2. Mind Hacking by Sir John Hargrave (2016)

I am not the only one at Capture Higher Ed to crow about the benefits of meditation. But I confess that I have often failed to see the point of meditation, as I think many have. Do you just sit there and, you know, do nothing? Should I be thinking? Not thinking? What’s the point of counting breaths and, well, where am I going with this?

If the nature of Buddhism seems inscrutable, it may be that its origins lie in a culture that existed thousands of years ago. And the travel of Buddhism—and that’s only one discipline—across India, into China, through Japan and finally to the West Coast of America—make its tenets difficult to pin down.

But one tenet lies in the idea of changing ourselves, in the sense that we become more aware. One idea that can be served in the language of the 21st century is one we should all understand: Neuroplasticity.

Put simply, it’s like a conversation I had with my friend Andy over FaceTime one day. I asked, simply, can we change in this lifetime? Is it possible to leave behind all the unproductive and counterproductive parts of myself and replace them? With absolutely no hesitation, he said, “Yes.”

To put it simply, neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize its neurons into new patterns. It does this, or can, throughout our lifetime. Old dogs can, in fact, learn new tricks. Given changes in our environment, our circumstance, and new learning, our nerve cells literally create new pathways, making new connections in the gray matter that allow us to change and adapt. This is probably why, when people meditating are run through brain scans, whole parts of their brain are lit up.

Though it’s an imperfect metaphor, we can liken this change to reprogramming a computer. We can, in short, hack our brains—and this is the underlying fact of Sir John Hargrave’s Mind Hacking.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, we live in a “self-help” society, and as long as I can remember—since the 1970’s, say—we’ve seen countless books that promise to improve your life and improve yourself, with the ultimate goal, really, of becoming “happy.” In my experience, that takes a tremendous amount of work, and “positive thinking” is not enough. I would like to suggest that this book can, in fact, work, or at least get you started on the right path.

“To master your mind,” says Hargrave, “is to master your life.” And the way to do this, he insists, is to analyze the “source code” of your mind, to imagine a different way of being, and then to reprogram that code with diligence and persistence—“until we see our lives transformed.”

The book proposes to do this in only 21 days, the length of time, as I understand it, that it takes to establish a new habit. There are a number of ways to do this, and the book breaks them down into components that are gradually built upon over the course of three weeks. Establishing the “habit loop,” for example, the cue/routine/reward that shapes the meditation upon which the program here is founded, makes it all work. As does replacing negative thoughts with positive affirmations, as The Four Agreements points out as a good idea.

Thoughts, of course, become actions—and thoughts are preceded by emotions. And the wrong emotions—anxiety, fear, doubt, regret—are all going to culminate in actions that reinforce the emotions. This is known, by the way, as Karma, at least in part. Karma is not so much about “justice” as it is the way we create a world based on our beliefs—you make your bed and have to lie in it. Hargrave is emphatic that we can make a new bed.

The book is replete with “mind games,” which I found to be enormously helpful; a bit of digging with your pen will often unearth virulently negative thought patterns and, most important, their roots. Best of all, the book ends with a “practice sheet” (there’s also a free webpage where you can do the guided meditations with Hargrave himself, an entirely ebullient and entertaining man, to be sure) that you can print out and follow day by day for 21 days—as I did.

The sheets give you space to keep score of how many times your mind drifts during meditation, as well as fields to write down your negative loops and replace them with positive ones. I kept my sheet, and I’m revisiting it now. The point is that this all takes practice, and you have to keep it up. The mind wants to slide into its patterns because it believes that they “work.”

This book, nor this review, in any way insists that you can “have it all.” But for some of its designs, like throwing a bright beam on your negative thinking habits, the ones that impose undue limitations on you, it is invaluable. And the outline of it allows the mind—which likes stability and order—to get into a rhythm that might just lead you to not only happiness, but a successful life.

More on that will follow next week when we look at The Happiness Advantage.

Thanks for reading,
Sean Hill