Neuroplasticity, Mindfulness, and the Good Wolf
In a recent Reply All Lite cartoon, the lead character Lizzie throws her hands in the air and says, “All I know is I had my self-esteem with me when I left the house.” The sassy, single, public relations executive, who dates and meditates, talks about self-esteem like a wallet or sunglasses. It is an amusing take on the difficult experience of getting emotionally triggered. The cartoonist Donna A. Lewis is a former Department of Homeland Security attorney who gets readers to laugh about what she calls the downside of being awake and aware.
The latest research findings about neuroplasticity point to an opportunity these triggered moments present. We have long known that the brain is flexible and adaptive for learning, and strengthens well-used synaptic connections of thought and memory, while weakening those in decreased use. An April 2014 report by Michelle Monje from Stanford University Medical School goes further to document the plasticity of myelin, which insulates the axons in the brain for efficient conductivity of neural impulses. The NIH-funded research study showed the neural activity directly stimulated the myelin sheath to grow thicker, which speeds up the neural impulse conduction.
Remember the Cherokee legend about the grandfather who has two wolves inside him, fighting for domination of his spirit? He tells his grandson about the evil wolf’s impulsive anger, envy and greed, how powerless it is and weary it makes him feel. The good wolf is compassionate and kind, does no harm, and will only fight for a good cause and in the right way. The elder explains every person has this struggle going on inside. The boy asks him, which wolf will win? The grandfather answers, the one I feed.
Practicing mindfulness in times of emotional reactivity gives you the chance to strengthen the neural pathways used by your good wolf. You can start by acknowledging the difficult emotion you feel and let it be there. Then shift your focus of attention toward feeling where you are physically. Notice the sensations of pressure or warmth where your body meets the surface beneath you. Rest for a moment in that awareness. Then gently shift your attention to your breath and feeling the air flowing in and out of your nostrils or the movements of your chest or abdomen. Allow yourself to feel three or four breaths this way. If you can, place a hand on your heart and close your eyes. Then ask, how do I want to behave toward myself when I feel vulnerable and upset in this way? Wait to hear or sense the answer while continuing your awareness of breathing. Hold out for the good wolf’s ideas.
Coming into present moment awareness when stressed is, by its nature, a way of extending self-compassion. Learning to self-soothe grows inner trust and resilience. Renowned meditation and lovingkindness teacher Sharon Salzberg provides these phrases of lovingkindness to use, recommending an emphasis on oneself in times of inner crisis. “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.” This ancient Buddhist meditation correlates with what we appreciate about the brain’s neuroplastic response to thoughts and feelings.
Working with emotional triggers and cultivating kindness to yourself is a living practice, not something to be gotten right. Yet you can be certain that strengthening the neural pathways of inner trust, safety, and contentment is worthwhile and entirely possible.
Grace Ogden teaches mindfulness for the GW Center for Integrative Medicine and by private appointment. She is the founder of Grace Productions, which offers transformational consulting and Living Sacred events. www.graceproductions.co