One of the most important concepts that has recently emerged from the world of neuroscience and the study of the brain is that your thoughts and where you focus your attention can actually change the physical structure of your brain, which in turn influences how you think and feel.
Though meditators and spiritual teachers have known this from experience, until just a few years ago the ability to change our brains by our own self-directed thoughts was generally considered fantasy.
But now we know that far from fantasy, our ability to re-wire our brains and change even long-held habits and behaviors is indeed within our grasp. This is profound! No matter how stuck you might feel, you have a lot more control over your mental and emotional states than was ever thought possible.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s always easy to change those old patterns…
This weekend I was working in my backyard, which has a steep gradient. There is a small retaining wall part way down the slope. I noticed that when it rained, the water washed down the hill alongside the wall, and over time had created a deep rut right next to it. If this continued it would eventually make the wall unstable.
Our brains are somewhat like this. As time goes on, pathways are cut that get more and more established, till we don’t even have to think about them anymore. Good or bad, that’s how habits are formed.
As for my backyard – I had to create a new pathway before the soil erosion became a real problem. The first step was the awareness that there even was a problem. The second step – I had to redirect the water.
OK, so my backyard doesn’t quite look like this yet, but just give it a year or two 😉
I began by indenting a shallow groove in a different direction down the hill away from the wall. The next time it rained some of the water took the new path and some continued to take the old path (even though I did begin the process of filling in the rut with new soil – but the lack of grass still made it the path of least resistance).
Each time I went into the backyard I would take a few more layers of dirt out of the new channel, deepening it, and continue to fill in the old channel. Each time it rained, more and more water flowed down the new channel, till eventually the new water route was established and grass grew back where the old channel once was. And the wall stood tall and proud.
Rewiring our brains is somewhat similar. The first step – awareness – is often the hardest. Our unhealthy behaviors and habits become so automatic that we mostly engage them without conscious thought. But with awareness comes liberation, because then we can do something about it.
At first when we create the new pathway, the pull of the old one is strong as it is still there. And it takes energy to overcome the inertia of just doing what you have always done. But over time, with focused intention and repetition a new pathway in the brain is created and a new pattern of behavior is formed. Ta dah!
It is the act of paying attention that rewires the circuits in the brain. That is why “mindfulness” has suddenly become so popular alongside the rise in awareness of neuroplasticity. The two go hand-in-hand.
More about that in another article… but for now, start to notice what you are focusing on and therefore giving energy to. Then ask yourself, do I want to make this pathway in my brain deeper (like my original water channel), or do I want to focus it elsewhere and rewire my brain to go down a different channel? The choice is yours.