Monday, September 01, 2014


Given that I am one of those weird people who spend a lot of time and effort trying to become a “better person,” I sometimes wonder if anybody else is in that same boat.  If so, they are probably just as confused and frustrated with the fact that self-improvement is so very difficult.  No matter how hard I try to radiate acceptance of all others, of all situations, and that elusive “unconditional love,”
I am plagued with one challenge after another.  Just as I think that maybe I “have it” something or someone comes along and immediately proves that I most certainly “don’t have it!”  Are you with me so far?

I just came upon a wonderful explanation of just why that self-improvement scheme is so hard.  The source for my enlightenment is a surprise, I expect:  the Reader’s Digest!  In the current September 2014 issue an article—“The Beautiful Life of Your Brain” explained it all to me.  The imagery was perfect and easy to understand.  It seems that the brain has evolved over the millions of years that humans have been on Earth.  The author explains it as analogous to ice cream scoops in a cone.  The first “scoop” involved “lower parts like the cerebellum and hypothalamus” that deal with survival behavior like sex and eating.  Lizards have this brain part.  No doubt this is why some brain discussions refer to these brain parts as “reptilian.”  The second “scoop” (which came much later) “involved emotional processing in areas now known as the hippocampus and amygdala.” Mice and other mammals share this with us.  How exciting!  Finally, the most recent addition (“scoop”) to our human brains is the giant, complex cortex, “home of our thoughts and language.” 

Now the key to all of this is that “You can only subtly tweak what was there before and can’t change the basic plan.”  We can only add things to the brain with considerable effort on our part.  With that bit of insight, we begin to see why changing things in our brain is so darn difficult.  We are stuck with what we have been given and must work within that structure.  We also, apparently, need to be exceedingly clever and knowledgeable about what we can add to this set structure, and how to do it.  We are given a clue in the article: “Repeated patterns of thoughts and feelings actually change our brain structure—evidenced by practices such as mindfulness meditation.”  This suggests to us that if we are determined enough to change ourselves for the “better,” it will involve a kind of programming of our brain, consciously and repetitively.  Sounds like a lot of work, but apparently it is the only path to getting beyond the “monkey mind.”  (For those of you who are unfamiliar with that term, the “monkey mind” is that ceaseless chatter in your head that keeps you awake at night and interferes with your concentration on other things during the day.)

The article discusses another stumbling block.  It seems that out brains are hard-wired to focus on negative events, criticisms, and bad news!  One brain expert says,” The brain is like Velcro for bad experiences but Teflon for good ones.”  This certainly is helpful to know, but also dismaying.   It explains why anything negative or “bad” in our minds sticks like glue and runs in a constant loop over and over and over all day and night—especially in the middle of the night.  Try as hard as you might to erase this awful tape, it persists in repeating itself until you are exhausted.  It is still there the next morning.  It may be a beautiful sunny day, your body is in good shape, everything is O.K. in your world, but the idea of that slips off your plate like the Teflon it is.  The Velcro tape runs on and on and we sabotage ourselves with its repetition.  Then we remember that repetition is the only way to change our brain and we feel frantic because we realize that the repetition of the negative thoughts is burning brand new energy lines into our brain and we aren’t doing anything about it!

Again, we are advised to try to feel positive experiences longer because they “take more time to encode.”  It is wonderful to know this, but ever so difficult to do.  Nevertheless, when we understand how this remarkable brain of ours works, and we learn that only we can make any improvements in our selves, our thinking and behavior processes, we have to face those facts.  We are responsible for ourselves.  Nobody else can do it.

The article ends with a discussion of the importance of meditation.  We find encouragement to practice meditation in a myriad of places today, even the Reader’s Digest.  “Meditation involves metacognition—thinking about thinking, paying attention to attention—which uses the prefrontal cortex” (that’s the newest one).  “Meditation seems to engage the most modern parts of the brain as well as the most ancient ones.”  Most important, “Sitting down, focusing on breathing, and relaxing every day is actually going to build brain structure!” 

Now that this information is sinking in to my brain—slowly because we recall that positive news slips away quickly because of the Teflon effect—I am working on my self-discipline to sit down for one or two meditation sessions each day.  Of course, neither you, nor I, find this easy because our brain is so busy focusing with its Velcro characteristic and thereby spending the day dwelling on every possible negative thought it can find.  Nevertheless, as the article, and many other sources emphasize, repetition of the positive is “good.”  I slowly perceive that self-discipline is the first step.  I must as Peter Pan recommended, “think beautiful thoughts.”  I may not fly to Wonderland as a result, but gradually, ever so gradually, I may begin to glow a bit like Tinkerbell and become a light unto myself (and hopefully, others). 

Are you ready to create your own Wonderland along with me?   All we can do

Is try our best. Who could ask for more?