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Searching for Gold on a Wobbly Planet: Exploring New Perspectives as a Therapist in Process Earth Based Psychology, Contemplative Neuroscience and Process Mind.
Yes. It has now been scientifically proved that we can change our thoughts and our minds and that changes our brain! As the alchemists transformed base metals into gold, we can now, if we wish change our brain for the better! What does this actually mean and why is it so important? Until recently, it was thought by scientists that the brain was malleable only in childhood and up to our late twenties. Now scientists are discovering that the brain is malleable throughout our life. We actually have the ability to grow new neural pathways. This has tremendous implications for us all and our mental health. As a therapist and counsellor, we all need to be aware of the latest research when working with the mind and emotions.
Neuroplasticity (also known as cortical re-mapping) refers to the ability of the human brain to change as a result of one’s experience ie. that the brain is ‘plastic’ and ‘malleable’. Twenty years ago, it was almost universally accepted by neuroscientists that the brain contained all its neurons at birth, and that their number did not change with experience. We now know that new neurons are produced up until the moment of death, and we speak of ‘neuroplasticity’, a term which takes into account the fact that the brain evolves continuously in relation to our experience, and that a particular training, such as learning a musical instrument or a sport, can bring about a profound change. Mindfulness, altruism and other basic human qualities can be cultivated in the same way, and we can acquire the ‘know-how’ to enable us to do this. There are unlimited possibilities to change, so there is hope.
We often significantly underestimate our capacity for change. Our character traits continue as long as we do nothing to improve them, and when we reinforce our habits and patterns, thought after thought, day after day, year after year. The research on neuroplasticity clearly shows that specific kinds of mental training can influence how our brains operate, strongly implying that our emotional and mental wellbeing can indeed be cultivated through mental discipline; that is, through the development of awareness and the evolution of consciousness, to shift our individual emotional set-points toward higher levels of wellbeing. This now offers new inroads to personal development that once seemed impossible.
“This whole field has been transformed with the links between what is going on in our psychological and social world to molecular and cellular events.” (Sternberg).
According to Sharon Begley (2007), by making the best possible use of brain plasticity through the intentional training of conscious awareness, “the goal is not merely the absence of mental illness, which seems to be all that psychiatric and psychological therapies strive for these days, but the enduring presence of robust mental and emotional health”
Conventional psychiatry, is viewed by some, as approaching treatment by treating the symptoms of mental and emotional discomfort through psychopharmacology, without necessarily addressing the deeper, causal issues behind such discomfort. The conventional emphasis, as such, seems to be on the manipulation of neurotransmitters to alleviate symptoms. The new research acknowledges the capacity of conscious awareness to influence and change the brain, particularly when it is systematically and consistently trained over time.
It is interesting to note that in the late 1800s, Freud hypothesized about this, calling it the law of association by spontaneity, and in recent years, neuroscientists have come up with the catchy saying, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” In other words, how and what we pay attention to, has tremendous implications for how our brains grow. Also William James wrote in his late 19th century text, “The Principles of Psychology.” “My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.”
The brain, the whole nervous system is the mechanism by which information flows. The mind, our subjective experience, our consciousness, is a process that regulates the flow of information. Dr. Dan Siegal , Daniel Coleman, Kirk Warren Brown and Richard M. Ryan and many others now confirm that time and practice strengthens the mind and that people can monitor, and modify their mental health. We are able to monitor, observe and modify and influence our internal states, rather than just being caught up in them.
The Neuroscience of Meditation
People know twice as much about the brain today than they did in 1990, and science knows a hundred times more today than it did in 1990 about what happens in the brain when people engage in contemplative practices. Contemplative neuroscience is primarily the study of how introspective spiritual practices, such as meditation and prayer, affect the brain and nervous system. Using new scanning techniques, neuroscientists have discovered that certain areas of the brain light up constantly in Buddhists, which indicates positive emotions and good mood.
Daniel Goleman Tara Bennett-Goleman (2001), suggest that meditation works because of the relationship between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. Simply put, the amygdala is the part of the brain that decides if we should get angry or anxious (among other things), and the pre-frontal cortex is the part that makes us stop and think about things (it is also known as the inhibitory centre). Some studies of meditation have linked the practice to increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex, which is associated with concentration, planning, meta-cognition (thinking about thinking), and positive affect (good feelings). There are similar studies linking depression and anxiety with decreased activity in the same region, and/or with dominant activity in the right prefrontal cortex. Meditation increases activity in the left prefrontal cortex, and the changes are stable over time – even if you stop meditating for a while, the effect lingers.
