Monks and Neuroscientists Agree: You need to be watering your brain

About 12 years ago, I traveled with my mother and partner to Plum Village, France to visit Thich Nhat Hanh's monastery. In addition to attending Dharma talks with Thay, we practiced daily meditation, mindful walking, noble silence and mindful working. I was assigned to work in the garden. 

  Dharma Talk,   Plum Village  by Helena Hill

Dharma Talk, Plum Village by Helena Hill

It was in the garden that the nuns taught me Thay's mindfulness practice of "watering seeds." Put simply, our thoughts are like seeds in the garden of our mind. Some seeds can grow into green beans and radishes that will nourish our bodies and spirits, other seeds can grow into weeds that take over the soil with pernicious roots. 

Mindfulness allows us to water the seeds we want to flourish. As Thay states,

"The quality of your life depends on the seeds you water... if you water a seed of peace in your mind, peace will grow...The seeds that are watered frequently are those that will grow strong." (Anh-Huong & Hanh, 2006, 22)

Fast forward a decade and neuroscience is starting to catch up with Thich Nhat Hanh's wisdom. Our brains are plastic and, as Rick Hanson, PhD states, "our mind sculpts the structure of our brain."

Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley highlights 3 important facts about neuroplasticity:

1. If the brain changes, the mind changes (for better or worse). Examples include traumatic brain injury, alcohol, and electric shock therapy. Changes in the brain impact how we experience our world. Scientists have known this for a while (frontal lobotomy anyone?)

2. As the mind changes, the brain changes. (yikes) This is where the mind starts sculpting. The mind changes the brain in both temporary and longterm ways.

For example, daily gratitude practice releases endogenous opioids in your brain that in the moment make you feel happy, alert, alive and awake. The mind can also change the brain in lasting ways. As neurons fire together repeatedly over time, the brain is "remodeled." According to Hanson: 

  • Existing synapses get more sensitive to neurotransmitters
  • Busy neurons build new connections by branching and reaching to each other
  • Repeated patterns of firing lead to changes in gene expression deep inside the nucleus of a single neurons

As neuroscientist Norman Doidge states, "neurons that fire together, wire together."

3.  You can use the mind to change the brain...to change the mind. This is what Hanson calls self-directed neuroplasticity. You can can practice self-directed neuroplasyicity through mindfulness.

Here is where neuroscientists and Thich Nhat Hanh agree: by choosing which seeds to water, you can change the landscape of your brain, and in changing the landscape of you brain, you can change the garden of your experience.

Through attention (mindfulness) to helpful thoughts,  gratitude, beautiful sunsets, loving kindness, self compassion, you change the neural structure of your brain, and this change in structure creates pathways for your mind to follow.

In the next post I will explore the concept of attentional training in more depth. Until then, what seeds do you want to water in your brain today?