By accepting our emotions and non-judgment, we can create less suffering and pain in our lives, find peace in a world filled with anger and uncertainty, and use our difficult emotions for personal growth. In this episode, Dr. Greg Hammer dives deep into the topic of non-duality and neutrality. He talks about the difference between pain and suffering and how pain is optional, while suffering is not. Dr. Hammer shares his GAIN philosophy – Gratitude, Acceptance, Intention, and Non-Judgment. He expounds on this philosophy and explains how we can use this to create less suffering and pain in our lives. Dr. Greg also explores the concept of benevolent indifference and how acknowledging and utilizing our emotions can lead to personal growth. He shares his number one tool for letting go of difficult emotions without repressing or suppressing them. Tune in to learn how to let go of judgment and start living in the present now.
- 01:49 – Season in our lives
- 08:36 – Neuroplasticity
- 14:24 – Fine distinction between acceptance and non-judgement
- 21:06 – Benevolent Indifference
- 42:42 – Life is a journey. There’s a path.
- 51:55 – How is beating ourselves up contributing to our happiness?
- 57:28 – It’s Resilience. How to be present, how to be accepting, how to be intentional.
How do we leverage continuous uncertainty to thrive in this unprecedented new world?
The answer is to build the resilience we need to power us through the challenges we face so that we become “Change Proof.” Prepare to tackle the future with confidence by reading Adam’s latest book Change Proof: Leveraging the Power of Uncertainty to Build Long-Term Resilience.
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Gain Without Pain: Gratitude, Acceptance, Intention, And Non-Judgment With Dr. Greg Hammer
We’ve got Dr. Greg Hammer on the show. You are going to love this conversation. He’s a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, a pediatric intensive care physician, a pediatric anesthesiologist, a mindfulness expert, and the author of GAIN Without Pain: The Happiness Handbook for Health Care Professionals. He’s a member of the Stanford WellMD Initiative.
Dr. Hammer is the chair of the Physician Wellness Task Force for the California Society of Anesthesiologists. He has been a visiting professor and lecturer on wellness at institutions worldwide and teaches GAIN to medical students, residents, and fellows at Stanford. I love this conversation so sit back and enjoy.
When I hear my own introduction sometimes and I do get to hear it and it’s painful, people ask me, “What’s it like? Isn’t it exciting when you get on stage and you’ve had this great big introduction and whatnot?” I go, “I guess on an ego level, it was fun a couple of years ago, ten years ago or so, when I started this,” but now, I think to myself, “I got to get somebody to cut lines out of that introduction. It is too much.” It’s like, “I’m a daddy. I’m a father and I love business. I love people.” That should be the intro or something. Your bio is incredibly impressive. Greg, I want to start by asking you, what’s one thing that’s not included in this introduction that you would love for people to know about you?
I don’t know if it’s inferred by the bio, Adam, but it’s great to be with you, by the way. I would say that it’s my study of Advaita or non-duality. I believe in what might be called the consciousness-only model where everything is made of consciousness, God, or love, but we’re all made of the same stuff. I think if we embrace that, lots of good things tend to fall into place. I guess if I were going to underscore one thing about the way I look at the world and other people and myself for that matter, this would be it.
You and I already have much in common and much that is important in common. A lot of people do, in fact, I think most if not all of us do, but we’re not always at the season in our lives perhaps where that becomes the most relevant point of focus. It has been that way for me for about the last ten or so years. I’ve been more interested in that relationship, the one you were describing than almost anything else because it seems like it’s the first domino. Everything tends to be in a momentum that feels on point or feels right when that’s the first domino. That literally means the first domino of the day for me. I start my day very much in stillness practice. Do you do the same?
If we don’t count opening the blinds and doing a bit of morning hygiene routine, I start my day with my GAIN practice. I have a meditation room, but others can just have a chair, hopefully, in a quiet place. We get up. We do our thing in the morning and then we find a comfortable place to sit. We close our eyes. We draw our attention to our breath. We slow it down. That slows down our heart rate and lowers our blood pressure and the amount of adrenaline that’s circulating in our bodies.
We then go through the GAIN elements. We start with G for Gratitude. We can do even 30 seconds of gratitude practice silently appreciating that for which we are grateful, the loved ones in our lives. The ability, as you and I were discussing to help others, our relative health, and living in a relatively safe environment. There are so many things that are quite apparent for which we have to be grateful. Hopefully, we embrace those at this time of year.
The A in GAIN, which is the next 30 or 45 seconds for those who do a three-minute practice. Mine’s a little bit longer, but I go to Acceptance because we have to acknowledge that there’s a pain in life as well as joy. If we resist it, our suffering increases. There’s a formula in my first book. Suffering equals pain times resistance. The pain is there and the pain that we cannot change. If we have any wisdom, we will embrace and accept it. If we resist it by pretending it’s not there and the myriad of other ways we resist things in our life, then our suffering increases.
Acceptance being the inverse or opposite of resistance. If we lower our resistance or we increase our acceptance, our suffering decreases. We embrace that. We then go to the I in GAIN, which is Intention. I look forward to diving in a little bit deeper on this, but our default ways of thinking tend to veil our happiness. There’s only one thing that all seven billion of us want, and that’s to be happy, Adam, as you know. That happiness tends to be veiled. By the way, our brains have evolved over tens of thousands of years. If we relax into a non-intentional way of being, then we go to our default way of thinking, which includes things like negativity bias that tends to veil our happiness. The I in GAIN is Intention. It’s a focus on being purposeful about our thoughts and the way we live.
