Meditation & Neuroplasticity
Did you know that meditation actually changes the physical structure of your brain? In fact, so does playing the violin, smelling a flower, and brushing your teeth.
Up until the 1970s, there was a widespread belief in the scientific community that once the brain is finished growing (adulthood), it stops changing. The consensus was that the brain just is as it is, and that’s it.
We were wrong.
Over the past several decades, much research has been done on the “plasticity” (changeability) of the brain. What you are about to read is not for the faint of mind. This article will literally morph your brain.
Whenever you use a certain part of your brain, it grows stronger. When you stop using it, it gets weaker. Your brain is “plastic” (changeable, moldable) just like the muscles in your body. You can exercise them and literally make them stronger.
This is some extremely powerful information, which you can use to your advantage. You can shape your future simply by living it, now.
If you want to be a more focused person, all you have to do is focus now. Meditate! It really doesn’t matter what you focus on; the goal is to train your brain. This will strengthen your brain’s attention center, and make you a more focused person in the future.
If you want to be a more action-oriented, productive, and successful person, do something productive right now. Consider what you want in life, visualize how you want to make that happen, figure out the first step, and act on it. Here’s the crazy thing; it doesn’t even matter if your action is successful or not! The point of taking action right now is the action itself! Think of it as an exercise for your brain. Win or lose, taking action right now will strengthen your brain’s action center, and make you a more action-oriented, productive, and successful person in the future.
If you want to be a happier person, all you have to do is be happy right now. Just create that feeling in your mind. Smile for no reason. Let yourself be happy for no reason for a few minutes. Smile, breathe deeply, let your eyes light up, and appreciate the fact that you’re alive. Practicing unconditional happiness actually hard-wires your brain to produce feelings of happiness in the future, no matter what the circumstances might be.
Anything that you want to cultivate in your life can be cultivated right now, in the present moment. If you want stronger arms, you go to the gym to do bicep curls. If you want stronger willpower, you exercise it whenever you can.
The concept that “people have habits” is not a new idea. This has been understood for thousands of years. The thing that we are realizing now is just how powerful these habits are, how they actually change your brain, and how pervasive they are in determining all of your behaviors.
Now that we know that we can actually mold our own brains, we are starting to realize that personality (what most people consider a fundamental, unchangeable aspect of themselves) is fluid, and changeable. By pushing yourself to engage in a behavior in the present moment (one that you would not normally engage in), you form hard-wired habits in your brain, and make that behavior into your “natural” behavior in the future. These “behavioral habits” become “your personality.” You have full control to change “personality habits” ranging from the simple act of flossing, to complex patterns of social interaction (think “character development”).
Deeper still, we have come to understand that not only can we mold our external personalities to our own custom modifications, but we can actually completely renovate the interior as well. By pushing yourself to generate internal experiences, emotions, thoughts, and perceptions that you would not normally generate, you form hard-wired habits in your brain, and make those internal experiences into your natural experience in the future. These “experiential habits” become your “inner world.” Some may even go so far as to identify with this “inner experiencer” and call it the “soul.” You have full control to change “experiential habits,” ranging from “overcoming your fear of heights,” to developing a radically different way of experiencing life.
Essentially, what we find is rather startling. Personality is changeable. Even your very soul, that which you call your “self,” is changeable. You could be a different person tomorrow. It’s really crazy when you think about it. But don’t think about it too much, or you might realize that You Don’t Exist (click if you dare).
Change Your Character, Shape Your Life
Change your actions, shape your brain.
Change your brain, shape your habits.
Change your habits, shape your character.
Change your character, shape your life.
It all starts with action, right now. Anything that you want is possible; unless you constantly put it off the the future. The only time you can change anything is right now.
Everyone’s got something in their lives they’d like to change. Maybe you want to be more loving toward your family, instead of fighting with them all the time. Maybe you want to be a more sociable, outgoing person. Maybe you want to floss every day.
Well, then go do it now! Don’t worry about the idea that “Oh, if I floss today, I’ll just forget to do it tomorrow, and then it will all be for nothing.” This idea is what stops people from being able to change in the first place. Yes, you may forget to do it tomorrow. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it the next time you remember. The more often you do it, the more natural it becomes. All you have to do is grab the opportunities as they arise.
Mindfulness: The Habit-Transcending Habit
As you may have guessed, I really like “meditation” as a habit. I like it for many reasons. One thing that it does for me is increase my level of “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is the faculty of your brain that notices what’s going on in your mind, body, and environment in the present moment. This is an extremely useful thing that allows me to change my habits very easily. In fact, with perfect mindfulness, your habits become so fluid that they lose all of their power of you.
The ease with which you will be able to change your habits is the degree to which you are aware of your own inner and outer behaviors.
For example, if you wake up and go through your morning routine WITHOUT mindfulness, you fail to notice the floss as you brush your teeth. You go through your routine like a zombie, without paying attention. You’re on auto-pilot. Your habits controlling you like a puppet. This happens when you are lost in your own thoughts, which are buzzing vaguely about stuff that happened in the past and stuff you need to do in the future. You don’t realize that you had forgotten to floss until you get to work (because thinking about your teeth at the office boosts your productivity). Then when you get home, you forget again, since your mind is elsewhere. Again. This continuously happens because you haven’t developed the habit of being mindful. You have the habit of living in the past and the future, instead of the present moment.
If you wake up and go through your morning routine WITH mindfulness, on the other hand… your attention is fully on the act of brushing your teeth. Now you remember that you want to floss! You do it. You go to work with mindfulness, and instead of thinking about your teeth in the office, you’re thinking about work! You are most productive. When you get home, you mindfully brush your teeth, and of course you remember to floss again. You have the habit of living in the present moment, instead of living in the past and future.
This is one of the greatest benefits of meditation; you learn to live how you actually want to live, instead of being a slave to your habitual behaviors. If you haven’t learned to meditate yet, start now, by clicking here.
Everything you do changes your brain in a way that makes you more likely to do the same thing again in the future. If you want to develop new behaviors, or even new ways of experiencing the world, all you have to do it now. This will have a small impact on your brain structure, but an impact nonetheless. Think of it as a drop of water in a vast ocean. The more you engage in the behavior, the more it changes the physical structure of your brain. Over time, you change into the character that you really want to be.
Every time an opportunity arises to be the character you want to be, grab it! Think about what you really want to be doing right now. Now go do it! Break through the fear of change and go make yourself into the person you want to be.
I’m gonna go buy some floss.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Meditation Magazine.