“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.” – Pema Chodron
Is there a set personality that I’m destined to live out? Do I turn away from negative thoughts and emotions – hiding them in trying to make myself feel “better”, when I’m down? Can mind change brain, or are we pawns in the face of powerful emotions that come about as a result of genetics and/or situations? Am I building brain matter by choices I make, or are my neurons set in patterns of learning by about age 14, as science has suggested?
Flashback: I remember sitting in grade 9 science class beside another bright student who liked to share “facts” with me. On numerous occasions after a weekend of spending time with friends, we both would find ourselves comparing stories and talking about the effects of our new-found “teenage” behaviours on our athletic, academic and achievement-based lifestyles. “Kill any neurouns last weekend?”, he would ask with that knowing look. “Neurons don’t re-grow when you kill them at this age, and alcohol kills neurons! Forget getting into the University of your choice! Now, you’re growing dumber every day!” How’s that for positive affirmations and friendly tips?
Thankfully, I did not let his taunting affect my sense of self or my ever-growing curiousity about mental, intellectual, and physical body health. Today’s neuroscientists are reporting amazing feats of plasticity in the human and other mammalian brains. Functional regions can re-grow and re-allocate themselves. For example, the visual cortex can become active in humans born blind as they learn to “read” braille!
Scientists have also studied the impact of attention/focus and meditation on the health and plasticity of the human brain. Buddhist and Vedantic teachings about meditation creating anti-anxiety hormones, peaceful and less aggressive behaviours, and better sleep and relaxation to bring the body’s systems to higher states of health can all be verified by scientific evidence!
In humans who have developed obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD), practicing regular meditation techniques can actually be shown to alter brain chemistry and effectively re-circuit the brain. One of the most common forms of meditation is watching and labeling any activity of the brain as “thinking”, so that thought becomes merely “thought” rather than stimulating a biophysical response similar to the stress response that some thoughts taken to be “facts” are known to create. Many other forms exist – including the use of sacred chants to direct the brain so that thinking does not stand a chance (for the time you are in meditation), thus bringing a deep relaxation state to the mind and body.
Mind is not matter, the teachings say, yet the two are co-arising (Buddhist). Vedantic teachings highlight the reality of a Universal Mind – a state of energy that is beyond the human brain, yet which is accessible to all living creatures, as a function of their “alive-ness”. Both Eastern belief systems teach that the benefits that relaxation from the “doing” or “Ego” mind are necessary for healthy lifestyles and survival of the human species.
Whether your beliefs and experiences give evidence to the Buddhist or the Vedantic viewpoint, scientific evidence now emphasizes that: thought changes brain functions, and brain functions are influenced deeply by environmental factors, and are not purely determined by genetic codes. These claims fit within the ancient Eastern teachings – which even the Dalai Lama has been known to find exciting! What we choose to do with our mental attention (mind) can impact the growth and development of patterns of brain function, even seemingly involuntary patterning.
So giving attention to our thinking, taking pauses in the “doing-ness” of life, can actually benefit our brain chemistry and subsequently the way we learn to experience emotions and choose behaviours. This takes practice. Rather than expecting wholesale changes as a result of brain-altering drugs or a weekend workshop on relationships, the Middle Path and the teachings of yoga point to practicing mindful living – cultivating a relationship with our own brains may offer “Mind over Matter” capabilities. Yoga or some form of mindfulness or awareness practice may point the way towards transformations and adaptations towards more conscious, health-ful living. And it is practice. Like all forms of practice, when we cease to regularly give attention to the practice, our skills get rusty!
“A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us. ” – Pema Chodron