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The Science of Meditation: What Relevance does Meditation have Today?

The Science of Meditation: What Relevance does Meditation have Today?

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There’s bad news, and there’s the not-so-good news.

The not-so-good news is that cognitive scientists say that about 95% of all our activities, including our thoughts, behaviour, emotions, and reactions – are controlled by our unconscious.

Even when we think we are having a ‘conscious’ thought, brain scans show that a part of the unconscious mind was activated milliseconds before we ‘had’ that thought.

By applying sophisticated technology to study the brain, neuroscientists estimate that most humans use less than 1% of our brain’s capacity.

The bad news is that our unconscious minds run our lives. This means we live our lives mainly in reaction.

Though we may go through life believing that ‘I am choosing’, the reality is we are living on autopilot.

As depressing as it all sounds, there may be a way out.

What is the unconscious mind?

Thoughts are little bursts of electrical energy that zip around the brain’s neural connections. And in general, their paths are rather clearly defined and set.

Our brains start to become hardwired early on. In the first six years of our life, things start to become rigid.

Nature created our brains in such a way that after that short period of total absorption, we begin to learn to fend for ourselves so that we can quickly learn to survive. It is a great system, but we absorb and learn not just the positive influences that come from our parents and surroundings but also the negative ones.

We start learning very early on how to differentiate and how to judge. We begin to form opinions about what we like and do not like, and start reflecting on our strengths and weaknesses. ‘I am not as good as others,’ ‘I’m not as beautiful’, ‘not as strong, funny, happy…’ the list goes on.

These messages are learned from our parents, society, culture, peers and pretty much anything we come into contact with, which begins to form impressions.

Without even the possibility to consciously question the truth of something, we take it as we see it, which goes straight into the unconscious mind and begins to form beliefs.

As we grow up these impressions that are stored become a filter in which we se the world.

The beliefs that become embedded in our brains begin to start to affect the way we perceive things.

Things then, do not happen as they are – but happen as we see them.

We continue to interpret things according to those ideas making stronger neural connections – or trains of thought – that get reinforced, making them rigid and inflexible.

The stronger they become, the more we become a creature of habit, the more an attitude sticks to us, and the more they begin to take hold and governs how our life unfolds.

That habitual attitude becomes part of our personality and identity, molding and forming the concept of our self.

And here is the kicker, this all happens without us being aware of it – as it all happens unconsciously.

For example, if you learned that you were ugly at a young age, that can easily become a belief – something that you carry with you as you grow older. When you are young, you don’t have the capacity to reason or question whether it is true.

So just like all religious beliefs and dogma that we are taught – we believe.

All those beliefs lie in your unconscious as truth – without even knowing it – as it’s the backbone of you. 

It is the foundation of who you think you are; all because of that unconscious idea.

That belief so intrinsic to your sense of self that you can not see it – and yet it is the lens through which you see everything.

Experiences that we have through our lives then become self-confirming biased events which only further make solid our assumptions and pre-drawn conclusions.

If you were taught and fed the idea that you were a terribly ugly child – then very often we would think during an encounter with another person “that the person acted the way they did – only because they thought I was ugly. ”

Life then begins to swirl in circles of that same self-creating, self-reinforcing, set of repeating negative experiences all because of that filter held by the unconscious belief.

Like a filter, which only allows in a fraction of the light – events in our lives become interpreted by that light. The more we see things that way, the stronger this belief becomes – that ‘I am not beautiful.’

And with that one belief all of the other misinterpretations happen – believing that I have to be different than what I am to be beautiful – the believe I need to change to be beautiful – the need to seek out confirmation that I am enough.

These programs influence every aspect of our life.

Now, with all of that being the reality which we find ourselves – comes the important question.

Can they be changed?

We can change the way our brain works

It was previously assumed that the brain could not re-connect neural pathways; that it was not feasible to ‘overwrite’ programs.

However, in the last decade with the continued exploration of Neurogenesis together with quantum physics’s, modern neural science is beginning to catch up with what ancient traditions have been saying for millennia.

