Thursday, September 6, 2012

Brain plasticity and what you practice

Maybe you know that the big surprise in brain research over the last 15 years is brain plasticity.  That is the term used to name the continuous modification of the brain that occurs in response to whatever it is that we do.  If we lift a fork, the brain makes more efficient pathways for lifting a fork.  If we speak Welsh, our brains modify toward better speaking of that language.  Dribble a ball, argue with family, use a computer -- what we practice is what we have.  

Of course, in many ways, that is not news.  We've known right along that repetition tends toward automaticity but the scientists were surprised to find that the brain actually changes its structure.  That knowledge contradicted the long held notion that the brain grows in the child but once mature in the adult, stays more or less static while undergoing slow decline.  See the helpful book "The Brain That Changes Itself" by Norman Doidge, MD for an inspiring survey of research and applications of brain plasticity and human learning.

Ok, let's switch back to Cheri Huber, Zen practitioner and teacher.  If you read over just the titles of her books, you can see she has been trying to get a message into people's consciousness for a long time.  The most direct and shocking part is that "There Is Nothing Wrong With You."  She has dealt with every sort of derisive laughter and angry objection, slogging her way toward the realization that we don't have to be ashamed of our bodies or our indiscretions or the fact that we come from a long line of lazy people or scofflaws or whatever.  We don't have to be tied to our past and we don't have to knit worries about what might happen over the next day, week, month, year, decade, century, millenium or million years.

However, in her latest effort, Huber has been concentrating on the fact that "What You Practice Is What You Have", or are or feel.  The most explanatory part of that book might be the cartoon that shows two views: one of chopping wood and carrying water and the other a person thinking "Chop Wood, Carry Water".  One can conclude that actually doing something is not the same as thinking about doing it.  That is very true and worth remembering.

However, important distinctions of that type also apply to thinking and feeling themselves, too.  If I worry about my aging mother, then I am teaching myself to worry about my mother.  If I enjoy that worrying, fine.  But, I can train myself into other paths.  I have to be aware that I am worrying about her.  I have to be motivated to try other pathways.  Once I am aware and motivated, it will be surprising what progress I can make in changing myself, my habits, my thinking, my practice.

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