The study of the human brain was revolutionized with modern imaging technology. Neuroscientists discovered in their quest to map the human brain that no two brains are “wired” exactly the same. Even more interesting is that the brain is constantly changing and reorganizing itself. Areas of the brain can be mapped, but when you examine it more closely, each mind has a unique structure.
The implications of this understanding are staggering. Everything that was assumed to be true about the brain has been re-examined over the past decade. The debate among scientists about whether the mind defines our thoughts, behaviors, and choices, or our thoughts define our mind has a whole new context. Spiritual leaders have claimed for centuries that we are what we think, and now it is confirmed by science.
Spiritual practices are being studied extensively by top researchers because of their effectiveness in reshaping the mind. Mindfulness has become a kind of catchall term used in the media to describe the spiritual practices that help reshape the brain. Mindfulness is often described as “present moment living,” “being in the moment,” or “releasing the past.” Eckhart Tolle eloquently described it as the “power of now.”
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the ability to correctly identify and direct the many activities of your brain. It’s more than staying focused on the moment, although that is an important part of it. Mindfulness is an awareness and understanding of the many functions of your mind for the purpose of choosing to be the most effect person you can be. To fully exercise your power of choice, you need to understand the nuances of your mental activity.
Spiritual practices include a variety of techniques that help you learn to observe your thoughts, memories, emotions, automatic self-protective mechanisms, personality functions and feelings, and then choose how you will direct that mental activity. Mindfulness is one of those practices. The many different styles of meditation are other examples.
What’s the Best Way to PRactice Mindfulness?
To try to practice mindfulness without first making the effort to do the work that prepares you for the practice is like looking for something, without a clear description of what it is. If I tell you your life would be much improved if you find something that you have in your home, you’ll want me to tell you what that thing is so you have a better chance of locating it. You may be willing to make the effort to look for the mystery object. You may be motivated by promises of an improved life. However, if you don’t have a clear idea of what exactly you are trying to find, you probably won’t have much success of actually finding it. At the very least, you’ll want to know some guidelines for what the object isn’t.
The same is true for mindfulness. You may be willing to try to “stay in the moment.” You may be motivated to meditate “to find the gap.” But, you will have limited success until you know exactly what you are looking to find.
How Can Inner Work Practices Help?
The term “inner work” refers to the practices that prepare you for meditation and mindfulness. Inner work helps you to see and understand your mental functions. You may have heard it described as “losing your self,” or “letting go of the false self.” Once you can identify how all of your thoughts work together with the structure of your personality and your psychological defenses, then the practice of mindfulness is possible.
What Role Does Meditation Play?
Meditation is an important part of how you move from inner work to mindfulness. Atheists often argue that when the mind stops working, our life ends. We may be our thoughts, but we are nothing beyond that. Spiritual guides argue that if we are nothing more than our thoughts, memories, emotions, feelings and opinions, then when those mental activities are silenced during meditation, who is the individual that remains? This individual that remains during meditative silence is described as “being” or your “authentic self.”
Regular practitioners of mindfulness through meditation experience a strengthening of their sense of identity and how it fits into a purpose and connection to the world. A powerful sense of your individuality grows along with a feeling of connection to everything around you. This strong sense of connection is sometimes described as “oneness.”
The Sleep Patterns of Meditators
Through regular meditation, you are able to stay mindful of your thoughts for more of your waking hours. In one study at the University of Wisconsin, the sleep patterns of meditators were compared to non-meditators. Even sleep patterns of meditators show stronger gamma waves, the brain waves that are present in our minds when we experience compassion, happiness and optimal brain function.
How Does All of this Work Together?
Spiritual practices were developed many centuries ago to cultivate wisdom. This is the wisdom that we are not our mental activity, but something so much more. Buddha called it “enlightenment.” Jesus called it the “kingdom of heaven within.” Lao Tzu poetically described it this way, “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.”
Before you can fully experience this kind of mindfulness, you must have the ability to manage your mental activity and that’s why inner work is the first step.
Through the process of inner work, you become aware of all of the activities of your mind. As you learn to meditate and use inner work processes, your brain reshapes itself from all of the destructive thought habits you’ve picked up in your life. You begin to see the world and your self with a completely new perspective.
The meaning of mindfulness is that you have the power to reshape your brain, your choices, your life and your identity. Mindfulness is the power to experience the most extraordinary happiness that comes with ordinary living.
Next month’s blog will cover the language and jargon of spirituality. Does the modern terminology of science provide a better context for these concepts that generations of spiritual leaders have described as ‘unexplainable.’