Jane!

    Yeah, sorry no giveaway this time, but there are more to come before too long, so good luck in them! And the Random Number Generator doesn't discriminate, so any time you arrive at a giveaway post could be a lucky one.

  3. The nice thing about Buddhist teachers is that they will usually give you their product for free when you ask (or ask you to pay what you can within your means).

    I'm not Buddhist but I've become really interested in Buddhism. I LOVED "Buddha's Brain" and strongly recommend checking out Jack Kornfield's audio books (also by Sounds True). In particular, "Buddhism for Beginners" which is 9+ hours of his teachings. It really changed the way I think and deal with stress without going too far in to the religious aspects of Buddhism. I think you can still download it for free at Audible.

  4. Thanks Angry Porkchop! Will check that out. Lots of cool stuff at Sounds True.

    For those of you interested in buying stuff from Sounds True, I think I can pass along a 20% off discount coupon good until Oct 24, but need to get confirmation before I add it to the post.

    If I get the go ahead, I'll email it to anyone who wants it.

  5. My bent is to relaxation/self-hypnosis more than meditation. It all takes place in the same brain wave pattern so what the hell.

  6. Natural-born stress-bucket - check!

    I found this post to be very interesting and I am intrigued by the whole thing...However, I must admit that meditation is something I've never been able to take very seriously. I know it's supposed to be beneficial, but I just don't get it. Now you've got me thinking I should maybe look into it more. I do like yoga, so that might be a good starting point.

  7. Great post, Crabby. Made me wonder if I can do a sneak attack on hubby to help him be less stressed.... probably not.
    (And thankfully, I don't listen to Lady Gag, so no earworm here.)

  8. Being a believer in the lifelong plasticity of the brain I also like this book! Re-training our brains is the best way to make those changes we keep saying we want. Of course, a traumatic life event and fear will change us also, but this books way seems like a better plan to me.

  9. Very...... enlightened post. I am always looking for good effective ways to rewire my brain for less stress. That looks like a great course. I practice meditation, sometimes I'm good at it, sometimes not. Depends on how noisy my head is that day. That's the part I need help with, shutting up my brain.

  10. I'm not a meditator...I can't sit still that long without my brain screaming "Good grief woman you have too much to do to be sitting here doing nothing!"

    As for Lady G...I wish she'd go away for awhile. I enjoy most of her music, but the antics are getting old.

  11. Love to meditate, when i can find the time for it. Do they have any suggestions for fitting it in between feeding sessions with the kittens and running the children to school?

  12. I think I rather have cookies! :-) I don't meditate but think I should. I do get crazed at times & the hormones are not helping! ;-) I tend to like to work it out in the gym & am thinking I should try yoga after MizFit's post! This type of stuff is not really my type of thing or way of learning plus I need it in person or I tend to flake out! ;-) Sounds interesting though! I like Lady Gaga - she is her own person!

  13. Don't go all over-achiever and think you have to meditate an hour for it to be worthwhile. Just five minutes a day is worth the effort. See previous Fitting in Fitness (I need a Cranky Index to refer to!)

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  14. Honestly, I'm not sure I'd even know how to meditate but I find a few hours outdoors, camera in hand rather restoring.

    I know that a lot of people really can't stand Lady Gaga.. and her outfits go beyond ridiculous but I think she's rather talented and just hasn't figured out that she doesn't need to go for the absurd.

  15. Meditation? Sigh... I've had moments... I used to play whale sounds and set up ritualistic stuff, but that's too much work. So now I breathe (when I remember that is). It is helpful though - I know - rocket science of oxygen.... This DOES look lovely though! Love how he's smart but still breaks it down for the under-caffeinated-too-lazy-to-google-definitions :) Great blog! Great to connect! Greetings from Paso Robles :)

  16. I just want to be part of your guys's club. I think you may be my long lost tribe, or one of them. Sharon, from Canada? eh?

  17. person here, just sayin' Rick Hanson seems genuine and generous, as do the rest of you. Anything that brings you flow, anything that you can lose yourself in, even for a few minutes, is good for the brain. Lots of things are good for the brain. Real butter from real cows, for example. Sharon, from Canada? eh?

  18. I try to do my own brand of "meditation" (which is actually breathing and relaxation) for about 15 minutes, three times a week. I feel better for it, but recently decided to test it and see if I was actually accomplishing anything. Went in for a blood pressure check. First reading was 145/79. Nurse went away for about 10 minutes, so I decided to just try the breathing and relaxation to see if it affected my bp. Second reading was 125/69. I was thrilled and surprised. It worked better than I ever imagined it would and I don't even know if I am doing it right.

  19. I am a long time meditator, and have really enjoyed Rick Hanson's perspective. Apparently I started changing the structure of my brain 35 years ago, but didn't realize it til now. (So that's why I stopped kicking my dog and arguing with my wife!)

    Lately I have spent some time and effort learning QiGong. It is quite relaxing, doesn't require me to sit for long periods of time, and keeps my aging body somewhat fluid and flexible. If you don't like meditation, QiGong might be a viable alternative for you.

    By the way, EVERYONE sucks at meditation. We are not supposed to do it perfectly, we just need to start again and again, knowing we won't be perfect, but somehow staying on course towards more happiness. It's a mystery, but letting go of meditation is one of the most important aspects...

    Keep breathing,


  20. Hey thanks for the suggestion and encouragement Jim!

  21. On this point you raised here: "there is heavy reliance on breathing as a focus in most of the practices, which never seems to work for me."

    I wanted to suggest this: "The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living"

    ...which gets directly at your question, by providing alternative approaches to the same goal, which are specifically not focused on the breath. An example is focusing on the details you see in an outdoor setting. Focused external awareness.


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