Modern science is catching up with what long-time meditators have known for more than 5000 years: mindfulness meditation can change the brain in positive ways. With this being the case, wouldn’t it be great to be able to easily tap into the benefits of meditation?
My meditation teacher used to say that we are all addicted to thinking. Really addicted. We produce 50,000 thoughts per day, 95 percent of which are repeated daily. We recycle the same habitual thoughts day after day, scrolling through “Do these pants make my butt look big?” “I need to get gas.” “I should call my mother.”
According to researchers at Harvard, we spend 46.9 percent of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we are doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes us unhappy. Yikes! That’s almost half of our lives not actually being in our lives.
Ironically, our thoughts convince us that continuous thinking is a good idea. We’re proud of our go-go-go thinking and doing. No one is just busy anymore. These days we’re all “crazy busy” and “insanely busy.” Our complex brains allow us to multitask, learn Japanese and invent software, but they also cause us a lot of suffering.
In addition to our busy minds, we have a survival mechanism that has hardwired our brains to look for possible sources of danger. Back in the days when humans were running from tigers, this type of thinking was life saving. But, with the dearth of tigers in the streets of Los Angeles, it keeps us scanning the environment for danger and no longer fits our present day realities.
We get caught up in noticing what isn’t right, what isn’t comfortable, what we don’t like. Did you ever notice that when a tiny bit of food gets caught between your teeth, your tongue keeps probing, probing, probing? Our brains perceive danger even when it’s only a tiny filament of grapefruit. It’s the same with our thoughts. We keep going back over negative thoughts, dredging up bad memories and fearing what could happen—as if any of that could keep us from making mistakes.
Yes, we no longer have to fear tigers, but we certainly want to escape uncomfortable and frightening thoughts and feelings. You’ve likely heard the expression, “What you resist persists.” While it’s commonly known as a 12-step slogan, it actually comes from Carl Jung. Essentially, the idea is that the harder we try to avoid something, the harder it comes back. That’s where meditation comes in. Through the practice of meditation, you can retrain your brain to stand down from the constant vigilance and find some peace.
The strain of habitually trying to outrun difficult emotions, push through stress and keep up with daily demands can lead to anxiety, depression and panic attacks, as well as a whole range of addictions. Resisting our feelings is also associated with physical problems, such as headaches, impaired immunity, IBS and asthma.
If following our negative thinking gets us into trouble and trying to avoid difficult emotions does the same, what are some healthy alternatives? What can we do to stay out of the past and the future and be more present in our lives in this very moment?
You Can Change Your Brain Through Mindfulness and Meditation
You may be hearing the word neuroplasticity more and more often. Until the 1970s, it was believed that the brain’s basic wiring was fixed and unchangeable and that new neurons couldn’t be formed.
All the brain science in the decades since, however, points to our brains being malleable throughout our lifespan. And, even though we all have long-established, habitual ways of thinking and behaving, we can change existing patterns by literally developing new pathways in our brains.
One of the most direct ways to change the brain is to meditate—and the science backing it up is impressive. Research, including a study conducted by a team led by Harvard-affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), found that we can change the structure of our brain after only eight weeks of mindfulness meditation. And with those changes, we have less stress, less depression and less anxiety.
Once you get the hang of meditating, you don’t have to do a formal sit to get the benefits of meditation. You can use those skills in the middle of a busy day or during stressful moments—just to slow things down.
What does it feel like to have fewer thoughts? Quiet, calm and restful. Sounds good, hmmm?