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How to Rewire Your Brain (and Renew Your Life)

meditating

I began practicing yoga and meditation in 1970 when I was seventeen years old.

I practiced in my small bedroom at one end our family’s long New York City apartment. My room was next to the kitchen. My parents, brother, and sister had bedrooms on the other side of the apartment.

I’d get up early and move through a sequence of yoga asanas before sitting down to meditate.

I’d sit in meditation until I heard the kitchen noises as my mother and siblings began their breakfast routine.

That was the signal that it was time for me to move from my “cave” into my “world.” After bringing my palms together, I’d start my daily experiment.

My bedroom was separated from the kitchen by an eight-foot long hallway. And I’d observed, over the weeks of practicing, that the inner experience of peace and balance that had been cultivated in meditation would rapidly degrade as I made my way along that short hall.

Even though I wanted to maintain the yogic feeling, as I took each step my inner peace fragmented.

As I moved down the hall, my body would tighten. Shoulders and belly tensing instinctively as I approached the family breakfast table. Step-by-step, yogic equanimity was replaced with the persona of a moody, too-cool-for-school teenager.

Those states of balance and equanimity were no match for my reactive conditioning.

I didn’t have the capacity to sustain compassion and detachment while engaged in my family relationships. But I could develop it through daily deepening spiritual practice. And so can you.

Meditation practice does change your life. Through daily practice you literally rewire your brain and develop new relationship with your life.

Studies conducted by Harvard-affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) using magnet-imaging have shown that in as little as eight-weeks of practice new mediators can dramatically strengthen the brain structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.

It’s remarkable how a simple meditative practice can transform something as basic as brain structures.

But these brain structures won’t strengthen themselves. You need to do something to develop these new neural networks.

What you do and how you do it matters. Because  you can’t force or bully your brain into transformation. Bullying isn’t a spiritual practice. It’s self-punishment.

The reactive patterns won’t transform under threat of punishment. Being hard on yourself, demanding change—all forms of self-punishment only strengthen the reactive patterns.

One part of your being—the part you may think of as “you”—demands change. The other part—which you may think of as “my anger” or “my confusion” or “my eating,” the list goes on—resists change.

The pattern that you’re trying to change won’t respond to strong-arm tactics.

Transformation isn’t a matter of will power.

When you push, aggressively, against the pattern, it’s going to react, pull back, contract; and your life will stay locked in the same reactive cycle of thought, emotion, and behavior that diminish your creativity, meaning, and joy.

Meditation builds your capacity to embody compassion and detachment.

First toward the reactive patterns of your own body/mind and then toward the rest of your world. It builds the neural networks, the emotional resilience, and the self-awareness that expands your choices and opens your possibilities.

As I walked towards the breakfast table, it seemed like I had no choice but to be…teenage-Eric.

The expansive, undefended consciousness that I discovered through yoga and meditation didn’t seem to have a place at the breakfast table. I was face-to-face with my need to develop greater capacity.

Forty years later I can look back on my situation with compassion, detachment, and a bit of humor.

You can do the same for situations and conflicts that you have “outgrown” or balanced. With the distance of time and the perspective of maturity you can look back with detachment and compassion.

You can see where you were caught because you’re now free from that pattern of reactivity. But what about your current situation?

What are the reactive patterns that limit you today?

What are the reactive patterns that get triggered by certain people, voice tones, words, and situations?

Here’s the truth: In forty years you’ll be able to look back at your current reactivity and smile. You’ll be able to think back to what triggers you today with detachment, compassion, and a bit of humor. But, why wait for the calendar pages to turn?

You can turn within, through meditation, and tap into that same compassion, detachment, and loving humor—right now.

This isn’t just a mental trick. It’s not imagination.

Neuroscientists are can see and measure the changes that meditation produces. It’s not about pretending that you don’t care or that you’re not being triggered. It’s not about belief.

It’s deeper and more embodied than that.

You don’t have to wait forty years to look back at your situation with detachment and compassion.

You can strengthen the neural networks that support self-awareness, compassion, and emotional resilience now.

There is a state of wisdom and love within you now. By turning the light of awareness within and opening your mind and body to that light, you can let go of reactive patterns naturally.

Through meditation you build your capacity to witness, experience, and bless the patterns of reactivity that have been conditioned into your body/mind. You build your capacity to embody balanced being in the face of reactivity.

You can do this by taking three minutes to do the following:

  1. Sit still with your eyes closed.
  2. Be aware of your breath.
  3. Bring to mind something beautiful, like a flower or a sunset.
  4. As you breathe in imagine that you are breathing the beauty of that flower into your mind and body.
  5. Feel the beauty spreading through your nervous system.

