It is a commonly held view that meditation is a way to shut off the pressures of your world or of your own mind, but this is not an accurate impression. Meditation is neither shutting things out or off. It is seeing things clearly and deliberately positioning yourself differently in relationship to them. -Jon Kabat-Zinn “Wherever you go there you are”
Meditation and Neural Pathways
We have many neural pathways, or circuits, in the brain. There is an input, the message gets delivered and received and our brain plugs into a response. We have such rapid fire ‘inputs’ from our many information sources, our constant and fast-paced ‘plugged in’ world. Our brain is convinced that it should respond in some way to nearly all of these inputs, even if it’s deciding what emails to delete.
Some pathways get used with more frequency than others and cause greater activation of the autonomic system that regulates our stress response. While these fight or flight reactions were established in our species a long time ago, our modern lives not only activate these stress reactions with greater frequency but also with less ‘discharge’. We aren’t running through the woods to the safety of our cave after a stressful event, we are sitting at our desks and moving on to the next stress-filled exchange. The chronic pulsing of stress hormones eventually fatigues our system, impacting our wellbeing in many ways.
Regular cardio exercise, like jogging or running allows the body to discharge these stress hormones that accumulate from our everyday stress. It’s no wonder that this kind of exercise reduces depression and anxiety, and increases our physical and emotional health. Mindfulness practices can serve to prevent some of the stress hormones building up to begin with and can provide a response that brings balance back to the system in ‘real time’ as it were. A run this afternoon can ‘clear things out’ but your mindfulness between now and then can keep you from having such big spikes of adrenaline from all the stressors, large and small, that dance across our awareness each day.
Here’s an illustration of creating alternate pathways for a common ‘input’ of stress:
You are pulling out onto Lakeshore Drive to get to your baby’s pediatrician appointment when you notice the traffic packed onto the drive like a nearly complete jigsaw puzzle. Your baby, who you thought you had transferred gently into the carseat in a deep sleep, is now waking and starting to fuss. This everyday scenario is not a life or death situation and there is no immediate danger from which you must escape but we all can recognize that it is stressful and we are likely to get, in a word, stressed out by it.
With practice you can find a mechanism for noticing and acknowledging the steps that are surging along at lightning speed in your brain. You might notice that you are irritated, panicked about soothing your baby, worried about being late, or frustrated about the timing of your appointment. But you can then expand past it. The first step, however, is the noticing.
If you’ve been practicing mindful attention, you might be able to keep following the path of your thoughts while offering an alternative response to your brain. You might remember to take deep breaths, or simply noticing how it feels to sit in your car. Noticing your hands on the steering wheel, you might start to soften your hands, relaxing your arms and your shoulders. Perhaps straightening your spine and reaching your neck from side to side to soften it would be your reminder. You notice that the lake from this place you sit is extraordinarily blue today. You might start to describe this to your baby, sweetly telling her stories of how fun summer will be when she gets to put her toes in the lake. Everyone benefits from this alternate response.
This response might be available to you more readily at some times than others. It is only through practice does our brain come to accept and embrace an alternate response pathway. If you always get angry and agitated in traffic, that pathway is fairly well travelled and taking another route (in your neural pathways if not through the city) will take some nudging on the part of your thoughts.
An essential part of mindfulness is compassion and acceptance. And if you find yourself a hot mess about your day, you can also have a trained response to bring kindness and softening to your awareness. There is no goal –oriented fix with mindfulness practice, just gentle attention.
Now, for instance, you start to pick up more speed and traffic is clearing. Suddenly, someone cuts you off and your razor sharp reflexes stop and swerve just enough to avoid a collision. Good stress hormone for making you alert and responsive! That extra acuity that comes from being a parent with a young baby may have helped too. You are exceptionally attentive, even on diminished sleep. With practice, that helpful neural pathway training can put your system back into “it’s all over now so return to what you were doing” and will down- regulate your surging adrenaline. Your heart rate will return to normal and you can start to unclench muscles, allowing blood flow to return and your blood pressure to slow. The alternative keeps you amped up well beyond the immediate crisis and begins to diminish your digestive & immune function, cognitive function, and constricts blood flow. Now what did you need to ask that doctor anyway?
We have long agreed that stress-related conditions have been eroding the physical and emotional health of both adults and children over the last decades. Neuroscientists are validating that meditation can shift us out of these ‘reactions’ and teach us new ‘responses’ that help increase flow and wellbeing in our brains and bodies.
Check out this article “This is Your Brain on Mindfulness” http://www.nmr.mgh.harvard.edu/~britta/SUN_July11_Baime.pdf on the work of Dr. Michael Baime, a neuroscientist and founder of the Penn Program for Mindfulness. Dr. Baime has demonstrated that the brain is actually changed during meditation practice but also experiences growth over time in those who meditate with some regularity. The illustrations in the article are beautiful too!