Who’s the boss?
Perhaps the most exciting thing I have heard in a long time (ok, besides my daughter’s first word…and the first time she said I love you…and the first time we asked her ‘who are you gonna call’ and she said Ghostbusters)…besides all that. the most exciting thing I have heard is the notion that by paying attention in a particular way, I can physically change the structure of my brain.
For someone who has spent most of her life feeling like a slave to the whims (maybe machinations?) of her brain, this, to me, is revelatory. To paraphrase Rick Hanson, a very prominent neuroscientist, this understanding let’s us see that we get to decide who is in charge: us or the dark side of the force.
It’s that power, that sense of empowerment, that is one of the most profound and appealing things to me about mindfulness.
Have you ever thought, “my mind has a mind of its own?”
It might. It definitely has patterns that it’s comfortable with after years and years of habitual movement. Think of it like a path. One Daoist text tells us that “a road is made by people walking on it.” We create these grooves in our brains by using them over and over and over again. The deeper the groove, the more likely our brains our to follow its pattern.
Our task in mindfulness is simply to watch those patterns and to note our conditioning with as much kindness and compassion as we can muster. And in doing so, we get to change the grey matter and the inner workings of our brains. Just by paying attention.
There are myriad articles on neuroplasticity and I won’t go into the details here. But what I have been seeing increasingly as I continue to practice mindfulness is this: my brain will habitually go down one road and, by being mindful, I can start to see that what it’s telling me is not the truth but just a familiar pattern. I see that the path may be comfortable but that it isn’t the only option. That means I get to be in charge! With some mindfulness and some space, I get to see what’s happening and decide if that’s a road that is helpful to travel or not. I get to take charge of my brain!
Much better metaphysicians than me have spent lifetimes puzzling over just who or what that “I” is. I’m not going to go down that road either. For our purposes, I think the I, the one in charge, is the one that wants to choose how to live his or her life. I want to live my life with less suffering, with more compassion, with more contentment In order do that, I have to see the habitual patterns of my mind. Sometimes they come from my own past. Sometimes, they are evolutionarily wired into the way my brain works (Rick Hanson again talks about the negativity bias: how our brains are hardwired to focus on the negative because doing so allowed us to survive another day.)
So the point is that mindfulness lets us see what is happening and allows us the space to choose how we respond to that, both in the external world and inside our own brains. And the more we see the patterns, the more those patterns can change. The mind may have a mind of its own but with some patience and awareness, I still get to be the boss.