That simple practice of breathing in beauty, practiced for a few minutes a day, will rewire your brain and organically free you from the patterns of reactivity.

Then, whether you’re walking to breakfast or a business meeting, facing a difficult conversation or a chocolate brownie, you won’t be overwhelmed by reactivity.

You’ll have the inner capacity, the neural networks, and self-awareness to bring mindfulness and compassion to yourself and the situation.

Photo by Moyan Brenn

Avatar of Eric Klein

About Eric Klein

Eric Klein is the co-founder of http://www.wisdomheart.org. He offers the online trainings The Meditation Habit, Healing Family Karma, and other Wisdom Heart programs. He is also the creator of http://www.dharmadoodles.com.

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  • Charles

    :)

  • Anna Puchalski

    Awesome article! Through the past 2-3 years I have burned through methods and exercises and techniques of working through issues and finding myself and am at the point of acceptance and peace. But, old patterns still come up, especially when reminders and triggers arise from being around certain company or situations. What a great reminder that whatever we do, nothing beats the stillness and calmness of the mind. Thank you for sharing your wisdom!!

  • Vijayendra

    Really nice and useful article. Nothing better than someone telling you that you don’t need to wait for experience to gain wisdom and showing you a way of attempting to get there! Hail shortcuts! :P Jokes aside, this really brought back memories of how and what I used to be. What I used to think and feel like, what I liked. Thank you Eric.

  • growthguided

    “5.Feel the beauty spreading through your nervous system”

    I was told to breath in life and exhale a smile when meditating and find that to be something very helpful to focus on!

  • Angela Lam Turpin

    Wow! What a simple yet profound practice. I appreciate the references to the research proving that meditation works to rewire the brain. Although I haven’t practiced meditation for 40 years, I have noticed recently when I am detached and when I am reacting and am now able to “watch my attitude” and focus on the present and act out of loving kindness. What a difference this makes!

  • SunriseGuidedVisual

    What a lovely way to phrase it! “Bullying isn’t a spiritual practice. It’s self-punishment.” Today I will let go of self-punishing. Thank you!

  • http://www.stopstressandanxiety.com/ Mulyadi Kurnia

    Hi Eric

    I love doing meditation and recently I have started practicing yoga as well. Even though I do meditation as part of spiritual practice, I experience the beneficial effects of it as well. Generally, I feel more calm and focus, less distracted, less prone to reactivity in life. Actions that I am taking in daily life are more deliberate and less impulsive.

    This article reminds me of the beneficial effects of meditation and to motivate me to continue on practicing. Thank you.

  • http://thinkersplayground.com/ Gavin Morrice

    Great post Eric

    I wrote about some of the physical changes your brain undergoes with meditation recently – it’s a fascinating topic!

    http://thinkersplayground.com/how-meditation-can-physically-change-your-brain

    I’m still at the start of my journey, will check in with you in 40 years or so.

    Best,

    Gavin

  • Sherranharvey

    Great to read thank you, I’m also at the start of my journey, recently learnt the benefits of deep breathing through T’ai Chi so will give this a try :)

  • Jenn

    I love this article! I have been dealing with severe anxiety for the last three years since I’ve been in college and meditation is my savior. I never imagined that I would be the one to do this, but now, I crave it. I am so thankful that my body and mind are showing me the way to recovery.

  • lv2terp

    LOVELY!!! What a beautiful msg, practical tips of practice, and being able to portray the magic of inner peace, non-attachment, and self compassion! :) I love when you said…”There is a state of wisdom and love within you now. By turning the
    light of awareness within and opening your mind and body to that light,
    you can let go of reactive patterns naturally.” Thank you for sharing! :)

  • Meghna

    amazing article! love it :)

  • Rajkumar

    Reflected in http://aninteriorforest.com/blog/be-kind-with-yourself/
    At least, now I know one thing: having breakfast is incompatible with meditation… at least until you are in the fifties! :)

  • David

    This is just what I needed to read today. Thank you so much.

  • David

    I’ll restart my long-dormant meditation practice tonight. Also, particularly helpful in your writing is the truth that we will look back and see our patterns with detachment and compassion – that our current situation is only for now – such an important truth to remember – and why wait years for insight when meditation can help us see a clearer picture now? Thank you again. I will bookmark this, and share it with others.

  • David

    I’m dealing with severe anxiety now, Jenn, and I share your feelings about this wonderful article. My meditation practice lapsed several years ago – I’m inspired by your success with and enthusiasm for it. I’m back on the cushion tonight – I’ll start with just 5 minutes, with a kindness toward my racing, “wild horse” mind that has been running me right into misery. If you think of it, please keep me in your practice today.