Meditation and other ‘mindfulness’ techniques are designed to help people pay more attention to their present emotions, thoughts and sensations without reacting strongly to them. If you name your emotions, you can tame them, according to research that suggests why meditation works. Brain scans show that putting negative emotions into words calms the brain’s emotion center. That could explain meditation’s purported emotional benefits, because people who meditate often label their negative emotions in an effort to let them go. Psychologists have long believed that people who talk about their feelings have more control over them, but they don’t know exactly why it works.
Neuropsychologist and meditation teacher Rick Hanson, co – author of ‘Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom’ says that mindful attention is something like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner that illuminates what it rests upon and sucks it into the brain. Neuroplasticity is turbocharged for whatever is in the field of focused attention. And while neurons that fire together do wire together in terms of unconscious movements of information through the nervous system, the neurons that fire in the focal field of attention, particularly sustained attention really, really wire together. It’s how Nature wants us to learn from our conscious experiences.
UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman and his colleagues hooked 30 people up to functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, which scan the brain to reveal which parts are active and inactive at any given moment. The results indicated that only emotional labelling makes a difference to stress and being calmer and happier. “In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses,” Lieberman said of his study. “These findings may help explain the beneficial health effects of mindfulness meditation, and suggest, for the first time, an underlying reason why mindfulness meditation programs improve mood and health,” said David Creswell, a UCLA psychologist who led the second part of the study. So because the brain has the ability to change its structure and function-strengthening and expanding circuits that are frequently used, and weakening and shrinking those that are rarely engaged.
Meditators also showed a decreased level of activity in the parts of the brain related to negative emotions, such as depression, self-centredness and a lack of happiness or satisfaction. Meditation also produces a calming effect in the part of the brain that acts as a trigger for fear and anger and has also been shown to bring about a considerable strengthening of the immune system and of one’s capacity for concentration, as well as a reduction in arterial tension in people suffering from hypertension. Studies have shown that Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy can halve the rate of relapse in people who have suffered two or more episodes of serious depression. It was found that patients receiving ultraviolet light treatment for the skin disease psoriasis healed about four times faster when they practised mindfulness meditation while having their treatment.
“Let a man radically alter his thoughts, and he will be astonished at the rapid transformation” J. Allen Matthieu Ricard left a promising career in cellular genetics to study Buddhism in the Himalayas. After earning a PHD. in biology from the prestigious Pasteur Institute in France, he left Paris and moved to Darjeeling, India to study with a great Tibetan master. Ricardnow researches into brain plasticity and cognitive neuropsychology, with neuroscientists and Buddhist practitioners at the Mind and Life Institute (co-founded by the Dalai Lama). He says; “Several studies were launched: in the laboratories of the late Francisco Varela in France; of Richard Davidson and Antoine Lutz in Madison, Wisconsin; of Paul Ekman and Robert Levenson in San Francisco and Berkeley; of Jonathan Cohen and Brent Field in Princeton, Stephen Kosslyn in Harvard, and Tania Singer in Zurich. The Dalai Lama had learned of Davidson’s work from other scientists and in 1992 invited him to Dharamsala, India, to interview monks with extensive meditation experience about their mental and emotional lives.”
In later research, Lutz asked Ricard and other monks to meditate on “unconditional loving-kindness and compassion.” He immediately noticed powerful gamma activity – brain waves oscillating at roughly 40 cycles per second, indicating intensely focused thought. Gamma waves are usually weak and difficult to see. So, maybe compassion could be exercised like a muscle; with the right training, people can increase their empathy. The brain’s ability to produce “attention and affective processes” – emotions, in the technical language of Davidson’s study – it might also be used to modify emotional responses like depression. Also, working with the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Research, Mingyur Rinpoche, a highly trained and accomplished Tibetan Buddhist teacher underwent brain imaging scans to test the effects of meditation. The studies found that the brain changed significantly during meditation. Gamma synchronicity is the synchronicity of gamma rhythms that represent different populations of neurons “working together” in a network, in order to carry out cognitive functions. The gamma activity, increased by meditation, remaining high even after meditation had ceased.
James Austin, a neurologist and author of the book “Zen and the Brain” began practicing Zen meditation during a visit to Japan. After years of practice, he found himself having to re-evaluate what his professional background had taught him. “I felt deep bliss. I realized that nothing in my training or experience had prepared me to help me understand what was going on in my brain. It was a wake-up call for a neurologist.“
Eric Thompson who wrote an ‘Introduction to the Scientific Study of How Meditation Impacts the Brain’ also says that the brain takes the shape of whatever the mind rests upon. So, if you regularly rest your mind on regrets, resentments, conflicts, self-reproach, it will change your brain in that direction, because neurons that fire together wire together, for better or worse. On the other hand, if you rest your mind on those things that are going well, what you’re grateful for, good connections you have with others, your good qualities, what you accomplish in a day, you are going to build up neural substrates and circuits of positivity.
