Experiencing Plasticity

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William Jackson PsyD

The keepers of virtue - philosophical traditions and religions from Aristotle and Socrates to Jesus and the Buddha - have guided humanity by focusing on habits of behavior that aid the process of meaningful change. All signs point towards examining and altering beliefs and behaviors to have a better experience in this world. However, it seems there is a paradigm shift happening. Whereas it was more common to have a blind faith in the black box of religions to aid in meaningful change, we now have a greater understanding of how that change happens.

I first became experientially aware of neuroplasticity in an intensive acting program in Birmingham, England. In my free time I had been reading about how exercising your brain in a certain way, changes your brain, which changes how it functions. Part of my program included memorizing hundreds of lines of Shakespeare every week. Whenever I sat down for my evening meditation, my frustration with this daily exercise was palpable. Though, as the weeks went by, it became easier and easier and eventually I could memorize quicker than I ever thought possible. Instead of memorizing a hundred lines in a week, I could do it in an afternoon. I broke through the limits of what I thought was possible for my brain to do. It highlighted that I was changing my brain and with it my perception of what was possible.

Later, as a Buddhist monk I added another interesting layer to my experience of a changing brain. A clear and sustained mindfulness. Again, I broke through perceptions of myself and what I thought possible. I trained my ADHD brain, to mindfully pay attention to the breath for hours without distraction. This resulted in a clarity and mental acuity I did not know existed. I thought, “If I can do this, anyone could!” I sought out a way to express the depth of this realization and find others who had similar profound experiences. I found several who were way ahead of me.

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Meet, Richard Davidson . He is the founder for the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Madison Wisconsin, co-founder of the Mind and Life Institute, author of over 375 scientific journal articles 14 books and one of time magazine's “100 most influential people.”  Richie has recently come into the spotlight for his research with Tibetan Buddhist monks. He calls them the Olympians of intentionally sculpting the brain and he views meditation as a system for doing this intentionally. Richie’s research has shown that meditation along with many other concerted efforts to learn changes the brain. Not just changes the way it works but change the structure.

Plasticity and brain research truly shift the paradigm of meaningful change because they represent an ability to understand and reliably recreate the mechanisms of action. We are in an interesting time because the art of meaningful change that has previously been a black box is becoming a reliable science. Our brain is plastic. It is also the main organ determining how we perceive and interact with the world. Therefore, the way we perceive ourselves and interact with the world is malleable.

Current research on effects of meditation presents data suggesting that we can intentionally change our brain and resulting experiences dramatically, far beyond what humankind thought was possible just a few years ago. More specifically, it is not only possible to change our state of mind but if we practice regularly we can change our personality traits too. It is possible to change the very fabric of “me.” If this is true, we cannot only craft how we are but who we are.

This begs the question, “who have you been crafting?”