We then go to the N in GAIN, which is as important as the other three factors, which is Non-judgment. We can talk about that but letting go of all judgment liberates us. I think these are the four pillars of happiness. When you talk about how to start the day, that’s how I start the day and teach others how to start the day with the GAIN practice.Letting go of all judgment liberates us. Click To Tweet
I think you say that this is GAIN without pain. Is that right?
Yes. For an anesthesiologist and somebody who tries to prevent pain or if it exists, treat it among other things. Not only in my medical practice but also in life, I think that things don’t have to be painful. I’m sure you can relate to the fact that there are ways of thinking and being in which we simply need to relax. We’re not hefting a heavy weight and necessarily straining. We are doing the opposite. We’re letting go. We’re relaxing into. We’re allowing, and that’s the A in GAIN. Acceptance is all about that. Our gains in terms of our happiness don’t have to come at the expense of pain.
What about the N?
The N is Non-judgment and it’s our default way of thinking, Adam, and I’m sure you can relate to this. We are hyper-analytical of our environment. We’re always sizing up everything that we see and experience. We tend to judge it. Perhaps from an evolutionary standpoint or the teleologic explanation for that way of thinking may be that it kept us a little bit safer.
If we’re always wary of things around us, and this goes to our negativity bias as well, we’re sitting in our cave as early Homo sapiens 50,000 years ago and there might be a saber-toothed tiger lurking outside the mouth of our cave. We’re trying to keep the fire going and protect our families. If we’re wary and we’re onto that way of thinking that there could be something life-threatening lurking within a moment or 10 feet away, maybe we got to live longer and procreate. We got to have an extra child, and our kids and families live longer.
Whatever genetic predisposition to thinking and being this way of negative, wary, and hyper-analytical, maybe that’s encoded into our DNA. It causes us to judge things. With our negativity bias, we tend to judge things negatively and unfortunately, most harshly ourselves. Again, there’s a path forward. There’s this wonderful quality our brains have called neuroplasticity.
We can guide our thoughts if we’re intentional or purposeful about it toward a less judgmental, ultimately non-judgmental way of thinking and being simply by allowing and dropping those judgments. I’m thinking, “This person is better looking than I am. I’m smarter than they are. This is bad. This is good.” Those judgments represent a veil in our visual field. It means that we’re looking at others and the world around us, and its elements through a veil. We’re not seeing things for exactly what they are. In the GAIN practice, we’ve gone through our Gratitude, Acceptance, and Intension. We moved to Non-judgment in our contemplation, with our eyes closed, focused on our breath. Picture the Earth. Picture one of these beautiful NASA images with the Earth suspended in space.
We contemplate that the Earth is neither good nor bad. The Earth is simply what it is. It only makes sense, Adam, for us to think, “I am neither good nor bad. I am simply the person that I am.” We transition to the I am-ness and go back to our breath and then slowly open our eyes. We can train ourselves to be less judgmental and happier.
There is so much there that I want to dig into. I want to go back to something you said at the beginning, which is that formula is impactful. I’m pretty certain that somebody’s pulled their car over at this point to write that one down. Suffering equals pain times resistance. It’s as clear as a bell. Let me know if you agree with this or not, but I believe that suffering is optional. Pain on the other hand is required. I’m not a masochist. I’m not suggesting that we should seek pain or that pain is even a good thing. I’m making no judgment about it. At this point in my life, I would say pain is not something we avoid easily, and in many ways, I don’t know that it’s even advisable to try to avoid pain, but suffering is optional. Your formula seems to suggest that as well.
Absolutely, because the modifier there is resistance. You’re right. Pain is intrinsically part of our experience. How many painful things can we talk about? I start the first book with a story about my son, and I lost my son when he was 29. What could be more painful than that?
I want to pause there to say, as a parent and as a child of parents who are, knock on wood, still walking the Earth. I can’t imagine anything more painful than that.
Here is a good example. It’s something that is palpable and that I could not change. If we go to the Serenity Prayer, I think these GAIN elements are evident in pretty much every useful philosophic and religious tradition. That’s why these elements of GAIN resonate with us so well. Acceptance, for example, is expressed in the Serenity Prayer. There are things we can change and things that we cannot change. Some of those things we cannot change are painful.
The world doesn’t comport to our wants and needs. There is a pain in life and that pain that we cannot change, if we have any wisdom, should not only accept but in the GAIN practice, we embrace it. As we do our morning GAIN contemplation, we envision our chest opening, bringing this pain closer and opening our hearts. Bringing the pain inside our hearts, wrapping our heart around it, embracing it, and fully accepting it.
When we recognize that there’s no distance between the pain and our heart, we can ask ourselves the question, “Can I live with this pain forever?” When the answer is yes, we have accepted it. That’s part of the happiness practice. None of us gets out of here live and has a non-painful existence. We have joy and we have pain. They almost seem to be equal in magnitude. It’s like the area above and below the curve. Above and below the zero intercepts to a mathematician is equal in area. If we want to be happy or happier, we need to learn how to accept and that is to lower our resistance. As you said, pain is mandatory, but suffering is optional.
I want to talk about what is probably a fine distinction between acceptance and non-judgment. I like to think of the non-judgment piece as neutrality. It’s that I can look at something even for a moment in a state where I’m not judging it as good or bad, right or wrong, or fair or unfair. That to me is what neutral feels like. In the last book that I wrote about becoming change-proof, it’s this idea of how we develop long-term resilience. There’s a process that is the through line of the book. This pause, ask, and choose. It’s simple. It’s like in so many ways the things that you’re sharing with us are intuitive on some level, but not commonplace.
It’s like, “All learning is remembering,” and maybe Plato said that. We’re remembering so much of what we already know and have either forgotten or somehow we don’t apply the commonsensical stuff that we could. The pause, ask, and choose is not profound, but yet, think of all the places in our lives where we had paused to ask something before we chose something.
