BW: Would you say that meditation is the way to retrain the brain?
PM: That’s one way. Through mindfulness meditation, you watch the brain. You’re not trying to numb yourself or hide out from your emotions. You start to really learn to be with your emotions and watch your thinking patterns and see what’s skillful or unskillful. Just seeing it over and over again changes it. You watch yourself, and you develop this mindfulness of what’s true right now. “Am I pushing away what’s true right now rather than willing to be with it?” Now, you may want to change what’s true right now, but first accept it as true right now. If you don’t really let it in, you’re not going to have as much perspective on it, and you’re also going to get all tense.
Say you don’t like working with this person. You say, “I don’t like working with this person. I wonder if this can change. If it can’t change, I should find another job,” versus, “I can’t stand working with this person,” and then the rest of your day is all in tension and you’re nasty to people because you have a difficult person that you work with. The brain gets conditioned moment to moment.
BW: How do you become more intuitive?
PM: Mindfulness of the body is the place to start. The more you are body-aware, really living in the body, the more you actually feel those subtle signals flash through you. This staying embodied means mindfully embodied — that is, you feel the experience of your body in the body. We tend to get out of the body when we get nervous, or we’re unhappy, or we feel something emotionally, or we’re unhappy because the body has a little discomfort, or a lot of discomfort. It’s the wrong thing to do, ironically. But from the brain’s perspective, that lower brain, it’s kind of like numbing yourself. You leave your body to get done what’s got to be done. So in a fight-or-flight way it’s not wrong, but in terms of wisdom, of well-being in your life, that’s not the system you’d want to be using.
BW: It sounds like you’re teaching people to be patient and endure.
PM: Patience and persistence are the two words I use. It’s really retraining the brain. And you’re not trying to be perfect or create a perfect brain. You’re aligning your brain, retraining it to be with your values, so you can have an experience of well-being under all circumstances. You’re already trying to control your circumstances as best you can, so this isn’t trying to make you more effective in controlling your circumstances — although it will help you do that, to a certain degree. Rather, when you have well-being in all circumstances, that’s when you are alive and empowered.
BW: What do you mean by “skillful living”?
PM: Skillful living to me is that you are able to meet the challenges of life without being thrown off by the difficulty of it. So you get knocked off, but you come back to center. You don’t get stuck over where you got knocked off. You’re going to have a lot of untoward things happen in your life. Disappointments, setbacks both of your own, your family, society, country. It’s the nature of this realm.
One way I talk about it is I say we’re retraining the mind, the brain, from a reactive mind-state pattern to a responsive mind-state pattern. When we’re in reactive states, it’s as though we’re a puppet on a string, and if it’s pleasant we dance one way, and if it’s unpleasant we dance the other. This could be about the future — we’re at work [and thinking], “Oh I really want to get that,”or “Oh I don’t want that to happen to me.” Or it could be about the present moment, or the past where I repeatedly remember this disappointment or that defeat and I get all “poor me” because it’s so unpleasant. That’s hard on the nervous system. Reactivity is based on the immediate stimulation as projected on the pleasant and unpleasant. A responsive mind is based on your values, on your intention.
BW: I guess breathing would really help this.
PM: It gives you something to do. You’re sitting there at a meeting, anxious about presenting, and someone else is taking too much time so you’re not going to have enough time. One thing you can do is go to your breath and breathe a little. That calms you down and takes your mind off your grasping anxiety. You’ve moved your brain from its circuit of worry to a circuit of functioning, and that creates a whole different chemistry in the brain. In addition to the brain, you can feel your hands, feel your butt in the chair, feel your legs, and that can help, too. You’re switching the brain. The more you do it, the more skilled you get. You develop new skillful habits of mind.
BW: What were some of the hurdles you had to jump over that led you to write these wonderful books and help so many people?
PM: I grew up in an environment where learning was not particularly encouraged. There wasn’t much of a sense of possibility. My parents were high school dropouts. This was in the Appalachian mountain area. It was only when I went to college, which was a huge step, that I realized the possibilities that were there for me. From that, I discovered without a sense of possibility we’re always locked into doubt. We doubt our worth, whether there are opportunities for us, if there were opportunities whether we could actually fulfill them. And this can become a lifelong pattern in the brain, as to how the brain is interpreting what it’s receiving. You may think that if you can’t do something right away then “I can’t do it.”
But in any area of your life, in any situation of your life, there comes a moment’s time where the possible becomes very real to you. I call that the “imaginative possible.” It’s when you realize, “Maybe I can do this.” It’s not guaranteed, but there’s a real chance. I call that a crossover point, in terms of accomplishing something in terms of your own development.
Let’s suppose you have a difficult sibling, and over and over again the two of you get into this unproductive, not-nice pattern of conversation. And there’s this frustration or hurt feeling over and over again. There comes a moment when you realize, “You know, I don’t have to participate in this, this way. I really know that I am capable of doing this differently. And if I’m different, then the situation is different. I may not be able to pull it off, but I have the possibility of it.” You are then empowered to stick through the frustration and go through the vulnerability. When you’re more present there’s more feeling of the discomfort, but because you have this sense of the imaginative possible, it allows you to push through the resistance to change your lifelong habit of mind and emotions with this person. Every chance I get, I tell people of the imaginative possible.
When I did aikido, the sensei used to say whenever you get frustrated doing a particular throw, get off the mat. Bow to your partner and just get off the mat. Because you’re no longer training the technique. You’re training the frustration. So what we’re really doing is reinforcing our bad-attitude habit-performance. It’s a subtle but relatively direct retraining of the brain.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2012 issue of Brain World Magazine.
- Don’t Just Survive, Be Happy: 12 Weeks to Living a Happier Life
- Give Your Brain Hopes and Dreams
- Pleasing Your Brain: An Interview with Dr. Kent Berridge
- Whatever Makes You Happy: An Interview with Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- You Are Your Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are