I’ve been working on the course that I’m giving this week in London – It’s about “poisoned patterns of the mind” and it seems to have caught quite a lot of people’s attention.
I’m interested in the patterning of the mind at the moment. I read Norman Doidge’s excellent The Brain That Changes Itself over December and it had quite a mind-changing effect. (Fittingly enough). The hope that neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to grow new neural pathways in adulthood) offers us is immense. Not just for phantom limb sufferers, or stroke victims, but also physically healthy humans who suffer from disordered thinking, depression and mood malfunction. And that latter category, of course, includes just about all of us.
Naturally, as a trainee therapist, I have a vested interest in neurobiological evidence that shows that the way we think and experience the world with our brains can be changed. Otherwise, why would I bother practising? As a long term meditator, I know for a fact that the brain changes. In the 10+ years I’ve been practising, my awareness of myself in the World has changed unutterably. Some of that is down to solitary practice, some to brilliant teachers, some to Ayahuasca. But the fact remains that I experience the world and my existence quite differently from the me from 1999. Qualitatively better, I would say.
Consciousness is a function of a brain in a moving body in a World
So, what about “poisoned patterns”? Neuroscience shows us that neural patterning creates the pathways through which our experience of the World and our internal response to it flow. I don’t subscribe to the materialist view that consciousness is the wet stuff of the brain. Rather I subscribe to Alva Noë’s notion that consciousness is a function of a brain in a moving body in a World. So the way the brain patterns itself is a constituent factor in our experience of the world.
The neurobiological rule is: what fires together wires together. That is, the neurons that regularly get activated become stronger and the pathways more robust. It’s like a path down a snowy hillside. There are infinite possibilities of getting down it when the snow is virgin but once one toboggan has gone down, the chances are the next dozen or so will go down a very similar path. Eventually, the icy tunnel is etched so deep that it’s almost impossible to find another route down. This is what happens with the brain pathways.
Strongly enforced neural networks tend to “hog the signal”. New experiences, original thinking, creative exceptions all get edited out by the insistence of that deep runnel in the snow. Anything that happens tends to get experienced the same way: our emotion, our thinking, but also our perception starts to use a very limited palate. Our actions, likewise become very circumscribed.
This is bad news if your neural pathway keeps on leading you to a heroin dealer or to uncontrollable rage. Neurons are not picky. If they fire, they’ll wire.
There is also the contrary rule: use it or lose it. Neural networks that don’t fire very often get dismantled and other processes take over the brain’s ‘real estate’.
Patterns are not inherently “poisoned” – what is problematic is not their toxicity but their fixity
This is good news if we’re trying to break up the patterning in the brain. Giving up cigarettes for example – once we’re through the cold turkey and years have passed, we can look back with puzzlement at our 60-a-day habit. That whole nicotine-dependent network has been reassigned to some other brain pattern.
What is clear to me as I think about this issue is that patterns are not inherently “poisoned” – what is problematic is not their toxicity but their fixity.
This is where mindfulness comes in as a useful tool for breaking up unskillful patterns in the mind and freeing up neural real estate for something more beautiful and life-enhancing.
Can mindfulness re-introduce some flexibility into our way of existing in the world?
Fixity is a problem for meditators. The more you meditate mindfully, the more you realise that there is no ultimate stillness, no pattern-free zone. Being alive means motion and it means patterns. What we discover, paradoxically, is that we have to stop trying to pattern the pattern and let it be.
So this weekend, we’re going to be exploring not only the problem of fixity in the way we think and ‘hold’ our experience – but some potential solutions. Can mindfulness offer a ‘delicate pickaxe’ to tease apart the elements that make up these fixed paths down the neural hillside and re-introduce some flexibility, fluidity and novelty into our way of existing in the world?
Of course, I’m biased. I’m sure it can.
I’d love to know your thoughts about patterns. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!