Whether it’s to hit send on that email or to take a particular tone, a voice with someone or to say something cunning or defensive, or to get up from one seat in the front row at the Academy Awards, walk on stage, and slap another human being, a friend even, in front of the entire world. You go, “If I paused and got to a place of neutrality to ask a question.” At that moment you go, “What are my options here.”
Imagine the judgment that preceded that slap.
Let’s talk about that because I do want to dissect the difference between acceptance and non-judgment.
The GAIN elements are all closely interwoven and related. There is an overlap between acceptance and non-judgment. Non-judgment is a way of observing, whereas acceptance is a way of being. They are both a way of being and a way of observing in their own right but acceptance is an opening of the heart. It’s moving toward an envelopment or an allowance whereas, non-judgment is a way of seeing. There is a little bit of a distinction there.Acceptance is a way of being. Click To Tweet
I think there is a polarity too in the vernacular itself. There is a positive and negative. Again, I don’t mean to judge one good or bad but there is acceptance, which is positive and non-judgment is a negation. It’s interesting the interplay between those two things and that is so true of so many things in life. It’s like Eastern philosophy on some level. There is a front and back to everything.
It is so empiric. It’s based on our experience. We can understand what judgment is and the importance of non-judgment if we want to see things for what they are. If I look at you and say, “He looks like this guy,” for example.
Stanley Tucci is what you’re trying to say.
That might be.
When I had hair, I got Joey Tribbiani because I could do that, “How are you doing?” Now, I get a different one.
Even just judging you as similar to someone else, for example, brings to mind, “He’s this, he’s that.” I don’t know you that well. That other guy is not you. It’s looking at things for what they are. If we want to see things clearly, it’s simply a matter of dropping all judgment. That doesn’t mean discernment. You talk about acceptance and non-judgment. People confuse discernment with both of those. We need to discern.
For example, if we have two acquaintances and maybe they’re friends and one of them is always badmouthing other people, gossiping and complaining about things. The other one is pragmatic, forward-looking, present, a good listener, and positive. We don’t have to judge one as good and the other as bad, but we want to discern because if we have an hour to spend with somebody that we know, with whom do we want to spend that hour?
We have to be discerning but we don’t have to judge. We don’t have to say, “I don’t want to spend that hour with her or him because they are bad or they are X, Y, or Z.” We simply discern that given the choice, this is our preference, but it doesn’t mean we have to judge anyone poorly. I think that’s one way of looking at that distinction. The same goes for judgment. We need to discern between one thing and another. One quality or another quality but we don’t have to judge either of them as good or bad.
That’s why I love the image of the Earth or the ocean. Something that is just what it is. There are all kinds of activity on the surface of the Earth, but you can look at the whole planet with what a teacher of non-duality, Francis Lucille, calls Benevolent Indifference. It doesn’t mean you don’t care. It doesn’t mean that your heart’s not in it. You look at the world with a mild degree of benevolence, but otherwise, you don’t care what happens.
I believe it was Krishnamurti who said, “I don’t mind what happens.” It doesn’t mean that you don’t care. It means that you’re not going to be affected in a way, especially in a negative way by what is and what occurs. I find that so intuitively clear and maybe the best advice I’ve ever heard is to look at the world with benevolent indifference or don’t mind what happens.Look at the world with benevolent indifference. Don't mind what happens. Click To Tweet
It’s almost another way to look at how the world looks at each of us now, whether that’s in terms of Mother Nature, like the ocean, the sky, the clouds, the weather, etc. We’re always very conscious of the weather or even God or whatever word any of us use to describe that single source, unifying source, etc. I find that appealing because of the ocean, and I’m a big fan of the ocean. I spent a lot of time in that environment and it is the central metaphor in this book too. It’s so indifferent, but not in a way that’s like, “The ocean is trying to kill me.” If you’ve ever been in a storm on the water in a boat or not in a boat or witnessed one close-up, you might think that literally, Mother Nature is cruel.
If you’ve ever been in the path of a tornado or any of this kind of thing, people in Florida dealt with such extreme weather in the form of these hurricanes. Is that intentional on the part of nature, the universe, or God? We all get that. Nobody thinks that’s true. I don’t think anybody thinks there’s an intent on the part of the weather to cause harm to people or anything. I think that’s an interesting way to do it to look and see, “How does nature look at us?” We’re a part of nature. We’re another aspect of the whole. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could adopt that philosophy and look out of the lens in that manner? What kind of equanimity would we feel? What harmony might we feel, greater harmony or happiness?
The good news is that we can do what you said. We can look at the world and look at ourselves and each other that way. It’s not outside of our realm. In fact, it’s rather simple. We simply have to relax into the way of being that is compatible with that way of thinking and behaving. It’s right there. It’s within us. It’s certainly within our grasp. There’s nothing to grasp, but it’s within us. We need to be intentional about it. One of my heroes is Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who’s a Father of Mindfulness. I love his definition of mindfulness, which could also be the definition of happiness, which is awareness of the present moment on purpose, non-judgmentally. It’s an acknowledgment of the important principles of happiness, and awareness of the present moment. If we’re present, we’re happy.
If we think of all the happiest moments we’ve had, we’re walking through a forest. It’s an analogy I often use. We feel the soft bed of pine needles beneath our feet. We smell the scent of the evergreen trees. We look up towards the sky and we see the sunlight filtering through the canopy above. We see these ageless trees around us and we are present and happy. We’re not thinking about something we were embarrassed by that happened yesterday or the list of things we have to do when we get home. We’re present and when we’re present, we’re happy.
