"Meditation is one of the ways in which the spiritual man keeps himself awake."
- Thomas Merton
In the first blog for Tara Mandala Truckee Sangha, I introduced the concept of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to be molded and change through our entire life. However, most of us remain on a trajectory of conditioned, habituated patterns. With the exponential growth of research on meditation in neuroscience, some small conclusions can certainly be elucidated about some findings. The brain has the capacity to create new neural pathways, which has significant implications as to what pathways will generate well-being or not, wittingly or unwittingly. Therefore, having a strong motivation to train our minds in this process for the good, is within our potential.
The brain structures have evolved over 400 million years with the lower brain system and higher brain system. The lower is called the reptilian and limbic brains, which are the oldest, having elaborate networks that remain out of conscious awareness, and biased to fear and negativity. The more modern brain center, neo-cortex, a two-lobed structure blossomed with the higher mammals, such as primates and humans. The neo-cortex dates about 120,000 years and the more modern "version" is about 5,000 years old. So from an evolutionary standpoint, we as humans with a neo-cortex are in the infancy, so to speak, of this brain system. An important region in the neo-cortex is the region called the Pre-frontal Cortex (PFC), specifically on the left side. This is the executive function center and where neuroscience is paying close attention.
The PFC has nine functions including; body regulation, attuned communication, emotional balance, fear extinction, flexibility, insight, empathy, morality, and intuition. It may appear obvious the reasons for accessing this particular region and how might we train our minds in developing strong neurological networks to override fear, emotional instability, insensitivity, rigidness, unwholesome actions of body, speech and mind. What is definitely worth noting is we are overcoming tremendous neurological pathways that have very ancient roots in our brains, which have profound affects on our behaviors. How often does reactivity get the best of you? Having a high degree of self-compassion and compassion for others is paramount as it is a very potent antidote to the prolific narratives of hatred, confusion, greed that dominate our minds.
The good news is that through an activity such as meditation, we cultivate pathways to this center. No definitive daily time has been firmly established; however, it appears that 30 minutes a day after 8 weeks has produced notable changes in this region. As we may experience in our own life when we are on track with our practice, our sense of well-being is enhanced. This sense of well-being is a way to monitor our sense of how our life is more stable, congruent, flexible, and the capacity to not be quite as reactive. And I would even invite you to contemplate how much more authentic, present to what arises, and connected you are to your own inner life as well as those around you. Something worth noting to check up on.
While those practitioners on the Buddhist path may not need science to prove anything to them about the truth of this transformative path, it is interesting and may be the gateway to others who have the curiosity about meditation. Remember, Buddha himself said that there are 84,000 paths allowing each of us a suitable path. May each of us know our path and may we each know well-being.
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Sherri Aikin is a Fellow of Integrative Medicine, Nurse Practitioner, Sex Counselor, Mindfulness Facilitator, and Life Coach.
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