There is something special that happens with meditation if you stick with it over time. I can’t mark the date when my brain converted to recognizing my thoughts are separate from Me, but when I did, a blindingly bright light bulb was turned on by Me on me for Me. My Me became a different me than the me I thought I knew was me for the entire life of me. I became aware that “Me” is separate from the me with the thoughts. Probably the most eloquent way I’ve heard it put is from Peter Sage: “You are not your thoughts.” It’s hard to describe but I’m going to give it a shot.
When you are thinking thoughts, you might feel as though you are in control of them, that they are you, but in actuality, the you that “perceives” or recognizes something as a thought, is not in control of any of those thoughts. Bear with me here. I’m going to explain using some medical terminology, but don’t get too scared if you’re not the scientific type. Most of it should make sense without having a medical background.
Just like you have involuntary reflexes (like a sneeze), your brain generates involuntary electrical impulses that are a result of neurotransmitters (signals between nerve cells) and hormones (signals in the blood) within the brain, the nervous system, and the blood stream. This chemical soup of signals is a result of millions of data points coming in through the senses at any given moment. The senses take in information from the environment that get converted into electro-chemical signals to tell your population of cells to seek pleasure, avoid pain, stay alive, watch Game of Thrones, or scroll Facebook. The soup bathes the cells in signals to give information about what’s going on out there in the world. An example of the cell signalling system is when you put an immature cell in a culture medium (man-made soup in a petri dish). Depending on what the signals are in the synethetic soup, this cell will become a muscle cell, a nerve cell, a skin cell, etc. When you have a fully-formed human, the cell population in that human still receives signals from the soup, but the soup’s ingredients are determined by what you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. What you sense in your environment affects the soup your cells are bathed in.
Let’s think of a scenario where the soup changes ingredients pretty quickly. You’re on your way to work. You see a car veering into your lane forcing you to have to think fast. A whole host of neurotransmitters and hormones suddenly flood into your personal soup. Your cells must respond instantaneously or else you might get hurt or die. In milliseconds, your heart rate increases, your breathing accelerates, your lungs open up, your pupils dilate, and your information processing channels open up wide making memory capture completely different than it was just moments before you were singing along to Taylor Swift. The state of your soup completely changed in a flash.
The soup system works really well to save our lives and protect us from harm. But it also can work against us. Let’s say we have a child who hears an argument between parents. The state of the child was happy and playful, chasing the kitty. Voices start to get louder, and an association might be made where loud adult voices result in a sad faces and tears. What kind of neuro-chemical soup do you think might be happening within the child’s body? He hears, sees, feels, tastes, and smells things in his environment. His senses are arguably more acute because kids download their programs by observing the world, at least for the first 7 years. So experiencing his environment through his senses may result in a neuro-chemical soup that results in a whole bunch of physical and mental processes within his entire body, along with the memory of what was observed.
His brain could develop a pattern to avoid the yelling, to protect him from perceived harm (crying), to try to completely avoid the feelings he generated while that particular soup was bathing his cells. Think of the emotional reflexes that came about that may have nothing to do with the reasons the argument happened. It was just a bunch of signals that occurred in his soup. If the observation and reflex happen again, those chemicals and pathways in the brain get stronger and a persistent thought pattern might occur that is deeply rooted in something that has no clear link to the emotion that arises in the future.
Fast forward to the boy as an adult. He perceives that trigger which causes the same chemical soup that he experienced as a child, and now those experiences have built on themselves over many more years, and the thoughts may become dominated by overwhelming thoughts of loss, despair, or sadness.
The particular flavor profile of the soup served its purpose at one point. However, I think that much of our early programming probably isn’t serving us in our adult lives. We don’t have the right soup for the situations we now face. The programming was useful to seek pleasure, avoid pain, stay alive for a specific situation in the past. But the old software versions that probably don’t need to be running in the background of your brain should be dumped. The problem with a brain is that clearing out our useless programs is not as easy as clicking “Delete” or “Uninstall” in order to remove it. The only technology we have today is to become aware of the useless programs, to be mindful of how your programming is running you, and to have You redirect your thoughts to rewire the thought processes to serve You.
I’ve found that meditation is probably the most powerful tool that we currently have to slowly delete the old software. It creates awareness of your thought patterns as being separate from You. It can show You that you might be dominated by negative self-talk throughout the day. However, it gives you the power to redirect those thoughts. You have to become aware of it all first.
Someday we may find ourselves in a “Total Recall” future where the junk can be deleted easily and you can download all the programs you need to serve up the life you want. But until that day, if you become more aware of your thoughts running wild as reflexes that are not the real You, the ultimate overseer of the programs, You have the power to clean up your hard disk, one breath at a time.