How I came to develop MAP Training — a trip down memory lane!
The other day, I was meditating with some friends of mine, a few of whom happen to be Zen monks. Before we began to meditate, one of the monks provided instruction on how to meditate. In the Zen tradition, we meditate by sitting in an upright and cross-legged position with our arms at our sides and our hands together. This position provides a solid base for the body so that we don’t move around too much and don’t have to THINK about keeping still. Because we are upright and our back is straight, we are also less likely to go to sleep or daydream.
He went on to tell everyone more about the breath and how to use it to maintain focus on the present moment. The breath is useful in this regard because it is always present and always changing. Meanwhile, as you focus on breathing, you tend to breath more deeply. Deep breathing increases the amount of oxygen that’s absorbed into your lungs, which is then delivered to your internal organs, most notably the brain. This increase in oxygen is especially important because it provides energy to the brain during the mental training that characterizes meditation.
As the monk was describing these procedures and the physiology behind them, one of the newcomers to the group blurted out, "wow, that is so interesting." At which point, the monk said, "it’s not interesting, it’s true." It's not just interesting — it is true. Many things in life are interesting. But not all of them are true. And some things you will just never know because they are unknowable.
I have been studying the brain for more than 30 years. As I was preparing this introduction, I thought of all the interesting things that I could tell you about the brain and about brain training. After all, the brain is arguably the most interesting organ that we possess and learning is about the most important thing that we do. There is no shortage of interest in the brain. Many, if not most, TED talks are about the brain. Radio and TV programs refer to it all the time. Book stores are filled with books about the brain. Whole sections are devoted to the brain and brain training in particular: How to change your brain by training your brain; How to build a better brain through brain training; and on and on.
How can we take what we know about the brain and make it part of our everyday life? What type of brain training could we do day in and day out – to make our brain bigger and our lives better? How can we best train our brain? Then I discovered meditation. Of course, mediation has been around for thousands of years, and I did not discover it. But when I did finally try it, I felt like it was the most significant discovery of my life, and I have had a few. What is mediation? Do you know? You can't really know without doing it yourself. As my monk friend says, "the only good type of meditation is the type you do." But before you do it, let's talk about it for awhile.
In simple terms, meditation is a form of mental training during which you sit in silence with your own thoughts. You learn to pay attention, but then you forget to pay attention. Then you remember that you forgot to pay attention and you learn to do it again — and again — and again. Meanwhile, you are watching those thoughts, learning that they are transient and always changing. You see how often you think about the same things over and over again. And then, you begin to learn to let some of those thoughts go — to not follow them around in your head. This is tough to do because our thoughts are so important to us. They are so darn compelling. Letting go of them seems impossible. It requires effort and practice to learn. Yes, medication is difficult. This is true.
If you haven’t ever meditated, you might wonder what it is you are learning about when you meditate. Basically, you are learning who you are – who are you without that little voice in your head telling you what to do? Who are you without all the constant chatter? Without all the traveling back and forth through time? Who are you – without all the memories? Who is that person between the thoughts?
"Who am I?" The great Greek philosopher Socrates used to go around Athens telling everyone to know thyself. "Know thyself. Know thyself." Finally, someone in the town yelled out to him, “Hey Socrates, you are always telling us to know ourselves, do you know yourself?” At which point Socrates said, "Of course not, but I am trying. And if I don’t try to know myself, who will?"
Now I wish I could say that mediation will tell you who you are, but it won’t, and that is not the point. The point is to learn as much as you can about your own mind. This may sound egoistic or even narcissistic, but ironically, knowing more about yourself increases the ability to feel compassion for others. As you sit in silence, you see how similar your thoughts and worries and feelings are to every other being on this planet. At least this is what I discovered.
If you don’t already do so, please go home and turn everything off, sit on a pillow and listen to your own mind for ten minutes. Do it once and then do it again the next day and then just start doing it every few days. You don’t have to become a monk or move to the mountains to meditate. You just have to sit down and do it. It is often said that the practice of meditation is both wide and deep. In other words, there is no limit to what you can learn through meditation.
But don’t stop there. Training the brain requires energy, which it gets from oxygen in the blood. In fact, the brain uses more oxygen than any organ in the body. The fastest way to get energy to the brain is through aerobic exercise. So after you meditate, put on some gym shoes and get your heart pumping with some aerobic exercise.
MAP Training stands for Mental And Physical Training. We do it with meditation and aerobic exercise. And we do them together, one after another — because doing them together is better than doing them alone. And that is the truth, as far as I know it today.
GOOD LUCK AND AND LET ME KNOW HOW IT GOES!
Tracey J. Shors, Ph.D.
Neuroscientist, Distinguished Professor, Rutgers University