On Training Your Brain

In our busy, modern lives, there isn’t much space for our brains to function free from stimulus. There’s constantly something: a text conversation with a friend who lives across the country, a quick perusal of Instagram, a podcast we’re listening to, a book that we’ve just picked up. Dinner to be made, dishes to be done. Dogs to be walked.

It’s even common to layer stimuli: listening to a podcast while washing dishes. Walking the dogs while chatting on the phone with your little sister. Eating dinner while watching Netflix. We’ve come to the point where our brains are so afraid of boredom–so afraid of room for thought–that we fill them up with layer after layer of stimuli.

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Time to sit quietly is a rarity in the modern life.

This is a huge contrast to how our mental lives worked in the past. Before the era of podcasts and smartphones, there were times built into the day where you simply couldn’t escape boredom. Sitting on the toilet, for instance. Or walking the dogs. Or chopping veggies for dinner… or any other number of times.

For centuries, much of human survival centered on mundane, rote tasks that put you in an almost meditative state. Plowing land, hunting, fishing, chopping wood, gathering food. You name it. The stimulation of storytelling usually came in the form of human connection: stories told at the end of the day, invented games between friends. But otherwise, you were left to be in the moment, fully enveloped in your own skin. We didn’t have pocket-sized entertainment centers, ready to be pulled out at any second.

I’ve seen changes in the amount of stimuli in modern life even just since my childhood. As a kid, I remember long hours of lying on the couch in the summer, gazing up at the ceiling. Thinking. Or sometimes not thinking at all, just watching the way the afternoon light flickered as cars swooshed down our street.

I remember mucking out horse stalls and getting lost in the sheer rhythm of the motion: scoop and toss, scoop and toss, scoop and toss. It felt good, that combination of physical labor and quiet brain. I always came home feeling calmer. Happier.

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I’m not the only one who thinks finding space for our minds is healthy. A growing body of research shows that meditation–the act of purposefully existing in the present moment, without distraction or stimuli–has profound impacts on our physical and mental health.

Yep, meditation. I know, it sounds terribly hippy dippy (or does it still? I have seen so many articles from mainstream sources lately that maybe the practice is no longer considered hyper-hippy. You’ll have to let me know). But it provides a structured way for people to regain some of the quietude that their brains need to thrive.

I first started meditating about two years ago. I’d been reading study after study about the benefits, but had always held off. It felt too weird. Too appropriative.

And then meditation apps started coming out, and the slick marketing and areligious messaging appealed to me. I downloaded one that was highly rated–Headspace–and did the ten day free trial.

I immediately liked the ritual of it. For those ten days, I’d make myself a cup of tea in one of the knobbly blue mugs Jordan’s aunt made for us. Those mugs hold heat forever, so usually by the end of my ten minute meditation, my tea would be just the right temperature. That first sip of tea after meditating–the steam wafting into my face–was like waking up after the deepest, most refreshing sleep ever.

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Taking selfies during sunrises is probs not part of the Headspace method.

I liked the sound of the narrator, Andy’s, voice. And I liked the way he used simple graphics to portray ideas about the mind, like the concept that your thoughts are like traffic on a road. And you can choose to sit beside the road and watch them go by peacefully without chasing them or trying to stop them.

The meditation itself wasn’t particularly easy for me. I’ve long struggled with anxiety, and the focus on my breath made me feel more anxious. Every breath through the practice would get a little harder, until it felt like there was a stone on my chest. But afterwards–after the brief moment where I was allowed to let my focus slip from my breath–I felt really good. Like someone had pumped my limbs full of heavy calm.

And better, in my daily life I’d start to notice when my thoughts had trailed down unproductive avenues. I practiced drawing them away from whatever it was, and refocusing them on what I was doing at the moment. I began to feel the ground under my feet, to notice the breeze on my face during walks. To feel the slippery bite of ice cubes and condensation through a glass on my fingers. I savored these sensations. Went for walks just to feel the wind against my palms, or to watch the leaves rustle in the trees. I felt like I was coming alive, after having been in a stupor since my childhood.  

By the end of the ten day trial, while I didn’t love the actual act of sitting for meditation, I was hooked on how I felt after. I shelled out $100 for a year’s subscription (and for those of you who have read my frugality post, you know how huge spending that much money on an app is for me!), and decided to keep at it.

