An Extract from my blog, Mindfulness in the Real World: The Art of Mindful Living.
The work of Paul Gilbert.
Spiritually speaking, for thousands of years it has been known that the so-called conditioned mind is only the outer surface of who we truly are. But in order to understand how and why we form this outer layer, if all it does is distort our perception of reality, we must take a more scientific perspective. Thankfully there has been some remarkable work in the various fields of psychology and neuroscience, as author and professor of clinical psychology, Paul Gilbert shows us in his book, ‘The Compassionate Mind’.
In his book, Gilbert demonstrates that beneath the conditioned part of our brain lies a pre-conditioned part he calls the ‘Old Brain’. This so-called old brain is genetically set in stone, having being forged during millions of years of pre-human evolution – concluded long before we could even stand upright as a species.
Just like how the brains of the myriad creatures we share this planet with have an instinctive drive to survive and pass on their genes to the next generation – our old brain’s purpose is to do just that. It is essentially our in-built survival system, pre-programmed for optimum genetic prosperity. Our old brain, by default becomes activated and automatically emits powerful impulses whenever it detects threat – which is what happens to us on a sub-conscious level for example, when we drive.
As soon as we set off on a journey, because we are suddenly in an extremely unnatural situation (as far as our old brain is concerned), our primeval survival system automatically kicks in. And so, with being in such a heightened state from the outset, even the slightest detection of threat, danger or perceived territorial encroachment from another driver can ignite in us, the highly defensive and often disproportionately aggressive behaviour we call road-rage. When we are in the throes of road-rage, our old brain is quite literally in the driving seat! Of course driving is only one of many examples of how our old brain impulses can soon overwhelm us, and on reflection, we soon begin to recognise other areas of our life when our old brain is calling the shots – when more than ever, mindfulness is required.
The fundamental point that Gilbert encourages us to note here, is that we did not choose our old brain, and we are certainly not to blame for it. Its impulsive, and often erratic survival tactics are simply its way of keeping us safe. We must not despise it; we must be compassionate towards it, because it is an integral part of who we are – we must work with it and harness its potential; we must learn to recognise our old brain impulses as a call to Mindfulness.
Now, unlike the brains of the myriad creatures we share this planet with, and what ultimately sets us apart from them, is our capacity to be self aware – to be conscious of consciousness itself; to be aware of awareness itself. For, as Gilbert explains, we have evolved a ‘New Brain’ which gives us the unique ability to do just that – to be Mindful. The magnitude of this ability can never be overstated – however, our so-called new brain is still in development, and so requires continual self-maintenance and attention. Our new brain needs a mindful ‘nudge’ to realise that its evolutionary purpose is to regulate our old brain impulses, so as not to be driven by them as we were in the early stages of evolution. Our new brain can be easily overwhelmed by old brain impulses, leaving us vulnerable (relative to our inherited genes), to a number of mental afflictions such as stress, anxiety and depression; and in the most extreme cases, can lead us to kill ourselves and others,
Mindfulness practice is the new brain’s evolutionary secret weapon for tempering our old brain. Our dilemma is that we often don’t know how, and so we need help to do this. We need help to procure a harmonious partnership between our old and new brain. We need help to embrace Mindfulness. Once we make the connection that our old brain impulses are perfectly normal, natural energy emissions, we can begin to use our new brain’s ability to mindfully convert this energy into positive, compassionate energy.
Re-shaping our Brain.
The field of Neuro-science has long known that our brain’s physical structure comprises of minute neurological pathways, formed as our experiences cause billions of tiny neurons to fire and wire together and create our brain’s circuitry. This circuitry influences all aspects of our thought and behaviour, and provides us with a scientific explanation for the conditioned mind we discussed earlier.
The amazing thing about these pathways, as research shows, is that because they are physical pathways – just as with the pathway in your garden, they can, with some effort, be re-routed. This phenomenon is known as Neuroplasticity, and until relatively recently, it was long thought that our brain, once fully matured, was a fixed entity – in that it could not be structurally altered by thought alone. But by using our new brain’s cognitive capability, it has been shown that we can in fact positively re-wire our brain circuitry. To help illustrate this, picture a lawn. If you tread along a particular section of lawn enough times you will wear a pathway into it. This worn bit of grass soon becomes the path of least resistance to get to where you need to be – for it is easier to walk on than the long grass around it. But if it transpires that this route is potentially hazardous – like if it meanders too close a deep pond with a giant crocodile in it, it would be wise to start walking a different route. Now this may be difficult at first due to all the surrounding long grass, but with time it becomes easier, and eventually a new pathway will be worn into the lawn, and you will be safely out of the crocodile’s reach.
In much the same way, if a particular neural pathway causes us problems in the way of negative, destructive thoughts or behaviours, just as how we chose to walk a different route to avoid the crocodile, we can choose another line of thought. If we put in the mental effort, and change the way we think, we can, in time carve a new neural pathway into our brain. This is not merely an abstract concept – we literally alter the physical structure of our brain; new neurons fire and wire together to form new pathways. Moreover, just as how new grass grows over the original neglected path, when we train ourselves to think differently – to think compassionately instead of aggressively for example, the old negative and destructive pathways in our brain eventually fade and become less seductive.
Paul Gilbert points out that anxious, violent and sexually impulsive thoughts are often more prevalent in us because they are the fundamental components of our old brain’s survival system: to detect threat, fight or evade the threat, and to reproduce. Subsequently, as a species we have a pre-disposition for developing a conditioned mind over-subscribed with neural pathways formed under the influence of old brain survival impulses. We must learn to train our mind – to re-shape our brain by forming new neural pathways. We must learn to tap into our unique potential to practice Mindfulness so as to live peacefully and compassionately – to embrace Mindful Living.
The amazing realisation here, is that science unites with spirituality in acknowledging that Mindfulness is a positive force for the good of humanity. This is a valuable union, as it gives us hope that real change is possible at a time when real change is essential for our future. The old brain may well have kick-started our species, but it also has the potential to end it. We must choose to use the potential of our new brain, and make a positive difference through Mindfulness practice. Ultimately it seems that we each have a choice to either live in suffering, or to live in peace…
This in an extract from my blog, Mindfulness in the Real World: The Art of Mindful Living.