Okay, so nobody knows what consciousness is. Doesn’t really matter, so long as we use the consciousness that we have—whatever the heck it is—wisely. Which includes training the brain.
In TIME’s “How the Brain Rewires Itself,” Sharon Begley presents some encouraging research that overthrows the depressing notion that “the adult human brain is essentially immutable, hardwired, fixed in form and function, so that by the time we reach adulthood we are pretty much stuck with what we are.”
She goes on to say:
But research in the past few years has overthrown the dogma. In its place has come the realization that the adult brain retains impressive powers of “neuroplasticity”—the ability to change its structure and function in response to experience.
One way the brain can rewire itself is through meditation. Begley cites a study that involved Buddhist monks, some of whom have spent more than 10,000 hours of their lives in meditation.
Hey, that’s nothing.
I’ve spent over 20,000 hours in meditation (though if you subtract the time I spent dozing or letting my mind ramble, it’d likely be closer to 2,000; maybe less). So it’s nice to know that researchers are finding that all that sitting in a dark place with my eyes closed, mostly repeating a mantra, probably has altered the structure and function of my brain for the better.
After putting the Buddhist monks through their meditation paces in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, neuroscientist Richard Davidson considers this to be a viable hypothesis: “That we can think of emotions, moods and states such as compassion as trainable mental skills.”
So the brain is turning out to be a lot more flexible than was previously believed. It’s interesting that meditation, which usually involves focusing or concentrating awareness, leads to more looseness in the psyche.
Maybe reducing the amount of useless cognitive crap that floats around the brain in the form of meandering thoughts and unrestrained emotions frees up space for more positive relations with reality.
Whatever, it’s clear that meditation can lead to changes in how our consciousness functions, opening up possibilities for fresh insights and new understandings. It’s healthy to shake up the branches of our brain’s neuronal tree. Fruits never before tasted may drop onto our plate of awareness.
I’m not surprised that all those hours of meditation I’ve put in have helped me become the person I am now. More agnostic, skeptical, non-dogmatic, irreligious, open-minded.
I’m still as committed to meditation and the possibility of directly experiencing a “mystical” state of consciousness. I just don’t want to be confined inside any sort of rigid conceptual framework during my exploring of plastic possibilities.
It’s not strange when long-time meditators find their approach to spirituality becoming more flexible. What’s strange is the belief that someone could seriously study the nature of their own consciousness for years or decades and not find their spiritual beliefs changing.