If you think of all your happiest moments, it’s when you were right there. It could be laughing uncontrollably with a friend where literally you can’t catch your breath. You’re not thinking about anything other than what’s happening at that moment and you know the other person is right there with you. That’s a magical moment. When we’re present, we’re happy. Awareness of the present moment is an acknowledgment that we’re often not aware of the present moment. I think the two ways of thinking that have evolved in terms of the way our neural networks work, the way our brains function, and all the connections and synapses between neurons have formed these pathways that define our default way of thinking besides the negativity bias.
We’re very distracted by the past and the future in ways that are maladaptive and we have a hard time being present. If any of us sits with our eyes closed and tries to relax into an awareness of our present sensations, the smell or what we’re hearing. It could be a little bit of ringing in our ears, the airplane going by in the distance, the tingling on the soles of our feet, and the pressure between our body and the chair. We quickly leave that awareness and go to what I have to do after this interview, what I have to do tomorrow, or what I did yesterday that I wish I hadn’t done.
We don’t tend to stay in that present awareness. If we want to be in that present awareness, which is where happiness resides, we have to have a plan. That’s the next ingredient in what Dr. Kabat-Zinn defined as mindfulness. The awareness of the present moment on purpose. We have to be purposeful, but the good news is it’s not that difficult. We have to have a practice. For me, that’s the GAIN practice. It can be attended to in as little as three minutes a day. It’s an intentional way of thinking that tends to grow with us over time. Even three minutes of intentional thinking will lead to a greater state of happiness and awareness of the present moment on purpose non-judgmentally. We’ve talked about benevolent indifference and the importance of non-judgment. It’s not that complicated.
I’m going to take us back to that moment at the Academy Awards. I want to say this Profesore. If we’re walking through the Muir Woods and I remember going there for the very first time and being breathless in that Sherwood Forest, the prehistoric-sized trees. I’m not being a skeptic here, but I want to take the role of somebody reading this now that says, “I get it.”
When I walk through the Muir Woods, the Redwood Forest, or wherever, I get it. I can be in my Zen state. I can be peaceful. I can apply the GAIN principles or pause, ask, and choose. All of that makes sense but when I’m in the middle of a raging storm, whether that’s a storm on the water or it’s a firestorm. California has had forest fires. At that moment when there’s a literal or figurative storm happening. It’s like the storm that was going on when Chris Rock was sharing a joke about Will Smith’s wife. There was a storm that brewed up immediately. There was a squall.
A lot of thoughts, emotions, and adrenaline.
Awareness of the present moment on purpose without judgment. At that moment, what’s going on for Will, do you think? Again, this is all speculation and what’s the advice for Will? I was asked that question by Psychology Today about a week after that incident to talk about the resilience angle on it but now I’m asking you that question.
Adam, that’s something we can all relate to because we’ve all had this experience, and one term for it that psychologists might use is being flooded. The water analogy is a good one but flooded with adrenaline or epinephrine. We are not in control and we say things we don’t mean. We’ve all experienced this. We’ve gotten into arguments. We’ve said things we regret. Under those circumstances, it’s not too complicated. As you said, take that extra breath.
This is a little bit related to what we say in the operating room. Measure twice and cut once. Don’t be impulsive. Measure something and then cut because you can’t take the cut back. Take another breath, take another measurement, and make another assessment. When we have that surge of adrenaline with which we’re all familiar, that pushes us forward in ways that we can’t control and actions, whether it’s a slap or words that can be as egregious.
A little light bulb goes off if we have an intention practice. Let’s say we have the GAIN practice. We do three minutes of GAIN contemplation every morning. One thing that is beautiful about the way this begins to rewire our brains is that when we are being ungrateful, resisting, unintentional, and judgmental, the opposites of the elements of GAIN, let’s say, a light bulb will go off. I’ll give you an example that’s in the first book. I’m very fortunate as we were talking before we started that I have a home on the Stanford campus. It’s a wonderful community of faculty and I’m very close to the medical center so I generally ride my bike to work. I get up. I open the blinds. I do my morning hygiene. I do my GAIN practice. I have a cup of coffee and some berries.
I get on my bike and I ride along a route that takes me through a narrow path, which has a beautiful canopy of trees and it’s usually very quiet at that hour. Maybe the sun is coming up or there is already light outside. As I pedal down the path, I see another human being and he’s walking in the way that I’m riding in the same direction. As I get closer, I noticed that he’s got buds in his ears. I noticed that he was looking at his screen and I start to form judgments because here we are in this beautiful environment and he was looking at his screen. It’s almost like I imagine him, “There’s a picture of a bird on the screen.”
I then get closer and I see he’s in the middle of the path and he’s blocking my way. I start to form more judgments about his degree of consideration to others and then a light bulb goes off because I just did my non-judgment practice. As I start to form these judgments, many of which are negative, typically, a light bulb goes off and says, “You’re judging,” and I laugh at myself. As I ride past this nice young guy, I look at him and smile. He looks up at me and he smiles. Lo and behold, I got a little hit of dopamine instead of an extra hit of adrenaline. It was a happy, positive interaction. The thing about the practice is that when we start to rewire our brains when we’re thinking and being in a way that’s not consistent with happiness, we get a little light bulb that goes off.
Now, back to Will Smith. He listens to the humor that he didn’t appreciate. He takes it very personally. The adrenaline in his body starts to get secreted. He starts to lose control. He’s making very negative judgments about Chris. If he’s got an intention practice or has an awareness of the present moment on purpose, non-judgmentally practice, a light bulb will go off. He’ll be aware suddenly that he’s being flooded with adrenaline and emotion and he’s thinking and about to behave in ways that are not consistent with his happiness. It’s recognition of that illumination phenomenon. That light bulb literally shone on this way of thinking and being that might have guided him into taking another breath allowing the feeling of acceptance and non-judgment on purpose.
