If you knew that your daily thoughts and actions directly impacted brain circuitry and cells that influence your well-being, would you choose to act and think in ways that support and nurture your highest good?
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, suggests in an episode of the podcast On Being with Krista Tippett that we develop a practice of mental hygiene that is as consciously habitual as the practice of brushing our teeth. Brilliant!
If you consciously create a habit of awareness — the ability to pay attention and be self-aware — as well as kindness, generosity and resilience, you can create health-promoting changes in your brain, Davidson says.
The concept of neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to respond to and be shaped by experiences) explains how contemplative traditions like meditation can create positive cellular and neurological shifts through the cultivation of compassion and attention.
Reverend Darrell Jones teaches practices that promote greater love, peace and mindfulness in spiritual as well as secular settings. Bringing mindful meditation to the mainstream, Jones is the meditation program director at Chill Meditation + Massage in River North. Not only can one cultivate compassion for oneself and others through meditation, he explains, there is proof that positive cellular changes that increase longevity can occur through lifestyle changes that include a meditation practice.
At the end of our DNA strands are telomeres, which protect our chromosomes and encourage cells to replicate. The longer a telomere, the more a cell can divide and revitalize. The shorter a telomere, the more susceptible cells are to dying and the more prone we are to disease. Aging naturally shortens telomeres, and stress can accelerate this shortening.
“We aren’t going to be able to eliminate stress from our lives,” Jones says. “[But] we can impact our experience of stress and its effect on our emotional and physical well-being. This ability to regulate impact is correlated to our longevity.”
When we bring ourselves back to the present, instead of spinning into fear-based storytelling of what if, blaming, drama and worry, we can deal with what is real.
“If your mind is distracted, it exacts a toll on your well-being,” says Davidson, speaking at Harvard’s Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness Seminar Series in 2018. He cites a Harvard study, published in the journal Science, that found that almost 47% of the time we are distracted from our present and that “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
In the On Being podcast, Davidson defines resilience as “the rapidity with which you recover from adversity.” Not only does resiliency have powerful psychological consequences for our well-being, it also affects our physical health.
“The very mechanisms in the brain that allow adversity to get under the skin are also the mechanisms that enable awakening,” Davidson says. This is a good reason to lean in when adversity happens. Expand your attention, discernment, generosity and wisdom. Persevere through challenges and discomfort and increase your capacity to be the wizard of your optimal reality.
Are you willing to begin a practice of mental hygiene now? Commit to three days of practice, with one of each of the following per day.
Notice if what attracts you nourishes you — then, choose
Sometimes I notice myself in futile mind chatter that carries frustration, anger or varying degrees of stress. Other times, I notice myself admiring and appreciating nature, moments and people and expressing feelings of gratitude for what surrounds and supports me. Choose: distraction, or appreciation and inspiration?
Speak these phrases, three times, quietly to yourself:
May I be filled with loving-kindness.
May I be peaceful.
May I be healthy and whole.
And may I be happy.
Jones suggests repeating the above phrases for a friend or family member, for one who challenges you (substitute you for I) and for all beings.
Flex your discernment muscle
Begin by noticing the sounds in your immediate, close environment. Can you hear them individually? As a symphony? Repeat with sounds that are far away. Then, focus on sounds, thoughts, movements that you discern within you — individually and in concert with others.
While staying connected to what is within you, let your attention move fluidly to the varying sounds in your external environment. Realize that you can maintain a strong sense of self as you move your attention outward.