When I woke up this morning, I had a different brain than the one I have now.
Neuroplasticity is the idea that our brain is always able to adapt and change.
We know that when we are born, our brain has a huge capacity to grow and develop. Tiny babies take in the world and learn continuously.
We used to think that by adulthood, this was done and our brain was fixed. But brain scans and the field of neuroscience have shown that this is not true—in fact, everything we do has the ability to impact our brain development, and we can change and grow until the day we die.
So why, then, do we find it hard to give up a bad habit, or change our minds and how we think? For example, how we parent?
Well, I think of it like this: if you lived down south and wanted to visit Scotland—and get there as quick as possible—you would probably take the motorways rather than try a brand new, back-roads, unfamiliar route. Our brain is the same.
Or, another scenario: imagine that you see a beautiful little house you would like to go visit. It’s through the wood and on the other side of a meadow. If you wander there only once, you would hardly be able to tell you had been there; the grass would spring back and you would have to find a new way the next day. But if you do this every day, you start to wear a track through. So each day, it gets easier to follow and find your way.
However, if for some reason we decide to go a different way, we have to start all over again—rebuilding that path. And if we are tired or upset or stressed for any reason, or in a rush, we may resort to the old, well-worn path over building a new one.
Building new paths takes effort and persistence, but it can be done. Eventually, if we use the new path enough that the old one will become grown over and the new one becomes the easier route.
Let’s take how we learn to parent as yet another example.
How do we learn to parent? Well, our first ideas of it are laid down by how we are parented. Often, this is so ingrained, we don’t ever question that there could be another way of doing it!
But let’s say our parenting wasn’t great—maybe our parents yelled and threatened and even hit us. We could just end up repeating that. But perhaps we also see how our friends’ parents are. And later, how our friends are as parents themselves. Or, if you’re lucky like me, you train in child development, and you learn about brain development and compassion, and you learn new and better ways of parenting, regardless of how you were raised. Already, your brain has started to work out new pathways.
But, under the stress of parenting, it’s easy to divert back to the old paths, especially if you were not lucky, and did not get to see or learn about other ways of parenting.
So, not only do we need to build a new path, we need to practice, to wear down that new path until it’s familiar. So how do we do that?
Well, we can learn and read and talk to people, but the best way is to do. For me, learning mindfulness really helped me start to retrain my brain to feel a sense of calmness.
One simple way we can do this is to spend a few moments each day watching our thoughts. What kind of things does your mind head toward naturally? Where do those paths lead? To somewhere calm and happy, or to dark, anxious, angry places? If we notice that our thoughts lead to places where we don’t want to spend time, that lead us toward stress, anxiety, anger, or jealousy, just notice them. Once we allow ourselves to feel those things, it becomes possible to then enjoy the positives that bring us joy or that we’re grateful for.
Let me give you an example from my time at a peaceful retreat:
I learned during lockdown that the view from my window could dramatically affect my thoughts.
We live in a small house, we are the only ones who rent in our row, and we are a mid-terrace. While we have a beautiful view, as lockdown started, it reminded me of how little of that view belongs to me. At the front, there are fields belonging to a house down the road—we could see them planting a garden and letting children run free. If we take a dozen steps to the back window, we see our tiny square of concrete, surrounding on all sides by beautiful gardens that belong to others.
My children are understandably confused and upset by this—they don’t understand ownership and inequality. We share all we have with others most of the time, so they wonder why they can’t also have these beautiful spaces. Instead, we sit and watch others enjoying them.
To add insult to injury, both of our front and back areas are an access for neighbours, so we have to keep coming indoors (to make sure the space is clear, but also because of quarantine) if people want to come through.
I won’t lie—I grew bitter about this. Now, don’t get me wrong: when faced with inequality, this is a valid response, a useful one. One I hope, at some point, I draw on to stand up for and use my voice to end all sorts of inequalities. But, in the here and now, it was taking away my joy. I was pushing away people because they were more privileged than me—and in doing so, I’d turned our time in lockdown into a prison.
And when I say I was bitter—I’d resorted to peeping out the windows to see if people around us were doing what they were meant to. (Me, the great rebel who never pays attention to rules, and here I am finding all sorts of reasons to moan about someone else breaking them!) The thing is, whether people are following the rules or not, I didn’t need to allow that to eat away at me.
“Let bygones be bygones” had gone out the window, and I wanted things to be cross and angry about. I wanted to feed that feeling! Ever been there? Most of us have at some point—you know being angry and upset won’t help and feels crap, and yet you find ways to continue feeling that way.
So, one day, I simply sat in our little square of concrete and raised my eyes beyond the skyline, up into the beautiful trees that surround our home. And I also noticed our big, blue sky, and oh, the sound! So many birds singing—what a beautiful sound! Research confirms the benefits of seeing and being in nature. And I realized that each time I glance out my window, I’m blessed with that natural view! Even when I don’t take a moment to truly appreciate it, my brain still recognizes that I have green and trees all around me.
And just like that, my mood changes.
I find calm, I find joy, and I remember to be grateful that I am at home safe when many are out there working and risking their health and lives to make it safe for the rest of us.
Nothing about my situation has changed, and yet, everything has changed!
I won’t forget that feeling of being trapped and angry at the inequality of the world, and neither should we. Yes, when the time is right, we should use those feelings to fuel our passion for changing the unfairness in our world. But sometimes it needs to be set aside and balanced against all the ways we are blessed. Because not only nature, but gratitude as well, has been shown to lead to better mental health, lower stress levels, and better physical health
So, remember that while all feelings are valid, we can choose when and where and how we will water them.
Did this realization just change me for good?
No, it’s called a practice for a reason. I had to keep practicing, to notice how I felt, and then choosing which flowers to water that day.
And sometimes, the exhaustion of being the sole carer in my family on top of being shut in this small space would overwhelm me, and no amount of choosing would help. I’d feel like I was suffocating, and those days, I had to choose to be gentle with myself and my children, to let us all rest.
The practice of choosing takes great energy, and there may be days you just don’t have that energy, so be gentle on those days, and try again the next.