I don’t even know what’s smaller than a nanosecond. On the day that you and I are having this conversation, they have had a major breakthrough in terms of nuclear fusion. It is a major breakthrough because I’m not a scientist and I don’t recall exactly the length of time when this reaction produced the result it was looking for, which was that it produced more energy than it took to create the reaction itself. That’s the breakthrough as I understand it.
However, the length of time that they measured that and they saw what they needed to see was so infinitesimally small. It’s like a billionth of a second or something like that. It’s so tiny. I think what you’re saying for folks as I’m taking this at the same time now is that awareness doesn’t have to be, “I’m sitting there contemplating.” I think Will Smith frankly was smiling, laughing, and enjoying what was going on. He looked over at his beautiful wife and the grimace on her face sent a very different message to him about how she was receiving that joke.
My wife and I have a daughter who has some challenges with alopecia as well. It’s like how she was feeling and then he saw that. In that nanosecond, it all flipped for him. It’s like in that splitness of a second, even that awareness can go wildly in one direction or the other. I think that’s the way we’re baked for the reasons you said because we’ve got a 24-hour ADT system playing in our heads for survival purposes. We take whatever the feedback is and then immediately assess it. We assess so quickly and that might be less about discernment at that moment and much more about this predisposition. This default judgment that we go to. It is almost an artificial thing to me. I don’t know if you feel this way. I feel like you practice these things so that you’re prepared at the moment.
When I responded to that Psychology Today inquiry, I said, “At least from our research on it, the resilience principle was that he wasn’t resilient at that moment mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually even. At that moment, he was depleted. In that depleted state, he didn’t take advantage of that moment to take that breath and create some awareness to go, “I want to punch this guy for offending my wife, but I’ll do that privately.”
He had so many choices. They could have gotten up and walked out on the guy, which would’ve been a major insult. If somebody is telling a joke and it’s about your wife, you say, “You know what darling, we’re out of here. Turn your back and walk up the aisle.” It would’ve sent quite a message because the joke might have been a poor-taste joke or whatever. All that got lost in the fact that he snapped and snapped in front of the world and destroyed his career in many ways. He didn’t put his feet on the floor that morning when we were going, “What are you grateful for? My morning practice is I start with my feet going on the floor. I love my life.” That was my TED Talk. He didn’t wake up that morning and go, “I’m going to F-up my career now.”
A neuroscientist would talk about the activation of a neuron, which is an individual nerve that has a receptor. If something stimulates that receptor, it causes the neuron to fire. There’s an electric current that runs this long arm of the neuron, terminates at the end of the neuron, and causes neurotransmitter to be secreted that communicates with another neuron. Our brains are like an electric circuit and they fire very quickly in a very short period of time in a finite, measurable, more than a billionth of a second but pretty fast.Our brains are like an electric circuit, and they fire very quickly. Click To Tweet
Our ability to be aware is all in a billionth of a second for all practical purposes but these nerves will fire according to their architecture. They have their circuits. We’ve been talking about our default neural circuits. The good news is that since our brains have this wonderful quality called neuroplasticity means we can rewire them just by exercising new ways of thinking, even just relaxing into a new way of being, accepting and non-judging. We can begin to rewire these circuits.
You create a new default.
The sound comes in and activates our eardrum. This insult as he perceived it to his wife gets transmitted through neural connections to part of his brain that goes to another part of his brain that goes to a gland in his abdomen that secretes epinephrine or what’s commonly called adrenaline. All this adrenaline gets liberated because of this neural activity and then it stimulates more neural activity. Now he’s really out of control and as he’s walking up to the stage, I think this process is winding up even further. The good news is we can preclude that whole effluent neural electrical output by rewiring, and rerouting those pathways to a more positive, grateful, accepting, intentional, and non-judgmental pathway just by exercising it.
It’s like flipping a switch, in essence.
Yeah. Our brains didn’t have these neural connections form overnight. We’re not going to rewire them overnight, but the good news is we don’t have to. All we have to do is be moving in the right direction. Life is a journey. There’s a path. All we have to do is step onto that path where we are very gently taking very small steps to rewire our brains and think and be in a way that’s consistent with happiness. It’s doable.
You practicing it before you need it is one thing that I want people to know. This is a thing that you practice like anything else you might want to get great at. You practice it and the more you practice anything, the better you get it. This is, again, not profound, but I think it’s defying some other practices that we have that if you want to not be judgmental, for example, if that’s not the first place you want to go. You want to be discerning, but you don’t want to be judgmental, check yourself every time during the day you’re being judgmental. We are very aware of all these judgments like what you were saying.
You start to practice and then when you are thinking and being in a way that’s not consistent with your happiness, a light bulb will go off. You want this to be automatic. You want to have new thoughts generated by stimuli in your environment that come automatically. You don’t want to have to stop and think about everything. You want to move with baby steps toward a place where you don’t automatically judge things. You don’t automatically cast a negative hue over things, especially yourself.
If you were a baseball player, you want to be able to hit a curve ball. It’s got to be automatic. You’d start to pick up the cues, I assume, of the way the pitcher’s motion is. You see the way his arm is moving, you see his hand, you see the way the ball is coming out of his hand. You’ve got to have that be automatic because now you know that it’s a curve ball.
That’s what’s interesting about this. We’re not talking about analyzing other people. The goal, if you’re sitting in that seat, isn’t to analyze necessarily what that other person is doing or the cue. The cue is within you and it’s interesting because men and women are very different. They hate to be seen as stereotyping or playing this stereotypical card but I do think it’s true enough of the time for it to be accurate. Men are less aware of their bodies than women are.
