I often hear folks, when in a conversation about how they wish to improve their lives, but are struggling, or when receiving feedback from others, lament “well, that just the way I am.” Or a variation: “I’m not the kind of person that … (pays attention well, always remembers birthdays, does their laundry every week). Or the one I sometimes use “I’m too old for…”
It seems that a lot of us think our minds, the way we are, our approaches to housework or relationships or vegetables, are somehow set in place by our genetic makeup and/or our cumulative life experiences.
But a growing and seemingly overwhelming amount of scientific research challenges these assumptions.
So, as they say, I have good news and bad news for you.
Let’s start with the good news.
It turns out our brains are mold-able in quite profound ways. Neuroscientists call this and this is called neuroplasticity.
Fadel Zeidan, PhD, a research fellow in the department of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest School of Medicine, and many other scientists, have found that our brain structures can be changed to predispose ourselves toward contentment, compassion and connection with others.
Even in folks who believe themselves to be melancholic by nature, or feel they are somehow born homebodies, or incurably grumpy, anxious, worry-warts, or whatever.
Yes, as you have probably guessed, people who practice mindfulness meditation regularly have remarkably different neural structures from those who don’t, says Zeidan in a 2014 book chapter titled aptly enough The Neurobiology of Mindfulness Meditation.
He writes: “They (mindfulness mediators) have brain regions that can process much higher levels of compassion and awareness than a normal person.”
I remember reading in Mindful magazine online a few years about a big study that found that experienced meditators had much more brain activity when exposed to sounds like crying or laughter than folks who did not meditate. This research concluded that mindfulness meditation actually changed their neural structures in such a way that they became more in touch with the needs of others.
I can attest to this, as when I find myself at times in self-absorbed melancholic rumination, a few seconds of mindfulness practice brings me back into the world of family, work and play such that those tendencies to space out (and check my phone, for example) increasingly lose their appeal.
We can be healthier, live longer, and make the world a better place by exploring our potential for compassionate behavior, according to neurosurgeon James Doty, founder and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, part of the Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neurosciences. And you guessed it, mindfulness meditation is at the heart of their research over there.
More and more research is showing that meditation rewires your brain for the better. It seems that the more your brain changes from meditation, the more you tend to respond to life from the place of calm, compassion, and awareness that you discover from you meditation practice.
Neuroscientists have shown that practicing mindfulness affects brain areas related to perception, body awareness, pain tolerance, emotion regulation, introspection, complex thinking, and sense of self. This “re-wiring” of our brains results in increased focus, decreased anxiety, decreased stress, and increased memory and grey matter density. If this is not convincing enough, how about increased spontaneity and creativity, lower blood pressure, and a big boost in well-being and overall quality of life..
After one has been practicing mindful meditation, there is no effort involved in bringing these fruits of meditation into our life. How awesome is that? Here is Dr. Zeidan again:
“That place where being mindful becomes more second-nature is where the plastic change in the mind happens. It’s not effortful. You don’t say you’re going to be mindful, you just are. But if you don’t practice it’ll go away. Like training a muscle. If you stop, over time that muscle is going to deteriorate.”
So now we hear the bad news above: that if you give up meditation altogether, it may take a while, but those brain changes may be slowly undone.
I do like the analogy Dr. Zeidan used above: meditation is like strength training. Fitness training for the mind: we know that if we want to enjoy increased strength, vitality and oxygenation through exercise, we have to work at it consistently. And those of us who meditate regularly know that training the mind, actually transforming our neural structures to gain real, tangible effects in our lives, takes time and effort.
Meditation practice is just like going to the gym. If we practice steadily, and do our “reps,” we cultivate new ways experiencing our life.
Even business high-level executives are getting in on this. Writing in the January 8 edition of the Harvard Business Review, three contributing writers put together the excellent article Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain which concludes with these words:
“Mindfulness should no longer be considered a “nice-to-have” for executives. It’s a “must-have”: a way to keep our brains healthy, to support self-regulation and effective decision-making capabilities, and to protect ourselves from toxic stress. It can be integrated into one’s religious or spiritual life, or practiced as a form of secular mental training. When we take a seat, take a breath, and commit to being mindful, particularly when we gather with others who are doing the same, we have the potential to be changed.”
While much of the nuts and bolts of mindfulness meditation practice may sound simplistic and somewhat mechanical, as meditation starts to change our minds we start to see the world in a radically new and freeing way.
We easily learn to step out of our own way. Even the most mundane aspects of our lives become invitations to the wonder and awe of every moment.
Our practice allows us to savor simplicity and contentment, and in in doing so, compassion grows organically.
And with practice, experience the world this way.
We come to discover perhaps what was in the minds of two very wise persons, separated as far as two humans could be by time, space and culture, when the wrote the following:
In the point of rest at the center of our being, we encounter a world where all things are at rest in the same way. Then a tree becomes a mystery, a cloud a revelation, each person a cosmos of whose riches we can only catch glimpses. The life of simplicity is simple, but it opens to us a book in which we never get beyond the first syllable.
(Dag Hammarskjold, 1905 -1961, Swedish diplomat, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations)
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
This is the best season of your life.
(Wu-Men, Buddhist meditation master teacher, China 1183 – 1260)
If you live in Honolulu, please feel free to drop by our weekly Thursday evening classes. If you don’t live near us, feel free to contact me via the contact form on this website if you have any questions about mindfulness meditation.