For an entire summer, I meditated twice a day. Once in the morning, and once in the evening. At first my chest still felt constricted when I focused on my breath, but I learned to not worry about it. And as I stopped worrying, the fear of it happening disappeared. Soon it didn’t happen at all.

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Noticin’ pretty stuff is one of my favorite side effects of mindfulness.

I became curious about what other ways my body worked in the background. What was my breathing like when I wasn’t paying attention? What happened in my throat when I swallowed? What did my thoughts become like when I was angry (staccato, short, circular) or sad (long, meandering, also circular)?

I did series after series–on anxiety, on kindness, on anger, on focus. I muddled my way through visualizations where I was supposed to envision filling my body up with sunlight, learned how to curb negative emotion through thought tagging, and practiced allowing my thoughts to drift before pulling them back to a focal point.

I meditated in my house. In the woods after a run. At night before bed. In the morning before work. While on an airplane. At friends’ houses.

And through all of this, I changed as a person. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true. I’d tapped into a tool that allowed me to retrain my brain. I could reroute my negative thought patterns into more positive ones. I no longer had to be a captive of anxiety, because I was no longer scared of being anxious. I could control my mood swings by simply being aware of them and labeling them–and as a result my relationship with Jordan improved dramatically.

Over two years later, I can say with some certainty that many of those changes have been permanent. I still find myself automatically redirecting my thoughts when they turn dark. I’ve become 90% better about curbing my mood swings. And in general I’m a happier, better balanced person. I don’t brood on things anymore, and it takes a lot to take me out of the moment.

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Slow dinners are something I try to enforce at least a few times a week (also, I love Jordan’s wedding ring <3)

But some of that initial magic was the honeymoon phase. It was finding a new way of seeing the world. Lately, I often find myself choosing to distract my brain with technology or conversation instead of being curious about what my body or the world around me is doing (though pregnancy has certainly helped bring me back to that state–it’s hard not to be hyper aware of your body while you’re pregnant. And those baby flutters will make you vividly conscious, even when you’re trying to focus on something–like what your boss is saying). I’ve gone back to texting while I walk, or scrolling Instagram while I sit on the toilet. I’ve let the fog slide back into my brain.

I still meditate regularly, though not daily. And I’ve ended my Headspace subscription (at this point I no longer need someone to run me through the exercises). I find that I sink deeper into meditation if I’m regulating it myself. But I’ve seen the value of a daily practice, and when I have my ducks in a row it’s something that is an essential part of my routine.

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The sunrise, and dog mania, that I was watching as I took the above selfie photo. 

I also know that when I’m healthiest, I’m meditating regularly–which helps me also choose to put down my phone/turn off my computer and just exist regularly throughout the day. When I’m mentally having a hard time, I struggle to make healthy choices. I’m more likely to spend hours staring at my phone, likely to try to numb my brain from the things I don’t want to be feeling or thinking about. The real trick is learning how to keep up healthy habits even during hard time. Especially during hard times.  

Are there ways you disconnect from the bustle of modern life? What are your favorite methods for staying healthy and happy?

 

2 thoughts on “On Training Your Brain

  1. Robyn says:

    I find that spending less time on my phone really improves my overall mood. My go to method of disconnecting is sleep. Not the healthiest and certainly not very mindful, but it really helps me to reboot my emotions especially after a hard day. Meditation is something I have also been meaning to practice but I’m having trouble commiting to yoga much less. Thanks for the insight into the Headspace app.

    • sbuckleit says:

      Sometimes it really is best to just go to sleep! Often when I’m having a hard day, that’s the last thing I want to do–my brain just wants to stay turned on, reading or watching or scrolling. But when I finally force myself to just go to bed, I always wake up feeling so much better. So I feel you 🙂

      I actually have trouble committing to yoga as well. I’m not sure why, but I have a much harder time being mindful throughout, and I always feel like I’m supposed to be getting something out of it physically, or like I’m doing it wrong. Meditation is much easier for me, because literally your only job (at least when you’re starting out) is to focus on your breath and allow curiosity toward the sensations and thoughts that you experience. It’s pretty great!

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