There is a mind-body connection that medicine, doctors, and all of us are not hip to are aware of in the same way that we’re aware of other things. Having a wife, three daughters, and a son, when I get the mix in our family for years, what I’ve seen up close and personal is that women check in with themselves. They check in with their body. Their body sends them a message before they get all out of control. Whereas men and males, more in general, seem to go from that moment as you said. It’s like the fuse is lit and the next thing you know, it’s an explosion. With the women I’ve seen, if there’s a fuse at all, the fuse is longer.
We’re talking about the evolution of the brain as a neural network with pathways that become entrenched and well-defined. Circuits go back again 50,000 years ago to that early homo sapiens in the cave. As far as we know from the archeologic study, what role did men and women have? Men had to react quickly, grab their club, go after that animal, and what have you in a split second without thinking about it. They have a more automatic way of thinking and being. Women perhaps are more circumspect. I think we can go easy on ourselves for casting stereotypes to some degree, especially if we are male and we’re taking our hats off to women for having their act together in terms of the way their thoughts operate. There is truth to that.Let’s go easy on ourselves for casting stereotypes to some degree. Click To Tweet
That’s the potential evolution. The polarity is important. We will get into that whole thing but feel that there’s nothing wrong as you said because it is how we’re wired from the beginning or whatever the beginning is.
If there weren’t some truth to it, then all that standup comedy that’s based on the difference between men and women wouldn’t be so funny.
I think that it’s more about vigilance. The point that I meandering to at this moment is that when you said that there’s this relationship between pain and suffering, I want to come back to what suffering to me means. An example of it is that my default is to do this thing I’m wired to do. Your life is just a product of reactions and mistakes that are made when you say the wrong thing. You jump to that judgment so quickly and you can’t take it back.
As you said, you measure and cut and then it’s too late to uncut. I think that the pain is the vigilance that it takes to be so aware. This is not easy. It’s painful when you recognize that you’re doing it again. I’ll say me, not you or anybody else. When I realize, “There I am, judging something again or someone again. There I am with that tone of voice,” or whatever it might be, I can’t take back the fact that my brain went where it went. However, what I can do on an ongoing vigilant every day basis is go, “There it is again. Ha, ha, ha,” as you said, laughing.
Drop the self-judgment, which is the most difficult thing. We are most harshly judgmental of ourselves. It’s like, “There I go. I’m just a human being. I look at the Earth, it’s just a planet. I look at the ocean, it’s neither good nor bad. I look at myself, it only makes sense for me to see myself the same way and drop that judgment.”
Even when it comes to not so much closing a loop on that whole Will Smith thing, there are a lot of places you can go with that. My assumption and hope is that it is one of the great growth opportunities for a person who’s done a lot of good work in his life. I would imagine that on any given day, we might have done as awfully or worse as him in those shoes. It’s more of the question of, “What’s the lesson?”
When you have so much going for you, you think, “I’ll be happy when I’m successful, rich, famous, and married to whoever.” He has everything. He is a great example because he doesn’t get much higher up the food chain than somebody who has his level of fortune and fame and everything else. Yet, he’s just a human being. He puts his underwear on one leg at a time like all of us do. If that person cannot so much fall from grace or whatever it is, we see that as well.
However, if we can see it literally in real-time, what it looks like, to just go from your higher self to your lower self or from that, “Here I am. A conscious being having an experience of life where I believe in, I’m compassionate, and kind,” and then in an instant, go back to, “We’re in a cave. I’m picking up my club and I’m about to go.” The other caveman who’s outside the cave who’s meant to do us harm, you go and club that guy, we watched that happen in seconds. That’s remarkable as a learning tool for all of us because we are, in our own little way, beating people up with our thoughts, beating ourselves up as you said, all day long. How’s that going to contribute to happiness, is my question?
It’s exhausting, Adam. It means we’re not seeing others and the world around us as they are. We judge Will Smith harshly. We’re not seeing him for the human being that he is. Let’s drop the judgments and I think as we both acknowledge, it’s hardest to do that with ourselves. Some people that go into medicine are hyper-self-critical. I know that I certainly have been. That handful of moments where if I’d only known what was going on 5 minutes or 1 minute earlier, I could have saved somebody’s life who died in my presence, who didn’t necessarily have to.
In order to accept those memories and drop the self-judgment, it’s a steep hill but personally I’ve made a lot of progress. We’re never there. It’s a journey. I still wake up sometimes and think of something that happened to me in my medical practice, but I take care of the sickest kids having heart surgery in the intensive care unit. If you practice it long enough, you’re going to have bad outcomes that would have potentially been prevented or were preventable.
You’re going to be very tough on yourself but we’re all like that. We all judge ourselves most harshly. I love the cognitive behavioral exercise of imagining we’re talking to a good friend who’s in the same circumstance. If a colleague and good friend of mine said, “Greg, I had this patient. This is what happened. If I put a needle in the sac around the heart and drain the blood away from there a minute earlier, she would’ve lived.”
Would I have been critical and judgmental of my colleague? Of course not. I would’ve said, you ran the range of possibilities and the risk-benefit analysis in the moments that you had and you made the best decision that you could. Anybody who has kids knows that there’s no book about it and there’s no guide and you’re going to make mistakes. Some of it is you come to a fork in the road and you can’t do what Yogi Bear suggested and simply take it. You got to make a call and you’re going to make the wrong call sometimes. You’re only going to know that in retrospect and you’re going to judge yourself.
