Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity
Most of the people who offer training in mindfulness meditation only scratch the surface. It is misconstrued and mis-taught as just paying attention to the present moment. Paying attention to the present moment and engaging with it is certainly a part of it. But it is not all of it. Mindfulness practice is much deeper. In fact, the Buddha taught it as the path to nibbana (Pali; nirvana in Sanskrit) or emancipation from suffering. Unfortunately, mindfulness has been reduced to mere relaxation and that too using 5 minute apps. Nothing is farther from truth. There is a higher purpose to it. Although it can be thought of as training the mind, the training has a higher goal which is getting rid of the unwholesome qualities such as greed, hatred, aversion, conceit, restlessness etc., and develop wholesome qualities such as love, kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and eventually equanimity. This cannot be accomplished if one was just concentrating on relaxation. After coming out of a meditation session one might feel great and relaxed, which is better than feeling down and out. However, unless that feeling of peace or bliss is etched into the mind it does not lead to long term change. In other words, the blissful states do not become traits. Changes in the underlying neural architecture are needed for states to become traits. This can be accomplished through regular practice but with a purpose. Mindfulness practice without a purposeful direction is like the yesteryear’s buzzword of ‘positive affirmations’ without a foundation of right values. They feel great for a while but do not endure. Till recently it was believed that brain functions were fixed and cannot change and what you are born with is what you will have forever, and it will actually diminish functionally. Now researchers know better. Brain can be trained at any age. We can improve our short-term and long-term memory, reaction speeds, creativity and other faculties at any age. With practice one can alter the brain and the neural architecture. The brain is plastic, in the sense that, it can change based on what it experiences. New neurons can be grown forming new synapses. The beauty is that this ability of the brain will remain with it as long as it lasts. However, whether it will become better or worse is based on what the brain experiences. This is where the wholesome qualities mentioned above come into their own. You decide how you want to shape it, grow flowers or let weeds proliferate. If you don’t shape your brain, the media and the advertisers will do it for you leaving you forever chasing the new gizmos, branded clothes, unrealistic (anorexic?) body shapes and so on and so forth. The bottom line is you are never satisfied. But the good news as Dan Siegal says is that, ‘you can use your mind to change your brain’.