How meditating rewired my brain
How the Buddhist form of mindfulness meditation is helping me understand the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism; and training my mind to have more control over my emotions and actions.
It's been a year that I had started meditating. While it didn't come very easy to me at first and took several months of failing and restarting; I am at a point where I feel like I can talk about my view of mindfulness and how it has helped me train my mind.
First - let's take a brief detour to the ancient Greek school of Stoicism, a branch of philosophy that teaches self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming emotions.
Stoicism talks about how there are things in life that we can control and things we cannot. We do not control the climate, the weather, the politics, what people say or do, and even our own bodies - which has a habit of getting damaged and deteriorating without our permission. The only thing we can really control is how we think about things and the judgements we make.
In fact, we find that as things happen all the time, it's not the things that upset us - but how we judge them. If we judge that something bad has happened, then we might get upset, sad or angry. If we judge that something bad is likely to happen then we might get anxious or fearful. Things in themselves are value neutral, for what might seem terrible to us might be a matter of indifference to someone else, or even welcomed by others. It’s the judgements we make that introduce value into the picture, and it’s those value judgements that generate our emotional responses.
Of course - it's very easy to say that "I am not going to have these external things bother me" and quiet a different thing to actually follow through and not be disturbed.
Stoicism vs Buddhism
Stoicism (Greece, 300 BC) and Buddhism (Nepal, 500 BC) are two remarkably similar philosophies that were created independently thousands of miles apart. They both advocate seeking happiness from an internal source, so that the ups and downs of life will not be your masters. However, the similarities end very quickly. Stoicism is about forging your will and improving self-resilience, and Buddhism about abandoning self-view and desire of self-improvement.
The first time I tried meditating it did not work for me because I felt it was taking away my ambition. As an entrepreneur, I derive a large part of my identity from the will to create and to change the world. The buddhist philosophy of meditation was designed to actively let go and accept the status quo.
It is only when I learnt more about the virtues of Stoicism that mindfulness as a practice resonated better with me. Stoicism teaches Courage (risk taking or facing adversities), Wisdom (learning or growth mindset), Temperance (balance of life) and Justice (doing the right thing). I was able to take what I learnt from the buddhist philosophy of mindfulness and apply a stoic lense to that.
“You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.” — Marcus Aurelius
Mindfulness as a tool to practice Stoicism
For me, mindfulness is a practice that rewires your brain by giving it another framework for thought. It is creating new neural pathways through the continuous act of examining thoughts as they arise. We are taking the same inputs (external world), process it through a different framework (mindfulness), so the output (response to the external world) is one in which we have more calm, clarity, contentment and compassion. Here's a few things I learnt during the last year:
Seeing thoughts more clearly
Everyone has that inner chatter in our heads - the one which continues repeating thoughts about ourselves, about how other people might think of us, about the mistakes we did in the past and worries about the future. The practice of meditation doesn't stop that, but it helps decouple our thought from dialogue about the thought.
The realization that inner voice is just that: a voice in your head, can be very powerful. And if you can see that the voice is distinct from the self, you can also stop acting on what the voice says; or even better, do what you need to do without listening to the voice. It helps to see your thoughts more clearly.
And once you see your thoughts more clearly, you can take control of your response to the thoughts.
"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom." - Viktor E. Frankl
Most of us don't realize that there is a space, or have a false sense of their ability to use that space. Meditation brings that space to the forefront.
Often during times of stress we forget that whatever we are stressed, frustrated, sad, or angry about - those just thoughts and emotions.
There is a concept in buddhist tradition around the blue sky mind - the vast, calm and clear mind that is always a part of us. Sometimes there are clouds in the sky, and those clouds can also turn into storms.
But the clear blue sky always exists. Just as the state of our sky is temporary - our stress, mind noise, thoughts and emotions, are also impermanent. Clouds come and go; storms come and go; and emotions also come and go.
So by reminding ourselves that the blue skies exists above the clouds, suddenly all that stress doesn't weigh on ourselves much more.
Meditation for the first few weeks/months were frustrating. The idea to just focus on breathing sounds so much simpler than it actually is. When you want to stop thinking about something - it's precisely when you don't!
Instead of getting frustrated, however, we practice treating each strand of thought non-judgmentally. As thoughts arise, as they often do, we do not try to stop it - we just let it pass through us. And we can go back to focusing on the breath without the associated dialogue about the thought.
While as a technique, loving-kindness (broadly mettā meditation), teaches to treat each thought coming in a non-judgemental manner. The more we foster compassion and let go of judgment and hostility - to our thoughts, to ourselves, to others and to the world - the more we familiarize ourselves with our own pain and suffering. Being kind to others start by first being kind to yourself.
The truth is, as much as we think we may be open to change, our minds are resistant to it. Our mind likes security and certainty. Once we accept that everything is always changing - whether it's mind or body - we start to become comfortable with ourselves.
Quieting thoughts isn't enough. True mastery of the mind means being at ease with whatever arises, in whatever way, however uncomfortable.
Regardless of your view on stoicism or buddhism, what is and will continue to be true is that our mind needs to be trained. Mindfulness is a tool designed to level up the processing capability of our mind. I have found immense improvement in my emotional response, happiness and focus through the simple act of focusing on my breath. All it takes is 10 minutes a day.