Let’s train our minds to drop the judgments. Start with low-hanging fruit, stop judging other people, and develop that neural pattern of letting go of judgment because when we start to form judgments, a light bulb goes off. We recognize it, we have a smile, and we let it go. When we get to the point where we begin to do that with regard to judging ourselves, then we’ll look back and say, “This six months of practice has gotten me started.” My message to all of your readers is it’s never too late to get started. Having low expectations and baby steps with repetition is how we learn.Let's train our minds to drop the judgments and develop that neural pattern of letting go of the judgment. Click To Tweet
It’s not a one-and-done. It’s not like you wake up one day and go, “I’m cured of my judgments.” If I were listening to you at that moment, I would’ve also, in the end, perhaps said, “Can you be gentle with yourself because you’re going to make more mistakes.” It’s likely that if you’re going to continue to want to serve, what does service look like even beyond the major career that we have?
I think we are in a constant state of reinventing ourselves, but all around this idea of, how do we serve? To do that, put yourself out there, and be in the arena as Theodore Roosevelt might have referenced once, you’re going to get banged up. You’re going to experience pain and make mistakes and people are going to get hurt in all likelihood. How you manage your judgments around that both internally and externally makes a difference as to whether you can stay in that arena.
I have so enjoyed this conversation, Greg, and maybe we’ll do a part two because I had a whole host of things. I want to talk about stress and we can touch on stress a moment before we do say goodbye. I’m thinking we’d get us part two here because I’m sure people are itching to know more from your perspective about this stuff. I’ll ask you the question, can we manage stress? Yes or no? Maybe so? What do you think?
Adam, I think that’s what we’ve been discussing for the last hour. It’s resilience. How to be present, how to be accepting, how to be intentional, and how to be non-judgmental. That is how we manage stress. We were talking offline about what a 3 or 4-year period this has been and having your kids go to university during COVID. We didn’t talk specifically about it, but about the financial hardships, people are having.
The war in Ukraine I think is painful to all of us. The political divide and the climate. Again, I’ve told you that my current book is about teenagers. Imagine having all these things to worry about going forward wondering whether the climate of the planet on which we live is going to be compatible with life for my kids and my grandkids if you are a teenager now, for example.
Life is stressful as a baseline because we don’t understand being born, living, and dying. We are stressed out about our mortality and the ways we respond to our environment and ourselves. Life is stressful at its best with regard to all the elements we’ve been discussing for the last hour. I think the last few years have cranked that up several notches. I’ve not observed a more stressful time in my life. The way we cope with that is we have intentional practice and GAIN work for me and others in my environment.
I look forward to reading your last book. I love the idea of putting your feet on the floor and saying, “I love my life.” What you’re doing is you’re putting a positive spin. You’re rewiring your brain to be forward-looking, optimistic, and present rather than depressed, negative, and self-judgmental. If that starts with putting your feet on the floor, loving your life, and embracing everything in your life that is worth being grateful for, that’s a beautiful practice. That’s how we deal with our lives.
It’s an architecture that you choose to either consciously design, build or you leave to the default. I wrote a book a couple of years ago called Pivot and it was in many ways a book about this choice that we have in our lives to have a pivot by design, a reinvention that’s everything we can think of. The way we reinvent our process of thinking to all we do in our careers, whatever, or a pivot by default, which is leaving it to whatever you want to call it, for those things to be determined. I know myself that if I leave it to the default, I’m wired to complain, belly ache, and be angry. Anger has been a central theme in a lot of my earlier life and now, it percolates. It bubbles up.
That’s why I can relate to Will at that moment because I know what it’s like to suddenly be caught in an adrenaline flood that produces anger that can lead to anger, not just words or thoughts, but to behavior. We’ve seen it in our world. I know we’re going to end here so we don’t want to open up a big can. When we see the division, it’s pretty awful to watch. We have an audience that’s outside of the US but some speak mostly in North America now. We’re in the United States, frankly, and not in Canada as much. We see the division, the vitriol. I don’t think that we are suddenly different as a species. It’s that we are in that depleted, exhausted, and stressed out. We’re like a sponge that’s so saturated. There’s nothing. There is very little room for anything else to get in there.
When we’re in that state of sheer depletion, the default is survival. We’re not the best species when we’re faced with survival. That’s how we got here. That’s a good thing I suppose. We’re still around, but in this day and age where we don’t have to worry about a saber-toothed tiger, that way of being is pretty sharp-edged. I will say this, Greg. I want to know if there’s one thing in particular that you do in the day that is your go-to.
After your morning practice, let’s say it’s a real-life experience. It’s 1:00 in the afternoon and you’re on the Stanford campus. Maybe you get an email from somebody in the administration that’s questioning something you’re doing or you get some group of students that are taking up a stand against the fact that you said you shouldn’t judge or whatever thing seems unjustified or ridiculous and a waste of time as you can imagine. I’m sure you might have a memory of something like that.
At that moment when that occurs, you describe GAIN. Do you sit down in the middle of that campus? Do you find a bench and do something to resolve that or is there something else that’s a go-to like, “I’ll go to the pool. I’ll go swim. I’ll go to the beach and take a walk.” That’s my go-to. What’s your go-to? That’s my last question for you in this episode.
I’ll tell you the magic of the practice, which is not lost on you, Adam but I’ll frame it in my own way. Starting with the breath in the morning with my GAIN practice, appreciating the magic of the air coming in through my nose, filling my chest, and filling my body. Expanding myself beyond my bodily limits, slowing it down, exhaling without any effort at all, and then going through the GAIN elements.
What happens is those elements of truth and happiness are now linked to the breath. I don’t have to be seated, be in a pool, or be in my home gym, which I love. I can simply go to my breath as I’m walking down the path or biking down the path or sitting in my office reading that email. Go to the breath and all of the magic of the GAIN elements initiates new neural pathways that are still being formed but that are not my default mode but my happy mode.
It’s miraculous and automatic. It becomes more automatic the more you practice and just go to the breathe and that gratitude for my interaction with those students, even if they have a bone to pick with me at times. Gratitude for the ability to teach them. They’re such brilliant young people. Accepting that not every word out of everybody’s mouth is going to be kind.
