One thing that I remind myself as I meditate on retreat is that meditation is biological. For all the spiritual mumbo jumbo that we use, meditation is science. It’s a neurological thing, to be precise. There’s a very important sense in which meditation is about making the brain work better. As one medical doctor puts it, “neurons that wire together fire together” (or something like that, don’t quote me). 

The brain is complex, and I’m not a neurological expert, by any means, but our brains are physical, the brain is an organ, and there’s a science to how our thinking operates. I won’t try to unpack it all, scientifically, but when I’m stitting in meditation, for long days and for a 10 day stretch, it helps to remember that my brain is getting the equivalent of a major system upgrade. Because here’s the thing: most of us have brains that do not function at their best. I’d go so far as to say that for most of us, our brains function very poorly, but we just don’t realize it.

I know that this is true for me. Prior to my meditation practice, I had no idea how much of life I was missing out on because of a brain that wasn’t up to snuff.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m no enlightened person, and my brain is by no means a well-functioning organ. (From the perspective of a highly functioning brain, mine is just as fucked up as the next guy’s.) I’m only saying that I now realize that my brain is fucked up, this is my only boast.

All of this may seem abstract, so consider something concrete. Think of mental habits like fear, chronic anxiety, anger, pride, and compulsive behaviors. (Yes, compulsive behaviors are mental, at least in part.) These are all mechanisms that we use as sort of coping devices. They are also habits, things that we find ourselves falling into, again and again, mostly without realizing it.

Meditation is a process of learning to observe the way the mind works so that we can catch ourselves in the act, so to speak, and develop new mental patterns. This is what is called “mindfulness.” In the process of growing in mindfulness, the brain begins to function better. In other words, practicing mindfulness itself is an act that improves the function of the brain. For most of us, this is a very slow process, so slow that many people have a hard time staying motivated for a daily practice. Of course, there’s nothing like going on a retreat to get yourself back on track. =)

 

Note: I am currently sitting on my ass for a 10 day meditation retreat. This post was written and scheduled in advance.

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