Being in a relationship – or trying to be – can feel like hitting your head against the same big brick wall over and over. What if there were a simple way to move that brick wall out of the way? A way to change the helpless, worn-out, stuck-in-a-rut relationship patterns, and to really, really understand that you’re not crazy, you’re not unlovable, and you’re not doomed to create the same mess over and over again? And to do this without just shifting the blame onto your significant other, or everyone you’ve ever dated?
Sounds great… but how do you get there? Cutting-edge neuroscience has an answer to these questions of the heart: The ancient practice of mindfulness meditation develops the brain in places so that deeper connections, better love, and healthier relationships can really take hold.
What the newest brain science is demonstrating is that the ancient technique of mindfulness meditation, practiced just twenty minutes a day, can act like a neurosurgeon’s scalpel to carve the brain into a better-working, better-loving masterpiece. Hard-core research institutions including Harvard and UCLA have conducted studies showing that this particular form of meditation can result in measurable, observable differences in the structures and connections in the brain which are crucial in how we do relationships.
It doesn’t take a lifetime of long, difficult meditation retreats – one of the leading researchers has seen positive brain changes in as little as two weeks, in people who have never meditated before.
We live in a culture which holds so much tantalizing promise for a satisfying life with good friends and good relationships – yet the rate of depression, stress, overwork, divorce — even simply vegging out with TV every night, instead of having real, satisfying relationships with real people — is pandemic.
We’re also bombarded with helpful hints from relationship gurus on television and women’s magazines which promise that this month’s edition has the secret set of words and behaviors – simply follow these rules and you’ll be happy. The pharmaceutical companies advertise to millions about curing depression and social anxiety with a little pill once a day. There are suggestions and cures and quizzes galore, and yet the majority of people still suffer in their search for a better relationship and a more satisfying life.
You may already be aware that childhood has something to do with the adult issues we face. Unfortunately, this has often led to one of two life-limiting ruts for most people: Getting stuck in blaming your parents for your problems and abdicating responsibility for creating your life, or feeling “broken” and lost about what to do in the face of it. You might come to understand, intellectually, what it is you keep doing wrong, but you keep falling back into the same patterns of relationships, and the same habits of blaming either yourself or your parents.
Here’s where the big shift is, using the neuroscience of mindfulness meditation: By understanding that your brain wiring is a large part of what keeps you stuck in your old patterns and habits, you can free yourself up. You can fix the problem, by actually rewiring your brain and breaking lifelong, unproductive habits of how you perceive and respond to the stuff of relationships.
For most people, finding their way to an emotionally satisfying relationship is a struggle, because of their history. Our childhood experiences set forth some of the biggest boulders on the path to healthy connections. Until recently, this was largely dealt with in the realm of psychoanalytic thinking: Your mother was cold, so you sabotage your relationships with women because they seem treacherous.
But now science has finally caught up, and shows us a huge new tool for levering those boulders out of the way. The brain is now understood well enough to know which areas need to be beefy in order to create emotional well-being. And we know enough about neurons to have discovered that the brain can, indeed, grow new connections as well as brand new neurons.
So how do we pump up the well-being areas of the brain, and get new stuff to grow there? Demonstrated in some of the best-known and most widely respected halls of science, it is a 2,500 year old brain-training system known as mindfulness meditation.
Thanks to very new advances in neuroscience, in just the last few years we’ve suddenly learned that this particular form of meditation changes the very brain itself, laying the foundation for new patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving that shoves those boulders on our path out of the way.
Learning how to practice mindfulness meditation from a scientifically-grounded understanding clears much of the avoidance of meditation that so many of us top-down, “just the facts” success-chasers have. (Navel-gazing? Bald-headed monks in bathrobes? Ten-day retreats on a mountaintop? Uh, no thanks.)
Many of the people in my therapy practice have said they’d never been able to get past the religious or cultural barriers to meditation, were scared off by the “woo-woo,” mystical, New-Age-y image of meditation. Most importantly, they never knew how powerful it was in real, scientifically-measurable ways. Once they were armed with this knowledge, they moved into regular meditation practice and sculpted their brains into happiness-compatible engines.
What you do during mindfulness meditation is practice simply noticing your thoughts and feelings, and not getting all tangled up in them. You don’t even have to sit while you do it, and you definitely don’t have to sit in the pretzel position known as “lotus” – you can do walking meditation, eating meditation, lying-down meditation, washing-dishes meditation – believe it or not, there’s even a raisin meditation. With practice, you can be mindful anywhere, during any activity.