"Mindfulness and Meditation allow us to open our hearts, relax our bodies, and clear our minds enough to experience the vast, mysterious, sacred reality of life directly. With Practice we come to know for ourselves that eternity is available in each moment.

Your MMM Courtesy Wake Up Call:
Musings on Life and Practice
by a Longtime Student of Meditation

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Kicking the Habit

"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, research now indicates that new neural pathways can be created. It appears that with proper stimulation, undamaged neurons actually sprout new nerve endings.  Certain functions can even be transferred from a severely damaged hemisphere of the brain to the other!

How cool is that!?

Although most schools of psychology agree that our basic personality is formed very early in our lives through the interplay of genetics and conditioning,  neuroplasticity now indicates that we can alter the elements of that personality in fundamental ways -- at a cellular level.  Recent research confirms that there are positive organic changes to the brain produced by meditation.

What this means is that contrary to the old adage, you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Most of us don't think that the way we view and react to our world as a conditioned sequence of synapses firing. (In layman's terms: a habit)  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 the sages, seers, and saints having been saying all along: We can get it together.  With Practice, we can kick the habit of being who we have been in deep and fundamental ways. 

In 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, by doing so,  I've been able to "rewire" my responses.  
To wit: I had a violent temper.  Raised in a family where this type of behavior was the norm, I could readily fly into a rage and lash out verbally-- or even physically.
Over the years, with serious and persistent effort, the Practice has enabled me to be aware of that pattern of reaction at subtler and subtler levels -- before the adrenalin starts to flow.  Usually, I can let go of the narratives that emerge rather quickly and focus on the underlying feelings.  There, I open to a kaleidoscopic array of emotional energies including fear, frustration, pain, humiliation, shame, etc.  With Mindfulness, it has gotten easier to accept and relax with those feelings, get in touch with my breath and my heart, and reset my aspiration to be kind and compassionate. 

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.  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 usually 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!


Don Karp said...

Although I do not believe in schizophrenia, I saw a suggestion in a Scientific American article that this "disease" was a result of neuroplasticity gone haywire.

Unfortunately most medication centers have no training to deal with those with deep mental issues. I filled out an extra questionare before attending a 10-day Vipassana retreat.

It's sad to me that these "enlightened" folks discriminate. But no one is perfect.


David Reed said...

If you do not believe in schizophrenia I encourage you to spend a month believing that you are jesus, that the world is coming to an end, and that you are being groomed by the united states military to join a black ops outfit.

Then spend the next year having panic attacks because the human race has sentenced you to go to hell.

You are also aware that it is not just a psychotic disorder but a thought disorder, of course, which can cause an extremely intelligent person to do irrational things due to making incorrect associations, and appear stupid to others and be bullied, even though they ended up going to the same college and excelling in upper level physics curicculum while the other students in the "advanced" classes in high school failed the first college level physics class.

I actually don't think I have schizophrenia, I believe I am being tested by the entire human race to see if I am worthy to live on a distant utopia which is hidden from my knowledge and nobody is telling me; and that I am in danger of being outcast to a place much worse than this. However I do have the "negative" symptoms which has caused me a lot of trouble in life. I also suffer from extreme paranoia at times, as well as hallucinations. But I don't think I am delusional. However if somebody has all of these symptoms, and they are bundled together, EVEN IF they are caused by bad neuroplasticity, it is still a disorder if it interferes with functioning.

I don't see why people have a problem with attaching names or labels to things to make life easier.

Don Karp said...

Well said, David. I was in and out of hospitals 7 times from 1969-78, with the label "paranoid schizo." The Berkeley Rap Center helped, but not enough, nor did The Mental Patient's Lib Project. More recently I've read Robert Whitaker's books and often read blogs on the site inspired by him: madinamerica.com. I read posts daily on Facebook's Drop the Disorder, a site mostly of disenchanted professionals along with some lived experiencers like you and I. Almost 8,000 members. And I am an expert on Quora.com in "psychosis," with close to 300,000 views. I have a vast collection of links saved. So we do disagree about the medical model. You for it. Me aligned with psycho-social views on mental problems. A much long story than appropriate here, I'm afraid.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry that you both sound like your cross to carry here while in classroom earth is such a 'hidden from sight' problem. Please check out and study the function of this tiny gland in the center of our brain. If for no other reason, it could be the comfort of knowing 'why'? ! Your courage is your strength and for this I see you as teachers. Thank you.

Lance Smith said...

Last month, I had the privilege of attending a day-long workshop with Peter Bullimore and Shaun Hunt, both of whom were diagnosed and hospitalized with diagnoses of paranoid schizophrenia and told that they had conditions which would prevent them from ever living productive "normal" lives in the mainstream society. Now they both have graduate degrees, families, and teach internationally as movers and shakers with the Hearing Voices Network. Like Don Karp, they too walked away from a medical model of the human mind which attempts to limit the workings of human consciousness to the biological plane. (Although Rene Descartes as well as some Eastern Teachers do point to special "link" between body and soul in the pineal gland that might be interesting to explore.)

As a long-time meditator, a geek of the world's mystical literature, and a person who has heard voices and seen visions at various points in my life, I am convinced that what the Buddha and Jesus and many other seers, shamans, and sages have experienced and tried to express speaks to the existence of a Spiritual Reality that current science and medicine can't yet explain. IMHO, it is there that Healing resides.

David, as well as the resources that Don points out (and Don, himself, is one of those resources), there are numerous organizations and groups that provide peer support for those of us who have experienced extreme states or belief structures that have made their lives challenging in a society where most folks have been conditioned to accept a very limited and distorted view of life as "normal." (There is a Facebook group "A Shamanic View of Mental Illness and others that provide on on-going platform to share experiences.)

The Heart of Practice to me has been taking the time and making the effort to explore the workings of my own mind and heart through meditation, study,and hearing and learning from other people's experience with modes of consciousness.

Although this blog comment stream, or any print interchange, is somewhat limiting I hope the exchange continues in some context. (My email address is thishazymoon@gmail.com)