Of course, many of us in eg. Cognitive behaviour therapy, in Buddhism and in Process Psychology and Positive Psychology are familiar with these ideas and know we know we can change our minds but its never been shown how that can literally change our brain.
“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from the old ones.” John Maynard Keynes
So how does this all link to Process Psychology, Earth based Psychology and Process Mind? When we use earth based psychology techniques and practice accessing our Process Mind altered states intelligence, it helps us expand who we think we are. We shift from our primary identity and we access different states of mind that are not part of our ongoing daily consciousness (our secondary processes, which are those aspects of ourselves that are further away from our conscious mind) This, in turn changes how we think and feel and therefore changes our neural pathways in the brain. We can quickly and easily ‘train’ our mind and brain to access our dreaming and essence levels and then reintegrate our experiences back into our more mainstream and normal everyday life. The 2 exercises on the handout and in Dr. Arnold Mindell’s latest book, ‘Process Mind, a User’s Guide to Connecting with the Mind of God,’ demonstrate how we can use Process Mind to make a paradigm shift in how we think and feel. In an interview (by Alan Steinfeld Dec 29, 2010 on www.newrealities.com) Mindell says;
“As a physicist I always loved investigating the nature of the universe: “What are the laws that govern this universe? Are there laws? And if so, how can we understand them?” Einstein called the laws of nature “the mind of God.” And as you may know, physics in the last 50 or 60 years has been looking for the unified field theory, something that pulls all the physics together. There are various forces in physics, such as gravity and electromagnetic force and strong and weak nuclear forces, and what have you, and there is no TOE (theory of everything). Scientists are looking for that TOE. But psychology has had the same problem. There is no theory of everything. How do body problems connect to dreams? How can you use that knowledge about body problems and dreams when working with large groups? I have always been looking for a unifying field theory not just in physics and not just in psychology, but something that will connect physics, psychology, and spiritual traditions, because spiritual traditions have always been trying to think up and imagine images of some unifying force-God with all its various names, some Mind of God, some intelligence in the universe that moves us. My research on the process mind is an attempt to pull these various fields together. My theory of the process mind simply says that, as you and others know, something moves us that we cannot quite define yet.
Aspects of Processmind can be found in everyday life, that some kind of “field” or force that moves us about. It appears in our dreams and body experiences. Physicists intuit this field in their hope for a “unified field theory” embracing strong, weak, electromagnetic and gravity force fields. But Aboriginal Australians and native peoples everywhere have always spoken of a “field-like” presence, such as the “Dreaming. So there are strong similarities between modern physics, psychology and spiritual traditions. The processmind is an organizing factor that is open to all vectors, that is all directions, all forces. By having greater access to this the processmind, the tensions of everyday life, relationships, and even large group diversity conflicts become easier to facilitate.”
Processmind means an earth-based experience of the universal state of consciousness that pervades all reality. It is an altered state intelligence, a non dual, non local field of consciousness and includes everything we observe in dreams and reality. It is perhaps our most basic, least known, and greatest power, combining the nonlocality of modern physics with altered states of consciousness found in peak experiences.
- Non locality, the deepest and essence level experience. It appears as presence, the feeling that is projected onto or found in earth based totem field experiences, ‘Process mind is non local or universal and has effects that can be localised in space and time….We find similar ideas in Bohm’s quantum potential theory, Jung’s collective unconscious, the power or and the alchemist’s Unus Mundus, Sheldrakes morphogentic fields, Reich’s orgone energy, yoga’s prana and Taoism’s Tao or Qi. It also appears as quantum waves of physics, in mystical God experiences and ‘coming together’ in community life.
- Bilocality is the tem Mindell uses for the appearance of process mind in subjective, dualistic , dreamlike experiences. It suggests that two or more things are both separate and not separate. Bilocality is found in the diversity of dream figures and for defining, identifying and ‘entangling’.
- Process mind appears in the consensus reality, mainstream real world in terms of space, time, and material separation eg. my thoughts, my body.
Earth experience also becomes essential for both our inner and outer processes. Mindell says; “Understanding means literally ‘standing under’. In a very concrete way, the earth is the common ‘understanding’ of everything occurring on its surface……The dream spirit of the earth grounds, inspires and teaches; it is an unfathomable being by itself.”