It’s being intentional about my interactions and my own personal way of thinking and being. Also, dropping any judgments of the hospital administrator who slapped my hand for taking a photo of a patient or what have you. It comes with the breath. I go to the breath. I can continue on my merry way walking down the hallway in the hospital, along a path on campus, on my bike, or wherever I am. Wherever you go. There you are and you’ve always got that breath right up until the end.
I can’t imagine more tangible advice than that. I know there’ll be a lot more for us to discuss and for our wonderful community. We’d love, as always, to get your feedback and your questions. You can go to AdamMarkel.com/podcasts and leave a comment there. If it’s a question for me, I’m going to answer it. There are no bots involved. If it’s a question for Greg, then he’s going to answer it. We’re going to reach out to him to provide an answer to that. That’s our commitment and promise.
I’m not afraid of the pain. It pains me on some level to have to say this, but I want to say as well that the algorithm is something that we have to work on. What Dr. Hammer said, or not what he said, there are many things that were shared, would be valuable in the world, and we’re all living in together now, it goes beyond stating. It’s obvious and yet, the algorithm is the algorithm.
If we want this show to land in front of more people, what we need is for you all to do 1 or 2 things. If there’s someone you know that would benefit from getting this advice or what you heard, please share it. Share it with a friend. Share it with a colleague. Share it with somebody that you care about or somebody you think that you’re seeing is a bit reactive or struggling. We said the struggle is optional. Share with that person. That’s first.
Secondly, if you could please leave a five-star review, I know it’s totally self-serving and I apologize for that, but it helps the algorithm say, “This is important content and it should get in front of more people.” We’re working the system in a good way, hopefully. We appreciate that greatly. Take something that you heard on this episode and put it into action.
That is the only thing to me that is beyond everything and is so important that comes out of this. Take one thing, take that GAIN philosophy, put it into action, and start working with it now, not even tomorrow. Take a breath. The last thing that Greg shared is go to the breath at that moment where you catch yourself, whether it’s the body that signaled because you had tension in your neck or you got tight or you sensed I’m angry at the moment. Go to the breath to start and let’s see where things go from there. Again, it’s been a tremendous blessing to have you on the show, Greg. I love the conversation. Thank you so very much.
Anytime, Adam. I look forward to sitting with you in person someday.
Me too. Ciao, for now, everybody.
I so love that conversation that I got to have today with Dr. Greg Hammer. He and I are brothers from another mother. We talked about non-duality, neutrality, and the difference between pain and suffering. Pain is optional. Suffering is required. We talked about resistance, letting go, and the mind-body connection. It was a wonderful conversation that flowed out of his own philosophy and his work in the world that he calls GAIN. GAIN without pain, which stands for Gratitude, Acceptance, Intention, and Non-judgment.
We got granular around what it means to be non-judgmental. How do we apply that? How is that a practical tool in our lives, in business, or in our personal lives? How is it that we can use that to create less suffering and less pain in our bodies? What’s the relationship there? We got to track a number of things that I found so fascinating. He gave us his number one or his go-to when it comes to how he let go of difficult emotion without repressing, suppressing it, or ignoring it, but acknowledging it and then utilizing that emotion for something valuable. I think that is, without a doubt, one of the most important things that we can be doing right now in a world where there’s so much anger and so much uncertainty that’s creating fear.
That is, I think, the catalyst for so many of those angry and judgmental feelings. We were able to get into that and talk about benevolent indifference. There’s a concept for you. Also, discernment and how it is that we can be more discerning, but yet somehow not be more judgmental. I absolutely love this conversation. I know it’s one that’s going to pay dividends for a long while. If you know somebody that would love to know some of what Dr. Hammer shared with us, please feel free to always share the episode and leave a review. Those are super helpful when it comes to the algorithm and making sure that this kind of content finds its way into this stream that’s in front of more and more people.
It’s because I think the content stream is one of the greatest influences on society and on our civilization now with what people are consuming and what’s being curated for them. It helps when you give your opinion when you leave a review, and we appreciate it. Also, you can always leave a comment at AdamMarkel.com/podcasts.
If you’ve not established your own baseline level or found out how resilient you are mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually tracking a lot of the same things that Greg and I spoke about, feel free to go to RankMyResilience.com and get your own free assessment. It takes three minutes and you’ll have not only a great deal of clarity that’ll flow out of that but some resources and tools that are entirely for you to use with our compliments. Again, thank you so much for your support of this show and we’ll see you on the next one.
- Dr. Greg Hammer
- GAIN Without Pain: The Happiness Handbook for Health Care Professionals
- Stanford WellMD Initiative
About Dr. Greg Hammer
Greg Hammer, MD is a Professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, pediatric intensive care physician, pediatric anesthesiologist, mindfulness expert, and the author of GAIN without Pain: The Happiness Handbook for Health Care Professionals.
A member of the Stanford WellMD initiative, Dr. Hammer is currently the Chair of the Physician Wellness Task Force for the California Society of Anesthesiologists. He has been a visiting professor and lecturer on wellness at institutions worldwide and teaches GAIN to medical students, residents, and fellows at Stanford.
Dr. Hammer’s clinical focus is in pediatric cardiac anesthesia and pediatric critical care medicine. His research is in developmental pharmacology and immunology, and he has an active laboratory with multiple ongoing studies in these areas. He has published widely on topics related to pharmacology and perioperative care of children undergoing cardiac and thoracic procedures as well as organ transplantation. Dr. Hammer is a health enthusiast and meditator, utilizing a non-duality and mindfulness-based approach, including the GAIN method.