Well, it's Monday. Be honest - did you look forward to going to work this morning?
Now consider this:
“If you have food in your fridge, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of the world.
If you have any amount of money in the bank, any amount in your wallet, and some spare change, you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.
If you woke up this morning with more health than illness, you are more fortunate than the million people who will not survive this week.
If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the agony of imprisonment or torture, or the horrible pangs of starvation, you are luckier than 500 million people who are currently alive and suffering.” (Quote source here.)
Are you still thinking about how awful it was to show up for your job this morning?
It's all about perspective. We sometimes seem to choose to view things negatively when it would be just as easy, and a lot happier, to put a positive spin on them.
The dictionary defines perspective as follows:
1) The capacity to view things in their true relations or relative importance, or
2) The interrelation in which a subject or its parts are mentally viewed.
We’ll start here: “The capacity to view things in their true relations.” Even this definition implies that there is only one true, right way to view a situation. For our purposes, we won’t talk about perspectives as being right or wrong, but as tending toward more rational or less rational.
In a nutshell, most of our automatic judgments are pretty irrational, meaning they lack a certain about of reasoning. But it’s okay, this isn’t your fault – the brain made you do it! (We’ll get into that in a moment.)
I’m sure we’ve all been in a situation where we’re triggered (usually by a comment someone close to us makes, whether it’s our boss or our dad), and suddenly words fly out of our mouths seemingly before we’ve even thought about what to say. Sometimes we realize immediately after we say it, and we’re mortified. And sometimes, we are already so clouded by our irrational interpretation of the comment that we just keep talking, digging our hole deeper and deeper.
This happens to everyone! And it’s because of our perspective. We choose how we want to interpret the environment we’re in. And when I say “choose” I don’t mean some easy breezy, haphazard decision – When I say we “choose” something, I mean that our behavior is programmed in the makeup of our brains. Repeated behaviors throughout our lives teach us habits, which are literally neural pathways in our brain that we’ve strengthened by acting a certain way over and over. But we are responsible for this makeup, and we have the ability to change our programming.
A lot of meditation is just re-training the mind how to think and how to respond. We do this work during our meditation practice. Since the NFL season just started, let’s use that to draw a comparison: The Chargers players don’t show up to a game planning to employ brand new skills and tactics that day. They practice the skills plays BEFORE game day, so that when those situations arise in a real game, they’ll be prepared. The more they practiced, the more instinctual the responses will be.
That’s what our meditation does. We sit down, we use whatever comes up to practice on: Sounds, sensations, the breath, thoughts. All of these things become tools instead of nuisances. So we use these things to train our mind to not be judgmental, to react slower and more mindfully, to interpret things the way that we CHOOSE to interpret them, instead of the way we’re CONDITIONED to interpret them. That way, when we leave the meditation room, when we head out into our lives, into the real game, we’re prepared for that argument with our girlfriend. We’re prepared for the tight deadline on the project at work. We’re prepared when our best friend comes to us crying.
Learning to change your perspective about what you see and feel during meditation isn’t all about you – a lot of it is about every person you’ll come into contact with tomorrow. Don’t they deserve to interact with the best you? Don’t you deserve the best chance at a happy, fulfilling day?
SO HOW DOES MEDITATION DO THIS?
There are two parts of the brain involved:
- The lateral prefrontal cortex, which deals with creating the most rational, logical perspective, and the
- Medial prefrontal cortex, which constantly references back to your own perspective and experiences. You can remember this because the medial prefrontal cortex acts like the “Me Center”
The brain without meditation: You’re constantly operating in the medial prefrontal cortex – you’re stuck on yourself. That means that when a feeling of anxiety or stress comes up (or some other trigger), you automatically assume that there is a problem related to YOU or YOUR safety. And then of course, the fight or flight response system flares up and all judgment goes out the window.
In contrast, if you meditate regularly, the connection between this Me Center and the bodily sensation/fear/anxiety centers begins to break down. Finally, every feeling of stress or fear won’t mean something is wrong with you or around you. You’ll also begin to strengthen a connection between the lateral (rational) prefrontal cortex and these same environmental triggers: When you experience something painful or potentially stressful, you’ll be able to look at it more rationally, with more of an outsider’s perspective.
Think about it: Isn’t it helpful when you’re overwhelmed in a stressful situation to ask an uninvolved third party for their opinion? It’s totally helpful! Through meditation, you become your own uninvolved third party – you’re less biased, cooler, more calm, more collected.
Yogis like to call this process of being your own “unbiased third party” your intuition – this is what it means when people say “tap into your intuition.” It’s not mystical – it’s neuroscience.
But you need to meditate to see these effects – otherwise the brain will revert back to its old conditioning. Neuroplasticity (the ability to change our neural pathways) works both ways like that. You have to ensure that the new neural pathways you’re creating remain strong.
In this way, choosing to see things in a positive light, choosing to give people the benefit of the doubt, choosing to see the glass as half full are not merely pleasantries. Optimism has been scientifically proven to improve your health. I understand that it’s not always that easy to see the silver lining, but my hope is that now you might take just a moment when you’re faced with a situation to choose optimism because it’s good for you.
For example, consider gravity: Gravity can feel like a weight on our shoulders, bearing down on us (think: trying to run up a steep hill.) But gravity, used correctly, is also the natural resistance that creates muscle, strength, and endurance.
It’s up to you to decide how the weight of the world will affect you.