By John Schorling
Each of us is constantly changing. Many of the cells in our bodies turn over every day, with old cells dying to be replaced by new cells. The molecules that make up the cells and fluids in our bodies are also being exchanged. Our bodies today are composed of many different components than yesterday.
Our brains are also changing. New neural connections are being established and old connections are being pruned. This even happens in the memory centers in the brain. Our memories are constantly being altered with new information added and details changed. Despite these constant changes, we may tend to think of ourselves as being fixed, and we often try to hold on to a construction of a self that is solid and immutable.
Holding on to this view of a solid separate self can cause us suffering. We may feel more separate from others and the world around us than we actually are. With every breath in and every breath out we are exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide with other living things. The same is true with the nutrients in what we eat, many of which will become part of us until the cells they are incorporated into die and are metabolized and excreted. From a physiologic perspective, we are intimately connected to other living things.
We can also get stuck in thinking that we have a solid psychological self that is unchanging, that we are a certain way and that’s just the way it is. Yet it isn’t the way it is. Brain pathways are being constantly altered, even memories, often outside our conscience awareness. These can have behavioral consequences. If we have an unpleasant reaction to a favorite food, like getting sick after eating it, we may find not only do we not like it, we can’t imagine ever eating it again. This is usually not a conscious choice, it just happens.
We can also intentionally change our neural pathways. We do this every time we meditate, focusing on our present moment experience rather than on thinking about the future or the past. This creates new connections between nerve cells and reinforces our ability to pay attention to what are experiencing right now, which is not dependent on the construction of a solid separate self. Even if a difficult emotion is present we can notice it for what it is without identifying with it. If we experience sadness we can note “sadness is present”, as opposed to thinking “I am sad”. Emotions also change. If we are aware of sadness and can acknowledge it, perhaps responding with self-kindness or compassion, we may find that it lightens a bit or even dissipates.
Change is inevitable and occurs constantly. Rather than resisting change, when we accept change and even cultivate it, we may find ourselves feeling less inclined to needing things to be a certain way, and more connected with others.
Filed Under: Monthly Musings