How to Turn Your Brain From Anger to Compassion originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

Why do we need compassion?

We need compassion because life is hard. And the more we work together, the more we can make this journey bearable. The Buddhist tradition puts it this way: “Just like me, you want to be happy; just like me, you want to be free of suffering.” That recognition of common fear and yearning is the basis for compassion.

But compassion isn’t always easy. I take a fairly simple general view of compassion, which is that it is “a sensitivity to suffering with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent that suffering.” We don’t confuse it with other positive emotions, like love, because the hardest forms of compassion are for people you don’t love. It’s also harder to be compassionate toward people who seem very dissimilar from you than toward people who are like you. These are just some of the factors that can inhibit compassion.

Life experiences can also diminish our ability to give and receive compassion. I’m a therapist, and people who come to therapy are often caught in psychological loops that prevent them from accepting compassion from others or from themselves.

But we can break those loops by becoming aware of how our brains work—by becoming aware of own awareness.

We can then begin to deliberately cultivate compassion by learning to cultivate compassionate attention, compassionate thinking, compassionate feeling, and compassionate behavior. We learn to be open to suffering in others as well as to suffering in ourselves—and then we can act to alleviate that suffering.

The trouble with our two brains


The way our brains have evolved means it can give us a lot of trouble—and the trouble arises from the fact that we really have two brains.

We have an old brain, which has a whole lot of motives and desires that evolved long ago and that we share with many other animals.

So just like your family dog, we are naturally motivated to avoid things that could harm us, and we can be territorial, possessive, and concerned with status. We are also motivated to form friendships, reproduce, and care for offspring. And just like our family dog, we can experience emotions of anxiety, fear, anger, lust, and joy.

But we are very different from other animals, too. We are capable of imagining, reasoning, using language, and using symbols. This “new” brain is fabulous when used wisely, but much depends on how it interacts with the old brain.

For example, imagine a zebra spots a lion and runs away—that’s what the older, animal brain is good at: detecting and responding to threats. If the zebra gets away, it will settle down and go back to the herd and start happily eating again. But that won’t happen for a human because of the new brain.

The human will start thinking, “Oh my god, can you imagine what would’ve happened if I got caught?” They wake up in the middle of the night thinking, “What about tomorrow? And the children! Oh my god.”

The threat is over, but the new brain can’t let it go. We ruminate, and we run simulation after simulation in our minds of “what if” scenarios. Now, of course, this can be very useful for working out how to avoid lions in the first place, or to make a spear. But it can also trap us in fear.

A lot of people are in loops they can’t escape. They ruminate about things that frighten them, they ruminate about being no good or inferior. They focus on all the negative aspects. This is not their fault, because we have a natural, old-brain threat bias. As Rick Hanson notes, the brain is Velcro for negative- and threat-based things but Teflon for positive ones. We’re all like this.

How does mindfulness help fix the trouble?


Fortunately, we also have the skills to reconcile the old brain with the new. One of them is a technique that we call mindfulness—moment-to-moment awareness of thoughts and feelings. That is, we have the capacity to be aware of awareness, and to simply observe and become familiar with the tricks our minds play on us.

We now have a brain to be aware of being aware—and this actually puts on our shoulders fantastic responsibilities, because we can wake up to the reality of the life we’re in and start to make healthy choices as a result.

Use mindfulness to pinpoint your emotion—then intentionally try and shift it.

Mindfulness helps us understand that attention is like the spotlight—whatever it shines on is what becomes brighter in the mind, which can even affect us physiologically.

Try this: Deliberately imagine your excitement around a vacation, or the possibility of winning a lottery. Let that be your focus for a minute of two and notice what happens in you body. Then switch your attention (on purpose) to an argument or one of your core worries at the moment. Notice what happens in your body. Did you feel very differently, according to where your attention was focused?

Attention also puts things outside the spotlight into darkness.

Let’s say you go Christmas shopping and enter 10 shops, and in nine shops the assistants are very helpful to you, but in one shop the assistant is very rude and she makes you wait. Well, whom do you think about when you go home? “God, where do they get these people from?” you say to yourself. “Should I write to the store manager and get her fired? She was so rude.”

You’re in a loop now and you’re in the anger system. You’ve forgotten all the shop assistants who were nice to you. They’re in darkness because the spotlight is on the rude one. How absolutely extraordinary that we can forget 90 percent of our experience!

But of course once we notice what the mind is up to—and why—then we can begin to take control over our attention and use it mindfully and practically. What about if you, on purpose, decide that you’re going to recall the other nine people? Just spend time remembering how kind one of them was in that shop, another’s smile, how one tried so hard to find you the thing you wanted.

Compassion is rooted deeper in brain systems having to do with intentionality and motivation, and if you orient yourself to compassion, then you’re going to change the whole orientation of your mind.

And the key here is to understand that we can select, on purpose, one of our basic motivational systems—for caring—and we can cultivate it, help it grow and mature, through practice. We also need to understand exactly why it’s useful to do this: because it changes our brain and will give us much more control over our thoughts and our lives.

When we try to develop compassion in therapy, we train people to remember, remember, remember, notice, notice, notice kindness—and then to build upon those remembrances.

Buddhist monk and author Matthieu Ricard says our minds are like gardens and they will grow naturally. But if uncultivated, they are influenced by the weather and whatever seeds are in the wind. Some things will grow big and others shrivel—and in the end, we may not like the results.

We can come to understand why and how to cultivate compassion within us, which has the capacity for healing and reorganizing our minds such that we can begin to become the people we want to be—in other words, to have the garden-mind we want. This requires courage. Compassion is going out and confronting your anxieties.

With our male clients we often talk about two types of courage. There is physical courage, which many of them have, but there is also emotional courage, which is being able to move into areas of deep suffering and pain. Compassion helps us to move in those areas. We must be prepared to confront pain in ourselves—and to alleviate that pain.

So here is the situation: It is easy for us to get lost in our very basic emotions and motives, or become personally distressed by the problems of others. But we can begin to see into the nature of the mind—and begin to make choices about what emotions we want to cultivate in our lives. This is what it means to wake up and to start to become enlightened.

Read next: How to Find Wisdom in Feeling Worthless

Sign up for daily tips to help you live your best life via text.