How Contemplation Changes Our Brains For The Better
Upon moving to Los Angeles two years ago last month, I was surprised by how few drivers use turn signals. For a city literally built around the car, it continually amazed (and still amazes) me witnessing such poor driving habits. Besides the pervasive texting and driving, there are any number of activities I've observed, all of which point to one trend: a complete lack (or care) of others around you.
More interesting than simple and flagrant disregard, the refusal to tell someone else where you're heading points to a more complex problem. What a driver says when switching one, two, three lanes without signaling not only entails neglect. The basic sentiment is: you should know what I'm doing already. Built into this mindset is a sort of metaphysical solipsism. The driver's self is the only reality, and everything else is a representation of the reality they experience: You're merely a minor annoyance or distraction in my trying to get where I need to go.
This notion that we should all be expert mind readers is in no way limited to driving. We make assumptions constantly. This is most acutely felt between partners who fail to communicate over the course of a relationship. When dealing with passerby you don't need to recognize as fellow human beings, the problem is compounded.
Considering animal life and natural resources is even more challenging. Another everyday occurrence that goes by without a thought: men who shave while letting the water run, sometimes walking away from the sink without bothering to turn it off. We assume that since the tap provides consistent water, it is an unlimited resource, not recognizing the social and political structures that make such convenience a reality, nor how much waste we produce when a solution as simple as paying attention to what you actually need to use exists.
As this month I've been working with the idea of contemplation in my meditation practice, I began to think of what it is we're thinking about. To contemplate is to look at something thoughtfully for an extended period of time. What is contemplated can be an external object, though often it is an idea or thought that is continually deconstructed and gazed upon from every angle.
Partaking in a contemplative practice needs to extend beyond our own problems and dilemmas and address our role in society—how our actions affect others, how our assumptions easily lead to suffering. There is a symbiotic relationship one develops with contemplative practice. It's impossible to understand your own actions without framing them within the context of the world around you…unless, of course, you believe the world around you was put here for your pleasure alone.
Thanks to the development of fMRI technology, researchers have been able to focus on our brain's posterior cingulate cortex, the region activated when we think about ourselves, including our daydreams and cravings. This is the area that we sometimes feel oppressed by; if, say, we let a daydream run amuck and conjure intense emotional trauma. Without mental training, we empower fears to create stories that subsequently define our actions, creating the realty we experience.
Through directed, contemplative meditation, the posterior cingulate cortex becomes deactivated. By focusing on something such as breathing or a mantra, your brains loosens its grip on the story you're telling yourself and relaxes. You respond to triggers differently. You take others into consideration. This is one powerful technique that can then influence your actions and, hopefully, make them more helpful to those around you.
Another benefit of the contemplative discipline is the weakening of what is called the brain's Me Center, or the medial prefrontal cortex. This region, along with the insula, give you 'gut feelings.' When the amygdala, or fear center, is then activated, you begin the process of flying, fighting or freezing. Meditation has been shown to weaken the Me Center, helping practitioners stop thinking that the world is about 'you.'
Without a direct and detailed assessment of our everyday actions it is challenging to grow in any sustainable manner. Philosophies are useless unless applied. While seemingly simple habits like leaving the water running or failing to signal seem like trite examples, they point towards a lifestyle that disregards the feelings of others and the reality of our resources.
Too often we wait until a tragedy occurs to make pertinent change; in this sense, we live backwards while pretending to move ahead. Noticing how we treat others and the world beyond us is the foundation on which contemplative practices begin. From there, we can understand if we're helping create or destroy what surrounds us.
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