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.
MANY and indeed most serious mediators use the breath 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 and how we use it to learn for more than 30 years now. As I was preparing to write 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; How to use your mind to find your brain; and on and on.
How can we take what we think we know about the brain and make it part of our everyday lives? What type of brain training could we use day in and day out throughout our lives – something that would always be challenging and yet attainable? As we all know, each person learns differently and at a different rate than any other person. Some of us come to the table with more or less genetic talent, acquire more or less education, and we obviously all have different life experiences. Moreover, as we go through life, our individual learning abilities change. Therefore, it is not readily apparent how individuals could train their brain such that they are always challenging themselves to learn more and always being successful at it — especially day in and day out.
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 in which you sit in silence with your own thoughts. While watching those thoughts, you eventually learn that they are transient and always changing. Eventually you learn to let them go, not follow them around in your head. This is tough because our thoughts are so important to us and so darn compelling. They seem to be who we are and so letting them go seems impossible. Indeed, it's true. Medication is difficult. Letting go of repetitive thoughts is a skill which requires a great deal of effort and practice to learn.
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? 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, "No 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 actually increases compassion for others. Perhaps this is because you come to realize that each of us has a true mind with our own thoughts but the essence of those thoughts are not that different from one person to the next.
If you don’t already do so, please go home and turn everything off, sit on a pillow and listen to your own mind. It will only take 5 or 10 minutes. Do it once and then just start doing it every few days. You don’t have to be 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 not only wide but deep. In other words, learning will occur the moment you sit in silence, and will accumulate with practice. There is no end – really – to what you can learn about yourself through meditation. And that’s the truth.
But we can't stop there. We also have the exercise the body. And the best way to do that is through aerobic exercise because by definition, it increases oxygen to your body -- especially your brain which uses more oxygen than any organ you have. So get engaged in life with learning and follow it up with some heart-pumping exercise. And do them together, one after another. Because seriously, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. 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