WE CAN USE THE EMBODIED AND RELATIONAL MIND TO CHANGE THE BRAIN.
Change and healing are perhaps the most provocative and evocative words known to human language. They sum up the human condition. They testify to both our longing and the baffling ways in which we struggle. So often we know what it is we need to change, yet can't.
I'd add other words: love, and happiness. Laughter. We should also include grief. And sorrow. Regret, resentment, and terror.
We often betray the fact that yoga and other contemplative practices are borne out of and by these human concepts. We talk about health, back pain, or hamstrings. So many people are turned off by yoga because of discomfort in their body or belief that they can't do the physical things yogis do. Yogis themselves often forget that it isn't about accomplishment or reforming the body. We forget that it's a question of heart.
The ancient sages were born with brains (and bodies) essentially like everyone else's. Through their practices, they changed their brains in ways that changed the world.
Neuroscience is actually a catchphrase encompassing a whole range of scientific fields which articulate and observe what brains do. Neuroscience is engaged in what it means to 'think', 'remember', or 'smell'. It's a fascinating and exhilarating range of studies. For the first time in human history, scientists are able to observe consciousness and bring new insight into ancient questions of behavior, belief, humanity and suffering.
Neuroscience proves that thoughts, behavior, and the environment sculpt the brain. This happens not only during infancy and early childhood, but throughout our lives. The plasticity, the sculpture, the art of the mind on the physical structures of brain and body is something ancient contemplative practices knew well. New understandings in science and the ancient teachings say much the same thing: it is possible, with mind, to heal and to change. In a sense we strengthen the brain. In a sense we stimulate it. In a sense we cast light on demons and shadows and wash in clarity. But none of these are absolutely true; they are metaphors.
Most importantly, these metaphors point out a central truth about the brain, and humanity: the brain is not the mind, although it is a function of mind. Mind is an embodied and relational process that regulates flows of energy and information.
Mind is embodied: tick tick tick tick tick go the processes that alert us to the world, hum and whir and spit goes the internal landscape; mind is heartbeat, clutch, and tidal yearning; mind is a sigh, a catch, and tensioning.
And the mind is relational; the brain is social; our relationships are not a casual part of our lives but fundamental, essential. This is why yogic practices begin with ethics, compassion, justice, fairness, and honesty.
We can use the embodied and relational mind to change, the brain. How we focus our awareness alters the brain's chemistry, activity, and structure. The key is to discern steps that promote well being and to be aware of things that entrench or replicate suffering.
As we cultivate mindful awareness our relational lives begin to change. Our jobs get better, We find ourselves drawn toward new and more engaging work. The things that once bothered us or triggered us just don't seem to matter as much as they once did. We are less prone to bother. We are more prone to beauty, serenity, gratitude, and wonder. The small things in life become more wondrous, and the large things become fantastic.
More importantly, this intentional shift begins in time to transform the relationship we have with our own self.