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?

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