When the Dalai Lama said that if every 8 year-old in the world learned to meditate, we would have world peace in a generation, he was scientifically correct.
I did some research for a recent speaking engagement about mindfulness at work and it turns out that the catch in your throat as you are about to ask for a raise, meet someone new or experience a surprise encounter has a neurological component that can be healed through the practice of daily meditation. Of course there’s more to it than this simple practice, but without this practice, you are operating with the smart half of your brain tied to the crazy part, in a three-legged sack race to the hellish, hardest way of healing.
We are born with brains that are wired for survival, meaning that our fear centers and our pain centers are directly and swiftly connected to our prefrontal cortex, where our logical, thinking parts reside. Biologically, this is smart, as you want to react quickly to impending danger and freeze up or run like hell IF you are a caveman, rather than a 20th century air-conditioned and heated office and home dweller.
This is why, if you are standing in a room with people whispering in a corner, you automatically assume it’s about you (and I automatically assume it’s about me). Those whispers might mean a plot against you-not hearing something clearly is dangerous for a caveman, and your brain wants you to feel unsafe and react. It’s also a large part of the reason that we group people together and label them- pattern recognition keeps us safe in the face of danger. Neurochemically speaking, prejudice and profiling feel just like a sensible “better safe than sorry” reaction.
Our brain’s go-to neural pathways cause us to react to pain with fear and obsessive thought. When we feel pain, we are triggered to worry about it and focus on it until it goes away. This is a big part of the reason why our surgeon general recently issued a desperate plea to doctors for help with our massive epidemic of opioid abuse.
This fast-moving loop between fear, thought, pain and survival is why you feel self-conscious at the beach in a bathing suit, and hesitate to tell the truth about your life. It’s the main reason that you feel nervous around people who look “off” or different. It’s the epicenter of the shame hurricane since shame is a sure way to stop you from risking your life with full self-expression. (remember, your brain does not know the difference between stepping off a cliff and taking a bold step towards your dreams.)
When you practice daily, sitting meditation, the connection between your fear center, your pain center and your thinking center breaks down so that gossip, pain, a new financial challenge, or your dreams don’t automatically trigger your fear and survival center. At the same time, the centers of logic and empathy, your prefrontal cortex and your hippocampus, become connected with new neurochemical pathways, resulting in a healthy self and other awareness and understanding, rather than a frozen crazy story about you or them from the ancient past. (The file drawers containing every mistake you ever made and every bad thing that can happen, can be closed and only opened when you need them.)
Steady practice changes your brain and makes you less likely to be afraid or repulsed by people that are totally different from you and more likely to engage in thought about WHY they act the way they do and the ways in which they are similar to you. This is why I am saying that meditation actually is the path to world peace.
Over time, you can let strong feelings like anxiety come and go and you can handle pain better, since that neurochemical pathway is changed as well. (In brain scans, the pain center in the brain is MUCH smaller in people who regularly practice meditation and, unlike drugs, meditation actually decouples your pain center from your self-awareness center, allowing you to detach from your pain ) Some studies have found that meditation is more effective than morphine at decreasing the sensation of pain.
Meditators feel the same feelings- sometimes even more intensely as a result of their enhanced self-awareness, but they aren’t bothered by them at the same level. Meditators who meditate for years actually experience a positive permanent change in their brain; over time their prefrontal cortex shrinks back down to normal but they still experience enhanced self-esteem, calmness and empathy. They can choose the amount of attention they want to give to their thoughts at any time. This predictable result of daily meditation practice is a life-enhancing skill that literally changes the game for a human being.
Of course, there is more to healing our world and us than just regular meditation, but I think it’s a good FIRST step, rather than an add-on after being so stressed we have no choice. Walking around with a fear-thought pain-thought-survival loop in our brains makes it much harder to understand each other; Many experts estimate that we spend more than half of our waking lives worrying and thinking about stuff that doesn’t matter rather than being present.
Meditation practice actually changes this ratio-not through some unattainable spiritual path ( although as you know I am a BIG fan of faith and prayer – which also has a massive positive impact on your brain) but through SCIENCE.
The Buddha, Jesus, God and all the other spiritual giants were exactly right- you can transform your life with the steady practice of silent and guided meditations. (I just finished a religion research project and pretty much everybody says to meditate regularly, but most faithful people skip this step.)
I find it helpful to think of it this way – my brain needs meditation like my body needs water,– that’s how critical this practice is to optimal brain health and function.
It’s not always easy to start, but once a couple weeks pass, the positive changes help keep the practice going; it only takes a few days for positive results to start.
There are several apps and groups that support meditation practice. A big side benefit of practicing is meeting other practitioners-people who are investing time and effort in the pursuit of serenity and mindfulness.
When we sing together, our hearts start to beat in unison. We really are connected and my favorite monk was right when he said
“You can help with world peace by achieving inner peace-you are too small to do anything about the whole world, but with practice you can change your whole world and then their whole world.”- Venerable Bhante Sujatha
I like to think of practice as a way to thaw out, untie and let go of the frozen knot in my part of the human connection rope; As I unwrap myself from nonstop thinking and fear based reactions, I can be here, with you, with less barrier between us.
Good luck on your personal journey from here to there. I hope you can feel my love, support and gratitude for every effort made toward inner peace as I believe this is the only path to outer peace.
(well, that and outlaw profits on drugs and war weapons-sorry I had to say it!)
thank you for reading