May 7, 2024 by

By John Schorling

How much can we change as individuals?  It is common to hear that “people never change”.  Yet change is actually inevitable.  As humans, we are changing every moment.  Old cells in our bodies are dying, being replaced by new cells.  New neural connections are being made in our brains, and old ones may be pruned.  This changing architecture and function of our brains is referred to as neuroplasticity and underlies many of the longer-term effects of meditation.  As we intentionally direct our attention, new neural connections are made, and as we let go of certain thoughts, related neural connections decrease.  These structural changes in the brain can be demonstrated using magnetic resonance imaging after only a few months of meditation.

Despite this demonstrated capacity to change, we often still hold on to certain images of ourselves that we feel define us.  As with many aspects of our experience, negative perspectives often outweigh positive ones.  If we do something that has a negative effect on another person and we feel guilty, we may view ourselves as being an uncaring or selfish person.  If we tend to be reactive in certain situations, we may consider ourselves to be an angry person.  In response, we often turn away from these judgments and try to repress them in order to change.  Yet doing this often just reinforces our negative view of ourselves as we can become even more reactive as we try to protect ourselves from what we don’t like.  If we feel that we are an angry person and someone implies that they agree, we may react strongly, even with anger, as we try to shield ourselves from that view. This can then reinforce our self-image of having difficulty dealing with anger.

Meditation can help with this as it is an opportunity to move toward rather than away from what we find most difficult.  When we are meditating, we may find that a specific memory, or an emotion, or a belief arises.  We may notice it and choose to let it go.  Then it may come back.  If it seems to be particularly persistent, we may choose to make it the object of our attention.  We may notice that a memory of getting angry arises repeatedly, and rather than letting it go we can just allow it to be.  Then we can notice what we feel in the body- when I think of this angry situation, what physical sensations are present? Tightness in the jaw or chest?  Discomfort in the abdomen?

We can then also note what emotion is present.  Although we might have felt anger at the time, now maybe it’s shame that arises for not having controlled our anger.  Once we have identified what we are feeling, we can notice how we identify with it.  Do thoughts such as “I’m an angry person” come up, or “I’m a shameful person for not being able to control my anger”?  If so, we can acknowledge that these thoughts are occurring, and also know that they do not define us.  Anger and shame arise in the emotional centers of the brain, outside of our conscious control, and are largely the result of our past experiences.  We don’t choose them, and we don’t have to react to them.   They arise and, if we can just notice them without judging them or trying to repress them or make them go away, they will likely pass away on their own.  It can sometimes be helpful to repeat to ourselves “not me” or “not mine”.

By not identifying with or reinforcing these beliefs by resisting them or feeding them, the associated neural circuits may decrease, resulting in structural changes in the brain.  Who we were before we practiced this is not the same as who we are after.  We tend to think of ourselves as relatively fixed entities over time when in fact we are constantly changing, and the more we pay attention to our present moment experience, the more we can influence these changes.

Being with the views of ourselves that we find difficult is hard, and it is important to remember to practice self-kindness and self-compassion.  We can start by acknowledging that doing this is hard, and perhaps extend kindness to ourselves as we would to a friend in need.

It is important to approach this process with care since being with really traumatic events can result in strong emotional reactions that can overwhelm us.  If it seems that sitting with a difficult belief or situation is becoming too much while meditating it may be best to return to a safe anchor for the attention like the breath, or to stop the meditation and do something else. If this is the case, talking to a therapist or skilled meditation teacher may be helpful.

Filed Under: Monthly Musings