Although our mental and emotional habits become engrained neuropathways over time, they can be reshaped
By Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart
A few weeks ago, a friend recounted her two-week luxury vacation with her husband and in-laws, remarking, “The trip was so stressful. I need a vacation to recover from my vacation.”
Soon afterward, her husband was delayed on his way home from a business trip, waiting out storms in a Hilton hotel on the East Coast. Then she wrenched her back while bending down to pick up a FedEx package. Her comment was, “Dear Lord, what else can happen to us?”
While out on her early morning run, an old high school chum of mine got hit by a car. Now she is laid up with a broken collarbone and a compound fractured ankle. She can’t dress herself, feed herself or take a bath without help. She will be out of work for at least six weeks with no disability benefits. As she related her difficulties, she said, “I’m so lucky the accident wasn’t worse. Being flat on my back is a royal hassle, but I’m grateful I’m alive. Today is a good day.”
The Buddhists say that each of our minds tilts in a certain direction, depending on our upbringing, life experiences and spiritual habits. The differing reaction of these two people reveals the pattern of their mental slant and emotional inclination. Especially in the earlier years of recovery, my mind tilted toward fear (When is the next bad thing going to happen?), resentment (How come other people have it so easy?) and self-pity (What is it about me that makes my life so hard?). I was struggling with my addictive mind, no longer using drugs or alcohol but still grasping for that elusive happiness.
How do we change the way our minds tilt? Is it even possible?
Studies in neuroscience have established that although our mental and emotional habits become engrained neuropathways over time, they can be reshaped. There is a great deal of plasticity in the adult brain, much more than was previously thought. Even though our reactionary habits may feel etched in our bones, in fact, they aren’t. Largely through the discoveries of Richard Davidson at the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience in Wisconsin, we now know that the brain’s neuropathways can be rewired.
How? By regular meditation practice. If we want to tilt our mind toward gratitude and joy, there are specific meditations that can foster these states of heart and mind. From the eastern traditions, teachings called the brahamaviharas elucidate Four “Sublime” Attitudes (Godlike states of mind). These attitudes are: loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. The beautiful brahmavihara meditations have helped me to unplug the old brain-wires of resentment and fear and create new pathways to kindheartedness and gratitude.
A powerful exercise to cultivate appreciative joy is Naikan (Japanese for “looking inside”). It is a simple practice rooted in the brahmavihara teachings, practical to use and yet profound in its ability to open the heart. Naikan was developed in Japan in the 1940s by Ishin Yoshimoto and is frequently used in addiction treatment in Asia and Europe.
Naikan is essentially a protocol for reflection that instructs us to think about these three questions each day:
- What have I received?
- What have I given?
- What trouble have I caused?
Regular reflection on each of the Naikan questions can retool the mind’s bent toward disappointment, self-absorption or blame. In Mindfulness and the 12 Steps, I talk more about the valuable insights that can be gained through meditating with each of the Naikan questions.
In order to cultivate habits of appreciation, great benefit can be gained by lingering with the first question, What have I received? When working with recovering people, I sometimes adapt that question to, How have I been supported in my recovery the last 24 hours? One of the beauties of Naikan is that we make a list of concrete, specific, irrefutable examples of what we have received, not broad generalities or items we can pooh-pooh away. Rather, things such as:
- Warm cup of Columbian coffee that my husband, Jim, made for me this morning
- The care of my sponsor, who called to check in on me this afternoon
- My granddaughter’s impish grin as she told about her day at school
Until we meet again, try reflecting on the question, What have I received? as a daily meditation. Create new pathways for your neurons to follow, and savor the joy of the here and now. Tilt your mind toward receiving the gifts of this precious life.