Meditation is now a common and widespread daily practice for millions of people, and is even recommended by doctors to reduce stress, which causes various degenerative diseases. Mindfulness is a form of mediation that gets you in touch with the present moment. Research shows that regular meditation practice can “rewire” our brains by building new neural connections. These brain changes, in turn, change our physiology and experience. Specifically, using meditation regularly, we can develop our prefrontal cortex (a part of the brain some people don’t develop until age 25) to increase our capacity to become aware of our awareness so we can respond to situations instead of reacting to them.
Most of our reactions are triggered by how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. The body is a living matrix that stores all our past experiences. Literally, every person carries his/her whole history in every single moment. When we instinctively react to a threat (from another person or from our environment), the body registers this as a traumatic experience, and stores the trauma in the form of implicit memory. Once the memory is stored in our body, it can produce a variety of negative effects such as shortened breath, muscle tensions, or contraction in the myofascial tissues. We unconsciously carry all our traumatic events (small of large) in our bodies.
These stored embodied memory patterns become unconscious and automatic psychosomatic habits that can show us as or contribute to body tension and can lead to chronic pain. From this perspective, healthy movement becomes more about learning to unlearn these patterns in the body, as a way to let go of tensions.
At the beginning of twenty-first century, neuroscientists discovered something called mirror neurons in the brain. Based on past stored memories, these brain cells automatically register and interpret events in our external environment a moment before the actual event happens, and that’s why we often see or hear what we “expect.” This means that physiological processes based on reactions in our bodies occur not only because of what actually happens in the environment but also, and perhaps more so, based on our interpretation or expectations.
Imagine living in the world that has little to do with the actual events but, instead, is mainly shaped by our past memories, where our expectations color our experience moment by moment. Well, that is, in fact, the reality we live in. But by consciously exercising our minds (e.g., through meditation) we now know from neuroscience that we have the ability to re-wire our brains in ways that influence how we experience reality. It’s called “neuroplasticity.” In short, we can consciously choose how we relate to the world and how the world shows up for us—but, of course, it takes dedicated practice.
Paying attention to what is happening now is not just about being in the moment. It also involves a deep inquiry and personal exploration into what’s present in our unconscious —the hidden engine that drives our lives because of the intimate connection between our mind and our body. Tension patterns in our bodies are markers of our past, our recorded experiences. Through mind-body practice, however, we can learn to unlearn those patterns. Being aware of the effects of mirror neurons and how they influence our responses to the world is a first step in learning to live and respond from our direct experience instead of reacting to stored memories from the past.