"Mindfulness Practice isn't just about escaping to some magical inner realm devoid of life's challenges. The Practice is about progressively opening your heart and calming your mind enough to engage Life directly, to be more fully Present in a kind, clear, and helpful way."

Your MMM Courtesy Wake Up Call! Musings on Life and Practice by a Long-time Student of Meditation.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Kicking the Habit (Take Two)

(This weeks events -- including multiple computer problems -- have me reprinting a post from last year.    Written primarily as an encouragement to develop a regular meditation practice, you might find it helpful -- or want to pass it along to someone who may.  One Love,  Lance) 

"Compassion and resilience are not, as we might imagine, rarefied human qualities available only to the saintly.  Nor are they adventitious experiences that arise in us only in extraordinary circumstances.   In fact these essential and universally prized human qualities can be solidly cultivated by anyone willing to take the time to do it."
― Norman Fischer, 
Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong

“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”
― Pema Chödrön,  
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

I think one of the most exciting discoveries to emerge from medical science is neuroplasticity.    Even in cases where there has been fairly severe physical damage to the brain, new neural pathways can be created -- if they are correctly stimulated through activity. Undamaged neurons actually sprout new nerve endings to develop alternate pathways to accomplish needed functions in an amazing fashion -- even transferring certain functions from a severely damaged hemisphere of the brain to the other!

The implication of this is huge.  Although most psychologies agree that there is a basic personality set in place very early in our lives through the interplay of genetics and conditioning, neuroplasticity gives us an organic basis for understanding that we can alter the elements of that personality in fundamental ways -- at even a cellular level.  (Research has now shown that meditation alters the brain organically.) What this means is that, contrary to the old adage, you can teach an old dog new tricks.

This is extremely good news.

Most of us don't think that the way we view and react to our world is just a habit we have learned, a habit that operates mostly below the level of our awareness as a cluster of synapses firing in certain patterns.  Yet, it certainly seems to explain the way many of us seem to go stumbling along entertaining deep yearnings to be a certain type of person -- and failing to meet our own standards again and again.  We want to be kind, caring, compassionate, constructive and productive people.   And we end up -- all too often -- being jerks!

Now Western Science affirm what all the major religious traditions having been saying: There is hope! We can get it together.  We can kick the habit of being who we have been in deep and fundamental ways. 

In own my experience, the Practice has been a means to kick start, and maintain, some dramatic changes in the way I am in the world.  With Practice I have brought an awareness to what had previously operated subconsciously, and I've been able to "rewire" my responses.  It's a kick!

To wit: I had a violent temper.  Even as an adult I could readily fly into a rage and lash out verbally,
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-- or even physically.  Deeply engrained in childhood in a family where this type of behavior was the norm, it has taken serious effort, on and off the cushion, to gain the type of awareness that enables me to usually sense that pattern of reaction at subtle levels -- before the adrenalin starts to flow.  The Practice has enabled me to consciously choose to relax, both physically and mentally, and even open my heart up to the fear and pain (usually feelings of frustration, humiliation, shame, guilt) that exist prior to the emergence of anger -- most the time. 

I can still be a jerk at times, of course, but it generally doesn't get any worse than mild irritation and annoyance, perhaps delivering a sarcastic or unkind remark before I catch myself.  These days if I can't then immediately apologize and let it go, I may have to withdraw to get it together for awhile.  Yet, more and more, a deep compassion for myself and the other person emerges fairly quickly.  I remember that I and the other person are lovable jerks, after all-- and I'm ready to do what needs to be done.

How does Sitting Still regularly help with all this?

It's all about cultivating a quality of consciousness that is open and caring.  It begins with learning to place our attention where we choose, then developing the habit of sustaining that attention, then expanding the range of that attention to include an awareness of a lot of stuff that usually operates subconsciously: sensations, feelings, emotions, even subtle thought systems and beliefs.  With Practice, you can actually see how it all operates.  This is where real change is possible.

Of course, since most of us are unfamiliar with this terrain, it is quite useful to seek the assistance of guides who've had some experience with this journey into the unknown.  There are lots of teachers, therapists and groups around these days who can assist -- either in person (ideally) or through books, CD's, DVD's, the Internet, etc.  We live in an amazing era, rife with the potential to access the Teachings.

So, if you're reading this and haven't begun to develop your own regular Practice, the ball is in your court.  Why not let go off the habit of mucking ahead as you always have and start a new habit? If you really do want to be a kinder, calmer, clearer and more compassionate human being, you could start with the next breath and a decision to make the time to meditate regularly.  You can even start with a few minutes a day.  Your experience of Life can and will change. 

It's a kick!

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