July, 2011:

Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity

brain-technologyWhat exciting times we live in! Science is questioning the most fundamental believes surrounding materialism. To question the very structures we have built our life around, opens us to new choices not previously imagined.

It seems like whatever we can imagine already creates new neural pathways in our brains. I am not an expert in these matters but have certainly taken a great interest. To me it confirms that we don’t need to continue feeling like a victim to our circumstances. Most of our blue prints are established in early childhood, when our brains were most impressionable. Some of these obviously are not serving us anymore as our circumstances change. To see and learn how we can change these unwanted and ingrained patterns is of course at the core of what most therapists would like to help their clients with.

I have had an inquisitive mind since I remember. I knew that if I could become aware of what drives my impulses and emotions I could then have some sort of control and choice in my life. In the process I also discovered that a deep acceptance of our experiences and feelings naturally invites changes. It seems to be a paradox but both are important for successful interventions in therapy.

The latest brain research explains these processes, making them more tangible and understandable from a biological point of view. This is fantastic news as we will be more motivated to learn how we can improve our lives by being mindful.

Our brains are a bit like a computer, we can learn to use it more efficiently if we understand the functions of it. Knowing that we have the choice of letting it run on automatic (running on the old programming) or using our power to change. With awareness and mindfulness we can reprogram our neural pathways and install better and more suitable programs for our present needs and situation.

What is remarkable is that now brain researchers are explaining that the brain and the mind may not be the same thing. It means that science is actually acknowledging consciousness.

It emphasises that we can look at how our brains and bodies are functioning but we don’t need to identify with anything in particular. And here of course we come very close to what spiritual teachers have taught us all along: that what we are is in essence beyond our thoughts, feelings or emotions. It is the awareness which encompasses all phenomena.

To come back to our metaphor of having a computer in our heads, there are no bad programs- just outdated ones. It is through our increasing awareness and mindfulness that the need to change arises. Patterns and reactions no longer serve us yet we can feel so stuck in our experience. Now we have extra encouragement from our scientists that the brain can change. A really popular book about this is: ‘The Brain That Changes’, by Norman Doidge M.D.

When clients have a basic understanding of the functioning of their ‘hard drive’ and awareness of the programs installed he or she will have the power to make informed decisions. I believe that it is essential for therapy to be part educational and part experiential.

I know this sounds a little pragmatic and I don’t discount in any way the power of supportive relationships. Evidence shows that empathy and connection is still one of the most important factors for clients to make positive changes. It is the two important factors: love/connection and awareness/mindfulness, which bring more peace and joy to our lives. What science now adds to the equation is that this is actually healing and re-patterning our brains. We now can justify and explain what we intuitively and experientially knew all along.

To practice mindfulness in our daily lives increases body awareness which puts us back into the driver seat, not in the sense of manipulating outer circumstances but in the way we respond to them. Our frame of mind shapes the way we see the world.

The awareness of the sensations in our bodies are really the navigating tools to know what programs are installed. Often we are not in touch with these as we have become over-focused and too dependant on our reasoning and thinking (which is often trauma related.) The amazing thing is that we don’t need to necessarily relive all the past pains. Peter Levine (specializing in trauma resolution) has shown us that with empathetic support and awareness of body sensations our organism regains naturally a balanced nervous system which is essential in living a fully engaged life.

Knowing how a systems runs installs some kind of trust in it. The most crippling factor is often that we are afraid of our feelings and emotions and that cuts us off, not only from the most important navigation tool we have; our bodies, but also from the sense of connectedness to others and the world. This is often the underlying cause of stress, anxiety, depression, addiction and other symptoms, and will certainly effect all our relationships.

It is affirming to have some explanations, not only for the benefits of mindfulness practices, but also for Psychotherapies and all forms of self enquiry. It helps to clarify and demystify these processes and as a result I believe we will be more inclined to be interested and reap their benefits.

We don’t need to be sick before we attend to our mental well being. Our state of mind is the most important factor in being able to experience joy, happiness and well-being in our lives.

It is not what we experience but how we respond to it that creates our experience of our selves. The information our body gives us (e.g. sensations, feelings and emotions) is neutral in itself and transitory. To define ourselves by this information greatly limits us in our responses and views.

These are very liberating facts if we are curious enough to explore them, not only intellectually but also experientially. These ‘understandings’ are moving us from reaction to conscious responding. This is the gift of living mindfully.

Dr. Dan Siegel explains: “Mindfulness creates space between impulse and action.” Dan Siegel has written some very interesting books about mindfulness and neuroplasticity. If you would like a little taste of what he has to say click the U-Tube below.