What you practice
The topic of this article is slightly different from what I usually discuss here on MyZenPath. I have strong reasons to include this. In many of my discussions about career transition with friends or clients I realize that often they are hesitant to experiment, explore or try a certain solution/option because of their own conditioning and inhibitions. I do understand and I empathize with them as well. I believe we all have experienced it sometime or the other in our lives. Some of us experience it more often than others. As a result sometimes we do not accept answers to our questions, simply because we are not ready for those answers. Sometimes we just do not take necessary actions that could help us, instead repeat same anxieties or fears in our mind.
If we practice fear often, we will experience fear more and if we practice love often, we will experience love often – it’s a well-known fact in psychology. It applies to everything – if we keep telling ourselves that something is not going to work, we are most likely to experience it that way. Likewise, if we believe that something is going to work out, we are more likely to get it working. By the way, if you keep telling yourself that you’re Superman, you are NOT going to fly! 🙂
Jokes apart, our beliefs do shape our reality to an extent – this is a scientifically proven fact. That’s how placebo works. The research has found something very interesting in the last decade about these theories. Dr. Shauna Shapiro is a professor of Psychology at Santa Clara University and she is known for her work on mindfulness. In her TEDx talk she narrates her experience of undergoing a painful spinal fusion surgery when she was 17. Her loneliness and suffering led her to a monastery in Thailand . After struggling with her own inability to watch her breath during meditation, she had this interesting conversation with a monk there –
I shared with him my struggles, he looked at me and said, “Oh dear you’re not practicing mindfulness, you’re practicing judgment and frustration”, and then he said five words that have never left me, “What you practice grows stronger”. What you practice grows stronger – we know this now with neuroplasticity. Our repeated experiences shape our brain. We can actually sculpt and strengthen our synaptic connections based on repeated practice.
~ Dr. Shauna Shapiro
You can watch her story here. It is impressive how one insightful conversation at an early age helped her to be mindful of what she is practicing.
How it affects your brain
Plenty of research is now available about Mindfulness, which is defined as ‘the practice of maintaining a non-judgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis’. I am not getting into any spiritual connotations of this term but instead focusing on its scientifically proven benefits. This practice is found to be beneficial for the brain, and you can watch this video to from Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas of Greater Good Science Center at UC, Berkley to know more about the diverse research in this field –
A footballer has strong legs since he practices his skills often, similarly an experienced practitioner of meditation has been found to have better cortical thickening. This is an excerpt from a related article: Your Brain on Meditation.
What do meditators’ brains get better at doing? This is where it gets interesting: It depends on what kind of meditation they do.
Over the past decade, researchers have found that if you practice focusing attention on your breath, the brain will restructure itself to make concentration easier. If you practice calm acceptance during meditation, you will develop a brain that is more resilient to stress. And if you meditate while cultivating feelings of love and compassion, your brain will develop in such a way that you spontaneously feel more connected to others.
Dr. Shapiro also has her own presentation in this talk about meditation & brain. In this another talk, she discusses her IAA (Intention, Attention, Attitude) model of Mindfulness – she emphasizes importance of the intention and attitude that we bring to how we pay attention. It’s another wonderful talk that I’d recommend watching.
I personally want to emphasize on the practice part, or more specifically the mental practice part beyond meditation (which is obviously beneficial!). People who play sports at higher competitive level often use Imagery (aka Visualization or Mental Rehearsal) to enhance their performance. They mentally rehearse the sports they are going to play in their mind and how they’d improve it as vividly as they can. Psychotherapy also uses guided imagery to handle certain cases including anxiety and phobias. So all that positive thinking is not just a pep-talk – that’s how our mind works, that’s how our brain works. This is all about the same mental practice – what you practice becomes stronger. What is it that you would like strengthen?
If your mind is telling you 100 reasons why things won’t work out, write down at least 10 ways in which you know that things could work out – seek help of a friend/coach/mentor if needed. Start practicing those 10 things in your mind keeping aside your earlier doubts. If you concentrate your energies on how you could get things to work, slowly you’ll find more than 100 reasons for the same. Instead of practicing anxiety, practice hope – spend your mental energies on how you’d like things to work out and what is it that you can do about it.
Ancient wisdom from a tiny parable
This is an interesting Cherokee parable about two wolves – A grandpa tells his grandson that there are two wolves inside all of us. One wolf is evil – representing doubt, despair, jealousy, ego and other dark feelings, while the other wolf is good – representing kindness, hope, empathy, humility etc. These two wolves are always fighting with each other. Curiously the grandson asks, “Grandpa, which one wins?
Grandpa smiles and says, “The one you feed!” 🙂