Freedom is not the absence of commitments, but the ability to choose – and commit myself to – what is best for me. Paulo Coelho in The Zahir
Modern neuroscience is illuminating humanity’s understanding of the nervous system including the human brain and the evolutionary discovery that the human adult brain has a quality of neuroplasticity, the ability to change. This ability to change permits rewiring of the neural pathways or circuits established by longtime habitual cognitive-emotional-behavioral patterns throughout the entire lifespan.
It is difficult to emphasize the significance of this finding (and numerous others), because it undercuts a paradigm historically held by scientists and mental health professionals that the human brain becomes “hardwired” in childhood. Thankfully, humans can and do rewire our brains and form new habits throughout our lives which is extremely good news for individuals, organizations, and humanity’s collective future!
Despite the good news of neuroplasticity, we all know that changing longtime habitual patterns is not easy. This is in part due to our highly efficient human brains that naturally seek to conserve energy by autopiloting repetitive thoughts-emotions-action loops so as to free up cognitive capacity for new, creative, and more complex endeavors.
However, a growing body of scientific findings on meditation and the brain indicate that practices such as mindfulness meditation support the replacement of self-defeating habits with more constructive habits (to include meditation itself!) while also facilitating structural changes that enhance well-being. The mindful leaders in my 2015 doctorate study demonstrated the capacity of the adult brain to rewire neural pathways and form development-oriented habits through a commitment to their mindfulness practice as depicted in the following example.
And when I don’t practice, I miss it. I long for it, and I feel, it helps being married, having a barometer [laughs] that lives with you. Who says, ‘Has it been a couple of days since you sat?’ ‘Or a couple of weeks, perhaps?’ You know, ‘What’s going on?’ And, usually he doesn’t have to say that. Usually just my own reactivity speaks to me, his responses to me speak to me that show me that I’m off base. And I do miss it and it was profound for me when I realized that meditation is like food. It’s nurturing. So, there’s no longer the hammer of a should, if I don’t practice there will be negative consequences. It’s more that I really long for my own sanity I think.
Thus, the mindful leaders studied appear to be experiencing the fruits of their practices and the promise of neuroplasticity. They are freeing themselves from unproductive habitual patterns and choosing new constructive habits for better (and more sane) lives to include commitment to their meditation practices. For more information on the good news of neuroplasticity and additional (r)evolutionary findings in the realm of neuroscience and meditation, check out “Buddha’s Brain” by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
This essay is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders by Denise Frizzell, PhD, Holistically-Oriented Transformative Coaching and Management Consulting (http://www.metamorphosisconsultation.com).