What you practice grows stronger
are you practicing mindfulness and compassion or are you practicing frustration and criticism?
What we practice grows stronger, we know this now with research into neuroplasticity. We sculpt and shape our synaptic connections based on repeated practice. When we activate different parts of the brain, whether it’s attention and compassion or defensiveness and contempt, we end up with cortical thickening in those brain areas: the growth of new neurons in response to practice.
Whether we know it or not, our brain is in either default mode or mindful mode- paying attention to what we are doing or getting lost in thoughts about the past or future, day dreaming or ruminating. In every moment we are either paying attention or we are in default mode- and everything we practice a lot of, we get good at – so if we’re getting lost in stress and anxiety we are getting good at stress and anxiety, reinforcing those states.
Research from Harvard shows that 47% of our waking time we do not pay attentio. So what are we doing when we are not paying attention to what is happening right here, right now? We are often lost in emotional reactivity or thinking. Research shows that when we spend a lot of time in default mode we are activating default circuits in the brain – these are the same parts of the brain that start to degenerate, develop amyloid plaques and are found in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Too much time in default mode also causes anxiety and stress: the mind wonders off and is worrying about something without us even noticing, we can end up feeling anxious, or ruminating on everything being hopeless. Default mode is associated with negative mental health – it’s not inherently bad, but if we are getting caught up and spending too much time there, it creates problems for us.
Mindfulness is the opposite of default mode- any time we notice we are distracted and we bring our attention back to what we are doing we are essentially strengthening the pre-frontal cortex, the insular, the hippocampus, those key areas of the brain associated with mindful mode and the executive functioning – what we practice gets stronger, on a neurological basis.
However meditation is not just about paying attention but it’s also about how we pay attention – for example, are we paying attention with kindness or with stress and impatience?
Shauna Shapiro (Ph.D.)’s research into the application of mindfulness in a controlled group shows that there were two recurring outcomes: the first is that mindfulness works (it helps us sleep, it increases our immune system responses, it increases our executive functioning etc), the second is that when we criticise and shame ourselves we shut off the learning centres in our brain, whereas when we are kind to ourselves we turn them on. This is why Shapiro believes kind attention is so fundamental, it’s not just a foot note: mindfulness equals paying attention with kindness.
Where attention goes, neural firing flows, neural connection grows. If we do things repeatedly eventually we’re going to create a trait. If we are angry, stressed, sad, anxious a lot of the time we will start to create those traits in our organism.
Lucky for us, we now know that it is possible to re-wire our brains through neuroplasticity, by systematically paying kind attention. Transformation is always possible. We can change in every moment, it’s never too late. We can always begin again.