Overtime, what we practice regularly – whatever it is – becomes what we tend to do by default. “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”  I first read that observation, myself, in Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, by Rick Hanson. It was one of those ‘light bulb moments’ for me, reading those words. A lot of things fell into place with reading those words, in that order, presented in the context of that book, at that time in my life, and I’ve held on to it through numerous small ups and downs, transitions, and changes. Very few things are easy or ‘over night’ or ‘like flipping a switch’ with regard to changing habits, programming, or long-standing behavior that once coped well for…something. I keep at it. Sometimes I feel discouraged, or fatigued, or frustrated. I experience doubt. I keep coming back to this idea that the neural plasticity that is such a big part of what makes me the adaptable being I am can be harnessed by will to make changes I want, not just changes along the way.

Reading the books does not create change. It is our actions that change us, even the action of thinking differently.

Reading the books does not create change. It is our actions that change us, even the action of thinking differently.

Some very worthy words.

Some very worthy words.

I continue to practice the things I learn that ‘work’, and by ‘work’ I mean that they are practices that improve my everyday experience of life, result in improved emotional resilience, perspective, and a high level of general contentment, and tend in general to improve what can be improved and don’t do any damage to me as a being or an organism. It does take practice, though. Practice is just what it sounds like, too; a verb. A repeated, continuing application of specific actions, at regular intervals, made with effort, and will, and continued in a deliberate way in spite of obstacles – a verb. Or several. The exercises in Just One Thing are more practical, and there’s less science. I keep practicing. Picking up Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, over the weekend, and finally taking a look inside was a really first-rate choice. Within the first page or two I had already highlighted some eye-opening paragraphs and turns of phrase that framed up reliably positive next steps in a powerful way.

“The brain is the organ that learns, so it is designed to be changed by your experiences.”

Or how about…

“Connected by the neural equivalent of a four-lane superhighway, your activated amygdala commanded your hippocampus to prioritize this stressful experience for storage, even marking new baby neurons to be, in effect, forever fearful. Vicious Circles Over time, negative experiences make the amygdala even more sensitive to the negative. This snowballing effect occurs because the cortisol that the amygdala signals the hypothalamus to call for enters the bloodstream and flows into your brain, where it stimulates and strengthens the amygdala. Now the alarm bell of your brain rings more easily and more loudly. Making matters worse, even after the danger has passed or turns out to be a false alarm, it takes many minutes to metabolize cortisol out of your body. For example, you may have had a close call while driving and still felt revved up and shaken twenty minutes later.”

Another important observation that got my attention, specifically regarding how PTSD ‘works’

“Implicit memory includes “procedural knowledge,” which is how to do things, from riding that bicycle to navigating a delicate conversation with a friend. It also contains your assumptions and expectations, emotional residues of lived experience, models of relationships, values and inclinations, and the whole inner atmosphere of your mind. It’s like a vast storehouse holding most of your inner strengths as well as most of your feelings of inadequacy, unfulfilled longings, defensiveness, and old pain. What gets put into this storehouse is the foundation of how you feel and function. Its contents usually have much more impact on your life than the contents of your explicit memory.”

I’m not finished with this one, yet. I’ll definitely read it a couple of times, and I’m already practicing many of the simple practices it outlines. Some were so obvious the first time they were described I couldn’t believe it hadn’t just occurred to me…to everyone…like the simple enough idea that lingering mindfully in a pleasant moment, really enjoying that experience with awareness and not rushing through to the next thing, makes the positive experience more important in our own recollection, giving it greater weight in who we are and how we experience our life. Powerful. It seems pretty obvious after thinking it over, that the content of our mind and thoughts will color how we experience everything. (Right? Sure. Of course.) How is it I didn’t take the next step without help and understand that focusing on trauma, on negativity, on the chaos and damage, to the point of making it the focus of my consciousness…makes it the focus of my consciousness. O_0 Well, okay, that actually seems easy enough to do something with… so, I have been. I’ve been taking time to really enjoy the small pleasant moments in life with real awareness and appreciation, for many seconds, even minutes, and letting the delights of my life seep into all the moments I have. It’s been, predictably enough, as obvious a success as the ideas seemed obvious themselves.

How did this turn into a book report? It wasn’t intended to be. These are books that have made a real difference for me, though, bringing light to the darkness, and showing me some better ways of being. That’s a pretty big deal at 51, and looking back on some of what I have endured. Sharing it may be useful for someone else…although, perhaps if I’d been ready sooner, I’d have found my way here one way or another…

Today is a good day to make an effort to be who I most want to be. Today is a good effort to smile and share the journey. Today is a good day to change the world from within. Today is a good day.