photo by samuel zeller via unsplash.com
How does meditation change our brain ... and thereby change our behavior?
I've been delving into this question over the past 8 "why meditate?" episodes on the podcast. I have had this question in one form or another for a while now, but had it clarified a bunch by reading the book Altered Traits. The authors, Daniel Goleman (of Emotional Intelligence fame) and Richard Davidson (a meditation researcher), ask a more targeted question: Are the effects of meditation temporary (a change in the person's state) or lasting (a change in the person’s traits)?
From available research findings, they identify four “main neural pathways” —or brain “circuits”— on which meditation can have an effect (sometimes temporary, sometimes lasting). If you’ve been following the podcast, you’ll recognize the four neural pathways as those for:
*** Sense of self
The four areas can be identified distinctly and therefore studied separately, but in practice there is likely to be overlap.
If you’ve taken up meditating as an adult, most likely there was a motivation that got you to start.
*** Maybe there was something painful you wanted to remove?
*** Or a useful skill you wanted to build?
*** Or maybe you just did it to be a buddy, going along with a friend or a group.
*** Or perhaps, you were in search of answers about life, the universe, and everything.
Does your motivation for meditation fall into one (or more) of these areas? If so, you can find some answers about how likely your brain is to change with meditation from current research.
But let's pause there --
Why change at all?
In order to ask this question as it relates to the four pathways, I want to step outside of the meditation box for a bit and talk about mindset.
Psychologist Carol Dweck has coined two distinct types of mindset, about which she’s written in her book aptly called “Mindset”. The two types she outlines are “fixed" and “growth”.
** Quick caveat: I have not read the whole book yet, just enough to put a bee in my bonnet… today I just want to work from the knowledge that there are these two broad categories. For a detailed breakdown, you should also pick up her book and then form your own conclusions 😉
The fixed mindset looks like this: I come into the world with set skills and talents. My ability and knack for any particular know-how is fixed.
The growth mindset looks like pretty much the opposite: I come into the world without any set skills or abilities (except those that are just part of the species by now). I must learn everything else and because of this, I can learn anything I choose and grow my ability in any area I choose.
** Note: it doesn’t need to be all or nothing — you might have a growth mindset in one area and fixed in another.
Whether your particular mindset is more fixed or more growth(-y?), meditating to change your brain fits well within a growth paradigm. Key though is that the mindset that you bring to the practice may determine the outcome.
Let’s say you’ve got a mostly fixed mindset, and you want meditation to reduce your stress. So you try meditation.
In one possible scenario, meditation is “easy” for you to do and it does reduces your stress. You think, hey, this is great, “I can meditate”.
Another possibility is that meditation ends up being “hard” for you to do, and so you quickly conclude, "I guess I can’t meditate”. You drop the meditation practice before seeing any “results”, telling others that meditation “just doesn’t work for you.”
Now let’s say you’ve got a mostly growth mindset, and again you want to take up meditation to reduce your stress.
Whether meditation is “easy” or “hard” for you on the first try (or the fiftieth), you’re likely to come back asking how you can improve and speed up your results (or simply increase the chances that there will be any). You are more likely to see any outcome as an invitation to advance or grow further, whether it’s to overcome challenge or keep going past an easy finish line.
Now, you may hear in my voice a preference for growth over fixed mindset. That’s because, as best I can tell, I’m a reformed fixed mindsetter. I don’t remember overcoming any great learning challenge in my youth because I never got close enough to failure to need to. But since then, I’ve begun embracing my ability to learn even where I don't know how yet. This opens the door for me to acquire new skills and knowledge that help me do what I love, even when it’s hard.
That said, I’m also curious about the potential “pros” and “cons” of each mindset type! I’m going to look at this from my personal and very biased perspective and nonetheless try to be fair.
Listen to the episode for more of my thoughts on how growth and fixed can inspire or discourage…
Below is the week's "full practice" episode. Click here to listen to the "how to practice" instructions.
I'd love to hear about your experience -- and help out with any questions you have.
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