When many of us think about mindfulness, we might picture a common misperception of someone sitting on a floor in a state of peaceful meditation. Mindfulness is so much more than that. That is why I’m so happy to have my friend, colleague and Neuropsychologist Marsha Lucas, PhD, author of the newly released book Rewire Your Brain For Love: Creating Vibrant Relationships Using the Science of Mindfulness to show us how we can bring mindfulness outside of ourselves, to change our brains and improve our relationships.
Today Marsha talks to us about how our brains can actually rewire in relationships, where our relationships with our parents influence our relationships today and a practice that can get us started in rewiring our brain for love.
Elisha: I love the title of your book. Can you give us a few ideas on how we can actually rewire our brain for love?
Marsha: I’m glad you like it, Elisha! The title’s an acknowledgement that we have the capacity to create actual changes in the connections and pathways in our brain that for many of us are, well, “less than optimal” for relationships.
Now, here’s what’s most exciting (especially for anyone who is “relationship challenged”) — the research being done in neuroscience and brain-imaging labs has been showing that the practice of mindfulness meditation seems to change the size and activity in brain regions that are deeply involved in how we “do” relationships.
And you don’t have to practice for years to see these changes in the brain — some of the most recent findings have looked at people who have never practiced meditation, then taught half of those folks how to meditate and had them practice it for eight weeks. When the researchers compared the “never meditated” group to the “meditating for eight weeks” group, the people who had meditated for just eight weeks showed beneficial brain changes. Richie Davidson, PhD, who is a phenomenal researcher in this area, talks about changes in as little as two weeks of regular mindfulness practice.
So what does this look like “in real life,” not just in a brain scan? The benefits that I see in my patients, and that researchers are also seeing, include what I call the seven “high-voltage” relationship benefits – things like greater emotional resilience; increased response flexibility; healthier, more balanced empathy, and so on. As a clinician and as a human being, it’s very, very cool.
Elisha: Wow, two weeks is a short amount of time. To back up a bit, can you tell us a bit about how our relationships or attachments with our parents influence our relationships today?
Marsha: The first couple of years of life is when your brain is growing and wiring itself at an amazingly rapid and exuberant pace, so your “early experiences have a disproportionate impact of the shaping of [y]our neural systems, with lifelong consequences” (to quote Lou Cozolino, PhD).
And those early experiences of what it was like to be attached, how it went between you and your parents during those first few years of your life, determine in large part the style of attachment you developed — for example, anxious, or avoidant – which is typically a lifetime deal. Experiences like these are what shape your brain’s relationship wiring, and these early experiences aren’t tagged, or accessible to your conscious mind (related to the same reason most of us don’t remember things from before we were two years old or so – for example, we don’t remember learning to walk, but the experience and the wiring make it so we can walk even without that conscious memory).
That’s why it’s such a powerful idea that you can rewire your brain – kind of like being able to re-write that early attachment program, even without having direct access to it. The practice of mindfulness seems to integrate your brain in ways that allow you to get past the limitations of your original attachment programming.
Elisha: The idea that we can rewire our early attachments is really validating to those of us who have been working with the concept of re-parenting ourselves. Share with us one practice that we can immediately put into our lives to begin rewiring our brain for love.
Marsha: A friend of mine who’s an arborist told me that the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago – and the next best time is today. Planting a mindfulness practice today — even if you only practice for two minutes at first – is the best way to immediately start growing more love.
There are so many ways to practice mindfulness – that’s part of why I included a different mindfulness practice at the end of every chapter in the main part of Rewire Your Brain For Love. One place to begin is with a basic mindfulness practice.
If you’ve never meditated before (or even if you have), you may have some idea that meditation requires being able to sit on the floor with your legs crossed, in a perfectly constructed, perfectly peaceful room, gentle sunlight streaming in while the faint hint of incense wafts over you and the warmth of a candle imperceptibly finds your serenely closed eyes, with your mind completely still.
Gaaaahhh—no wonder so many people think they can’t meditate! Who can achieve that?
Let’s try again—this time, with equal doses of reality and compassion.
First, I heartily recommend that you read all the way through the instructions and notes before you actually start.
And second, know that while meditators in glossy magazine ads always look quiescently blissed out, meditation isn’t always pleasurable. Walking around as most of us do, with lots of stress, has our bodies pumping out stress hormones much of the time. Those find their way into special receptors in your brain, and they basically make you want to seek pleasure—and seek it quickly.
The brain is jonesing for a quick squirt of dopamine—sometimes referred to as the “feel-good neurotransmitter,” even though it does many other things—and impels you to do something to provide this, such as eat some ice cream or look to see if a new e-mail has arrived. While this will make you feel better now, it turns out that it’s not good for long-term well-being. So keep in mind that even if your meditation practice doesn’t feel good in a given moment, or if your brain is telling you to go do something else quicker and/or “more pleasurable,” know that by practicing, you’re training your brain to deal with stress more effectively, eliminating much of the stress—craving pleasure—indulging—stress cycle in which we so often get trapped.
To begin, just sit down somewhere. You can sit on a chair. The idea is for your body to be able to keep itself upright with ease, a sort of natural balance.
Some people like to have their hands in the crook of their lap, resting like two spoons facing their belly. Others like to have their palms on their thighs.
Your eyes can be slightly open, with a “soft focus,” or closed.
Try to remember that this is about ease, not about stretching or pushing, and that being kind to yourself is part of the practice.
Now, just breathe. Really. Just let the natural rhythm of your breath, whatever it is, lead you; there’s no need to force it or change it in any way. Your only task right now is to bring your awareness to the sensations of breathing—the slight tickle of the air just under your nose as you breathe in. The coolness of the air as it enters your nostrils. The movement of your chest and belly as your lungs expand, then contract. Bring your awareness to any one, or more, of these sensations (or any others you become aware of) as you breathe in and out.
Did your mind immediately wander? Good! With kindness and gentleness, simply bring it back. Just like a puppy that’s naturally curious, your mind is meant to wander off, get distracted, and so on. So, when it does, gently and lovingly bring it back to the sensations of your breath, just as you’d bring that soft, sweet puppy back to you. The busier your brain is, the more opportunities you have to notice that your mind has wandered and to gently and lovingly bring it back.
That’s all there is to it—that’s the basic form of how you practice mindfulness meditation. Whenever you’re done, gently open your eyes and slowly reenter your day. Start with just a few minutes of practice and invite yourself to gradually increase your practice over time.
One more important note before you move into meditation—and as a good reminder all along the way: please be gentle with yourself. Sometimes, while meditating, things might come into awareness that we otherwise avoid, or that are particularly difficult. It may be helpful to stop the meditation and get some support, such as psychotherapy, to help you deal with the issues.
Thank you so much for your wisdom Marsha.
As always, please share your thoughts, questions and stories below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom that we can all benefit from.
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