While findings may still be preliminary, it suggests that we can. While interpretations of those findings will likely continue as more studies are done, but it does point to the conclusions long held in Eastern mysticism.

That we can transcend our unconscious minds rooted patterns and bypass those old neural pathways. That consciousness can bend, shift, heal and transcend.

Scientists talk about neuroplasticity. The idea that we can shape neural structures in the brain and reshape our brain chemistry. This means the possibility of rewiring our patterns, behaviours, and habits – all that affect our perspective and perception of self.

While there is a large reservoir of unconscious patterns that make up the wiring of who we are, there is also a conscious part.

What we have to work with is the conscious part. By becoming conscious of our past conditioning what was once unconscious becomes transformed into creative conscious possibility.

What this means is that by recognising the state that our brain is in – in perceiving what thought forms are firing when there is a reactionary movement in the brain we can begin to step outside the habitual grooves that would otherwise control our actions.

Now there is a lot packed in there. What this means practically is, by recognising that an automatic impulses is firing we have a possibility where we can begin to step outside of the program.

Knowing that there is an automatic movement happening – is the first possibility of seeing beyond.

To come out of the Matrix you first need to realize that you are in the Matrix.

This is how we can change – in spite of the old programs.

Whatever the conscious is aware of, can not remain, by its very definition unconscious.

But it is not easy

It takes a lot of grit to override the strong unconscious neural pathways.

According to Dr. Bruce Lipton, a former professor at Stanford University, the programs of the unconscious mind, the old habits and beliefs run at 40 million bits of data per second. 

The conscious portion of the mind, the prefrontal cortex, housed in a tiny region of the brain – works at 40 bits of data per second.

This makes the odds not entirely in our favor. The conscious mind is millions of times slower.

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The unconscious mind is fixed as it runs automatically as habits and conditioning.

The unconscious mind is like a pre-recorded message that plays automatically. If you want to play something new or change the program, then talking to the recording, no matter how much or insistently, won’t work – all you get is the same program.

To change it you have to program it with a new recording. You have to create new neural pathways in the brain.

You cannot do it simply by positive thinking, like all those self-help gurus would have you believe. Because, as we said before, that’s just like talking to a recording.

It doesn’t change the recorded program.

Change only comes by going beyond, by stepping out of the old fixed habits, patterns, and ideas – stepping out of the old neural pathways that have been running your life.

The moment we are aware of what is happening is the first moment of freedom.

It takes courage because the old unconscious patterns represent our identity, our sense of self and everything we have ever known – it is a bit scary to think of who we would be without our old identity.

The old pathways form what we call our ‘comfort zone,’ which is something we know. Going beyond what we know is not pleasant or easy – at least for the mind.

How? Meditation is one of the few ways to do that

Meditation is the process that gives you some distance from the old unconscious mind. It helps you step out of the old habitual neural pathways.

It does this by exposing you to something else. That something else is – the present moment.

If you are in the present moment – you are not in an old pattern.

In the present moment, you are just sensing – seeing, hearing, feeling – as if for the first time, because there is no talk of the past; there is just the perception of what is here. 

Researchers at Harvard and Yale found that meditation can actually alter the physical structure of the brain.

“Our data suggest that meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being,” says Sara Lazar, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and leader of the study.

These findings are consistent with other studies that demonstrated increased thickness of music areas in the brains of musicians and visual and motor areas in the brains of jugglers.

In other words, the structure of an adult brain can change in response to repeated practice.

‘Practice’ is the key word here. Meditation is not something that can be done once and forgotten about.

It takes a lot of determination as the old sticky unconscious pathways are strong and run deep.

Once you begin to experiment on yourself, your own experiences will be the litmus test showing you the possibility. You need not go to a lab or read about some scientific study.

You become the study and the scientist. You become the experiment.

With constant experimentation, we begin to see that stepping out is possible and with that new potentiality opens up a new way of being

A new way to perceive. A perception where your senses are open to the world without interference.

If you really want to change – then try it out for yourself and see what’s possible.

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