The scientifically-based fact that practicing meditation is beneficial for your mind is no secret. You’ve likely heard countless reasons to practice meditation to improve your mentality, but do you know why it is so helpful and how it works?
Your brain is powerful; so powerful that it has the ability to reorganize itself. This is important because you can tap into that with meditation, and over time you can positively change the way you think and respond to situations.
The technical term for this ability of the brain is neuroplasticity. A term you’ve likely not encountered before, it may sound intimidating but it is actually the positive power behind meditation.
Neuroplasticity, also known as brain malleability or brain plasticity, is the brain’s ability to change its structure and organization over time. This is done by forming new neural pathways or connections as we have new experiences and learn new information. To explain, a neural pathway is a synaptic connection between neurons that is formed each time we learn something or gain new information. It is believed that an adult’s brain has over 100 trillion connections.
Each time you learn something new, your brain makes a new synaptic connection. This means that with each new connection, your brain is physically changing. The foundation of neuropsychology can be summed up into the phrase: “nerve cells that fire together, wire together.” Learning something new generates a new connection, while practicing or repeating what you learned maintains the connection.
Think of it like you are meeting your next-door neighbor for the first time. When you meet, you have established a connection, changing and kickstarting your relationship. However, if you never speak with your neighbor again, that relationship fades. Bringing your neighbor baked goods, lending them some eggs from your fridge, offering to carpool their kids to school, or even just stopping by to say hello are ways that you would maintain and sustain that connection.
When you absorb what you learn and change your behavior to align with new knowledge, you create a new experience. Whenever you have a new experience whether it’s internal or external, your brain takes in information from all of your senses. As your brain processes, neurons organize into patterns. The moment those neurons bond together, your brain releases a chemical which we call a feeling or emotion.
For example, have you ever had a negative experience and then later recalled that experience and felt the same exact emotions again?
The area of your brain that produces the chemicals that turn into emotions doesn’t know the difference between the real experience and memories. This is why individuals who have negative experiences can be triggered later on.
One of the biggest benefits of practicing meditation is promoting more positive thoughts and emotions that help you deal with negative ones (stress, anxiety, anger, sadness, etc.). Neuroplasticity is the way you do that.
When you think about positive emotions (compassion, forgiveness, love, calmness, etc.) while meditating, you form new neural connections associated with the positive feelings. Then, as you continue to practice meditating and repeatedly engage with those positive emotions, you reinforce the pathways and make it easier to return to those emotions even when you are not meditating. It works the same as a muscle.
Here are two great mindfulness meditation practices that tap into neuroplasticity and help you rewire your brain to let go of negative feelings and emotions over time.
In this meditation practice you will reverse your negative thoughts and emotions by welcoming opposite, positive ones.
Here are a few examples:
Each time you sit down to mediate, become aware of all the negative thoughts you are currently experiencing. Take them one at a time and transform them into a positive thought. As you mentally engage with each positive thought, really embrace all of the warm feelings that come with the thought. Throughout your meditation, continue to focus on those positive feelings.
You can start out with a goal of counteracting five negative thoughts each time you sit down to meditate. Over time with practice you will discover that without consciously trying, your mind will automatically turn to pathways with positive feelings in a moment when you usually experience negative ones.
This is another popular technique that utilizes neuroplasticity to help you retrain your brain to lean towards positive feelings.
To do this, enter into a position you feel comfortable in and with your mind’s eye, find something you desire. Your mind’s eye is the mental faculty of bringing imaginary or recollected images to the forefront of your mind and visualizing it without needing to physically see it. To do this, use your memory and knowledge to construct the object, person, feeling or scene.
Allow yourself to picture and admire it for a few minutes; let the feelings of “want” to increase.
Then, simply let those feelings go with no regrets or resistance. Some find it helpful to do this along with an action such as breathing out, blinking, relaxing your shoulders, or opening a hand.
The goal is to appreciate and admire what you are wanting without needing to possess it. Also, embrace the feeling of knowing that you don’t need this object and it will not bring you true long term happiness.
With practice, you will discover that in the future when you come across things you are jealous of, you will be able to let go of that feeling easier than before.
When it comes to successfully priming your mind to experience more positive emotions and thoughts than negative, it all comes down to reinforcement and practice. The more often you engage in positive meditation practices, the stronger the positive neuron pathways in your brain will be. We recommend that you aim to devote at least 10 minutes of your day to sit down and engage in positive thinking and meditation.
For a list of simple meditation practices that can help reduce stress, get your quick print-out here.