Wednesday, February 17, 2010

the mind is a gymnasium

Raise your hand if you'd like to be happier, less anxious and more compassionate, if your memory is in need of sharpening or your thinking could stand to be clearer. If I told you these things are possible at no cost to yourself, require no expensive equipment and present no risk of side effects, are as near to you as your fingertips and as effective as an anti-depressant, would anyone sitting here today refuse to consider this treatment? Who would not like more happiness or memory for free?

The treatment I am referring to is an uncomplicated activity, an exercise performed in the gymnasium of the mind. You see, tucked into the corners of the brain are orderly arrangements of exercise equipment. There are stations for moving the arms and stations for moving the swallowing muscles, cogs for grinding out language and labs for interpreting fragrances, monkey bars for climbing the heights of the imagination, a cinema for viewing the world through organic binoculars and a carousel right in the center of it all for dreaming and falling in love. The arrangements of equipment are networked together in a grid of biochemistry, nerves and electricity which produces when set in motion the experience we call “the mind”.

In the front of the gymnasium – the part of the brain where attention resides – there is an exercise station with a treadmill. The function of this treadmill is to move what we pay attention to rearward where these impressions of our brain's environment are dip-dyed in the colors of emotion then packaged and conveyed through the cellar doors of memory, re-emerging when summoned into the picture window of awareness. The treadmill is always moving.

On a standard treadmill, a mechanical resistance is built into the structure of the machine. It is against this resistance that a treadmill-exerciser builds strength. By virtue of this effort against resistance – the essence of all exercise – the heart beats faster than its natural inclination to exert itself only in cases of necessity would normally have it beat. As reward for its work-out, the heart develops a sleek and efficient muscularity. The resistance built into the mental treadmill, on the other hand, is not mechanical. The resistance instead is the drag of contemplativeness. For most people, the brain is not naturally inclined to being purely contemplative for uninterrupted stretches of time. And especially with today's brains being constantly stimulated by intrusions of media and technology, relaxed states of awareness are not accidentally achieved. A standard treadmill encourages you to go fast when you would really rather go slow. In a way, the mental treadmill is the opposite. The goal is to slow your brain down when it would really rather go fast.

Just as the walls of the heart stiffen with age, the circuitry of mood and memory become rusty and less resilient with the passage of time. Even in young and healthy brains this mental circuitry is extremely prone to malfunction. It is easily derailed by fear and anxiety and goes haywire with hyper-stimulation, devolving into moroseness and fatigue or patterns of irritability. An anti-depressant may help lubricate the ball bearings of the machinery, but the gears still needs to be turned. To kick-start the motor and keep it running smoothly, an exercise on the treadmill should be performed on a daily basis. This exercise is meditation.

For the purpose of today's lecture, meditation can be considered an extended period of relaxed awareness with regulation of the breath and with a focus of mental energy. What aerobic exercises do for the heart, meditation does for the brain. Meditation is like jogging on a mental treadmill and, like jogging, must be sustained for longer than a few minutes to produce long-lasting benefits. As with any exercise, it is no good to merely familiarize yourself with it from the comfort of your armchair. You must put the idea into action.
(Lecture given at Touchstone Neurorecovery Center on February 11, 2010)