How our brains can help us meditate

March 10, 2012 | Mindfulness


When Jan first tried to meditate, she thought, “Man, this is harder than it looks.”

And so began her on again, off again love affair with meditation.  Like a lot of us, Jan is a busy person with a busy mind, always trying to keep one step ahead of the job and family so she can, “imagine the problems before they come.”  As she began to practice meditation, she realized that all she was really doing was using the time to worry about things.

Her conclusion?  “I guess I’m one of those people who just can’t meditate.”

Until she began to learn about her own brain.

Our brain is here to help us, but we have to tell it how.  We tell it what we want to get good at through repeating the act, mental or physical, over and over.  In other words, through practice.   You would never expect to play a piano concierto the first time you stepped up to play.  You’d have to practice, repeating the scales again and again until the brain starts to recognize the patterns and wants to help.  Then it generates the neuro pathways for the quick fire neuron display needed to play Rachmaninoff.  It grows to help you, it changes its landscape like a chameleon, shape-shifting on the level of grey matter to help you get good at something.

But what happens if what you’ve been practicing isn’t piano, but worry?  Or anger?  Or self-judgment?  What if every time you were impatient it was actually like you were practicing impatience, and the brain didn’t know the difference.  It sees repetition, patterns, it sees practice, and the shape-shifter comes alive.  So now after years of practicing, you are really good at worry.  The Olympic athlete of irritation.  The Grande Dame of self-critique.

But guess what?  You can get good at something else.  You can practice meditation and get good at bringing the scattered and wandering mind back home.  You can get good at resting your awareness on the breath.  You can get good at this mental suppleness that smirks at chaos and holds a steady head.

Jan asks, “So all I have to do is practice?”  That is correct.  And to a meditator…what else is there?

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