In every moment of your life, every single thing of which you are aware – sounds, sights, thoughts, feelings – and even that of which you are not aware – unconscious mental and physical processes – are based in and can be directly mapped to neural activity in your brain. What you do, experience, think, hope and imagine physically changes your brain through what is called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. The neurological explanation of how this happens is complicated, but the basic concept is simple: every minute of every day you are shaping your brain. The question is: What are you making? A masterpiece or a mess?
In his book, Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time, Rick Hanson describes how to undertake the process of “developing a buddha brain one simple practice at a time.” The book outlines 52 brief actions a person can do several times a day to craft a brain that is less stressed, happier and more resilient with a deeper sense of well-being.
There’s a traditional saying that the mind takes the shape it rests upon; the modern update is that the brain takes the shape the mind rests upon. For instance, if you regularly rest your mind upon worries, self criticism, and anger, then your brain will gradually take that shape – will develop neural structures and dynamics of anxiety, low sense of worth, and prickly reactivity to others. On the other hand, if you regularly rest your mind upon, for example noticing you’re all right right now, seeing the good in yourself and letting go…then your brain will gradually take the shape of calm strength, self confidence, and inner peace.
How Neuroplasticity Physically Happens
It almost seems too simple – too easy – and the concept is. However, harnessing neuroplasticity as an adult requires specific circumstances, including focus, dedication, and persistence, but it can be done. What you pay attention to, what you think and feel and want, and how you react and behave all physically shape your brain.
Hanson explains how neuroplasticity is accomplished:
- Busy regions get more blood flow since they need more oxygen and glucose.
- The genes inside neurons get more or less active; for example, people who routinely relax have improved expression of genes that calm down stress reactions, making them more resilient.
- Neural Connections that are relatively inactive wither away; it’s a kind of neural Darwanism, the survival of the busiest, use it or lose it.
- “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This saying from the work of Donald Hebb means that synapses – the connections between neurons – get more sensitive, plus new neurons grow, producing thicker neural layers.
Neuroplasticity works under the same conditions as physical exercise does for the body. A single Zumba class or one run is not going to make much difference. However, the same practices done with consistency, over time, will gradually have noticeable, lasting effects on your body. The same is true for the practices which shape your brain.
It occurs to me that self-discipline, then, is not so much about control as it is about the conscious creation of yourself.
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