It’s not about enlightenment; rather transformation: moving into compassion for self and for others
Whether mindful living and meditation is new to you, or, like me, you have been practicing for quite some time, life’s challenges, both positive and negative, can often catch us off-guard, create stress, and send us into unpleasant or even dark places. This is frustrating and it is discouraging. Sometimes, the greater life-changing events (a new job, a new-born member of the family, acute or chronic illness, divorce or the loss of a loved-one) are anticipated and we can prepare ourselves in advance, learning to adjust and to cope appropriately. Yet, it is often the smaller, more subtle changes in our daily routines that throw us off balance and, suddenly, even unexpectedly, we are faced with difficult thoughts and emotions, including confusion, anger, frustration, sadness and disappointment.
Science has revealed that there are neurological and conditional reasons for which we find changes in our lives, whether big or small, so challenging. And the good news is, there is a way to train our brain and our heart to face life’s challenges with more skill, agility and grace.
NEURO – SCIENCE
Deep within the reptilian brain, that primal core of our neurological centre is the amygdala. Part of the limbic system within the brain, the amygdala is responsible for numerous base-instincts, including our survival instinct, the fight-freeze-flight response to danger, and emotional response of fear. It’s also connected to the memory aspect of emotional response in the hippocampus which is believed to assist in the storage of long-term memory, objects and people, and our ability to comprehend space and time (spatial reference). The hippocampus is also thought to be the area of the brain which seeks comfort through stability and routine patterning, creating and reinforcing the positive experiences and aspects of life: the ‘rewards’ of working hard, achieving our goals, finding happiness and love.
In other words, we are ‘hard-wired’ to resist anything which our brain interprets as different, which is a threat to our physical and emotional wellbeing, or which is outside of our normal scope of activities, routines or sense of safety. In our 21st century lives, these ‘events’ are no longer fighting off tigers; they are the complex stressors of a digital age, information overload, the need to cope with economic uncertainties, and life-altering events which are beyond our control. Conversely, we are ‘hard-wired’ to hang onto and perpetuate anything that brings us comfort, safety, and the perception of happiness (including physical, mental, and emotional sensations).
Our families, communities, cultures and lived experiences all contribute to the behaviours and routines that we develop and maintain. For example, perhaps ironically, most advertising is designed to convince us that, unless we purchase, buy into or somehow obtain (you name it: looks, material goods, life-style choices), we will experience ‘pain’ – that is, a sense of want, unfilled desires, failing to achieve goals, satisfaction or happiness. Smartly, although one could argue deceptively, the consumer-driven industry affects the hard-wired physical, mental and emotional needs of desire and satisfaction. And our strong sense of self – our ego – only reinforces the reaction we have to change, whether a deep sense of loss as a result of the death of a loved one, or road-rage as a result of someone daring to cut in front of us!
TURNING CHALLENGES TO TRIUMPHS
So, if so much of our human reactions to change are ‘hard-wired’, whether resistance to what is painful and difficult, or grasping onto that which is pleasurable and props up our egoic sense-of-self, how on earth do we find a better way to deal with life’s changes – big or small?
Mindful living, and the practice of meditation, assists us to accomplish two things that can dramatically impact how change affects our lives.
First, through mindfulness and meditation, we can develop new neurological pathways (neuroplasticity) which over-ride the basic instincts of the fight-freeze-flight reaction. Through repeated practice of self-awareness and mindful attention, neurons that fire together, wire together, strengthening our ability to engage the frontal cortex of our brain more actively; to change our thoughts and behaviours; to change – that is, to become less-reactionary or overcome by the changes in our daily routines.
Second, the practice of mindful-present-moment awareness, especially through meditation, allows us to train our brain to create greater space to encounter life as it unfolds, moment-to-moment. We experience life through our senses, and we process these experiences through our ego-driven perspectives that have been conditioned by both the neurological auto-response mechanisms, and through our own personal conditioning. Through the brain’s frontal cortex, we also have the ability to assess, evaluate, and make decisions based on these perspectives. Through mindfulness practices, we can change these neurological patterns allowing us to be more responsive to life, and to be less reactive. In doing so, we make fewer snap-judgements, are less dragged down by ruminating thought patterns of victimhood, sadness and depression, and we become attuned to the way life unfolds without necessarily wishing it to be different. We are less-directly impacted by the stresses and challenges of life, whether good or bad.
Challenges, then, become opportunities for learning, growing, evolving and transforming; they become doorways through which we begin to see life differently. Where difficulties once caused us stress or pain, challenges become our opportunities for creativity and problem-solving. Ultimately, we can triumph over things which keep us from being more at peace, happy and content.
BUT, WHAT ABOUT THE HEART?
Mindful-living, and even the practice of meditation can, at times, seem so methodical and mechanical despite obvious benefits. But, we are not machines, though, biologically, we might feel that we are. We are complex creatures; we are in constant state-of-flux with our mind and body, and with our spirit, soul, higher consciousness, or however you wish to define that ethereal, or formless, part of our ‘S/self’. Our heart-centre is where real transformation happens! Mindfulness (and meditation) doesn’t change life; life remains as fragile and unpredictable as ever. But, mindfulness (and meditation) does allow us to just ‘be with’ the ever-changing and impermanent circumstances of our human experience. Through mindful living, we can see our reality as it is, without bias, expectation, judgement or indifference through the infinite space of ‘now’.
Mindful living and meditation provide us opportunity to open our minds and our hearts to the reality of all that is present, as each moment of life unfolds. Meditation changes our heart’s capacity, our conscious-awareness to be here, now. And, it allows us to be with all that is in our lives just as it is, without wishing it to be different.
Ultimately, this is a kind of ‘intimacy’ with life as it softens and opens the capacity of both our mind-body and heart to connect (or reconnect) with ourselves, the people around us, and the world-at-large. Despite what you may have read or learned, mindful living and meditation is not about enlightenment; rather transformation: moving into compassion for self and for others.
We can let the circumstances of our lives harden and close our hearts, or we can allow life’s challenges be opportunities to experience life in a completely new way, with a new perspective: to see life as complex and mysterious, and full of unexpected joys and miracles. The choice is ours, each and every unfolding second of life.
Breathing in, I accept the ever-changing nature of life.
Breathing out, I allow life’s challenges to ‘just be’, without wishing them to be different.
Breathing in, I create the space to be more responsive to life, and less reactive.
Breathing out, I consciously choose to learn and grow from life’s challenges.
Paul Kenney, B.Sc., CMMI,
Edited by Jeff Potts,
Author Bio – A devoted meditator, Paul believes in the integration of mind, body and spirit as necessary for healing and bringing about physical, mental and spiritual health and wellness. Through meditation, he believes anyone can develop the ability to be heart-centred and live in gratitude, joy and peace, despite past or current trauma and life struggles.