The Road Less Traveled

Are you at the liberty of choosing the thoughts that cross your mind? Do you struggle with mild anxiety and melancholy, or lack of focus or depth? I promise I’m not selling something. I just think this is an increasingly common problem. As a culture we’ve lost any sense of mental discipline. We don’t cultivate silence, we think we are the victims of our brains, and have no control over our thoughts.
Many people believe they are at the mercy of their brains and thoughts. Of course, in some ways you are. What you have been given in terms of the physical apparatus of your brain as well as the experiences you’ve had are the machinery you’re working with, but you are the engineer, the mechanic. You can change a lot, tune it up and improve it. You are more than your brain, and therefore, and you can start exercising it to shape up the way you want. That is, there is a method to the madness of pruning your thought life.pathway-to-cloud-computing
Basic neuroscience has taught us that our brains respond to repeated behaviors by pruning the neural pathways that aren’t used and reinforcing the ones that are. If you think of it as a highway, the lane that is most heavily used develops ruts. Your tires easily stay in the lane in the rut, and sometimes it can take a little effort to get your car our of the ruts. Heavy traffic reinforces these ruts. It’s the same with your brain – if you repeat a thought or habit it will develop a “rut” and you’ll sort of automatically go there. It may even feel as if you don’t have control over it – you can just set up cruise control and go.
It’s pretty simple, really, to change thought patterns and behaviors. Simple, but not necessarily easy. Your brain is going to want to keep going back to the well traveled rut, not because you’re a weak, lazy idiot – but because that is what’s normal and easy. It will just take some initial effort to start smoothing that out and creating new neural pathways.
Now think about this in terms of changing a thought pattern or habit. It feels so hard because it takes a little effort and mindfulness over an extended period of time to make the change. But it will start getting easier as you develop new habits. To add complexity to the process, your brain also rewards you with a hit of dopamine when it’s something you want – say, sugar or getting on your phone. So that makes it even harder when you’re trying to change the habit, because your brain is enticing you with reward to just go the easy route.
The point of all this information is just to illustrate that even though at times it feels we are victims of our brains, we aren’t. Believing you are a vicim of your brain is just a lie to keep you small and stuck. I’m not promising that lifting mental patterns – especially anxious and depressive tendencies – is easy, but knowing that you have some control over the process is crucial to healing. Knowing that it will take time and smooth out the ruts is essential to not getting discouraged. Some of these patterns are learned from an early age, so think of the time you’ve spent traveling those roads. It will take time and patience and a large dose of grace to change them. Some of these patterns reward us with pleasurable feelings and emotional comfort, so they require grieving and envisioning a new way of life. Sometimes the path to healing doesn’t feel like healing. It feels like torment and it feels cold and lonely. We’re letting go of all these hindrances, but they were like little friends that are hard to say goodbye to. Throwing off the old man is painful, but it’s the road to freedom and joy. I know it is, it has to be. I’m on the road now, too – just a fellow traveler. But I keep working to throw off the things that are unnecessary and my load is getting lighter. We’ll get there together friends.

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