I am sure all of you did take time to wash, though occasionally when I take the underground (metro) I have cause to wonder. However, washing your bodies is not what I meant. Some time ago, I went to an exhibition of Tibetan art and the Lost Palace of Potala at the Wellcome Foundation. There was a short video on mindfulness in the West and this included an interview with a Tibetan monk. He said, ‘In the West, you are preoccupied with cleaning your bodies but you pay little attention to cleaning your mind. In Tibet, we do things the other way round.’ Now, I have no wish to comment on Tibetan bodily hygiene, but the point that we take our mental health for granted is well made. Many of us make a point of going to the gym or exercising to keep our bodies fit, visit the doctor, research diets etc. but we take our brains and our minds for granted.
In 1949, Donald Hebb, a Canadian psychologist coined the phrase ‘neurons that fire together, wire together.’ This is the principle that areas of the brain that activate together build a neural pathway that strengthens the association between them via neurotransmitters, like a well-worn track across a field of grass. Thus, the more we ruminate on a topic, for example, the more entrenched these thoughts become. Until the emergence of the MRI scanning in the late 1970s, most neuroscientists believed that once brain reached adulthood, paths became fixed. In fact, we now know, you carry-on building neural pathways your whole life, the now popular concept of neural plasticity.
By exercising different parts of our brain, we can choose which connections we want to strengthen. For example, the Prefrontal cortex is nicknamed the executive part of the brain. It’s associated with planning, emotional self-regulation, decision-making etc. as well as having a role in attention. This brain region has been shown to become thicker (more connections and grey matter) in long-term meditators. The amygdala is a part of the brain responsible for much of the ‘freeze, fight or flight’ reaction. It is constantly scouring the horizon for possible threats, much of which goes on unconsciously. When it detects a possible threat, it immediately starts activating stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, into the blood system to get the body and brain ready for action. This raises our blood pressure, diverts supply from the stomach to muscles used for fighting or running and demands our attention. These kinds of stress responses served a useful purpose in the past but are often inappropriate or excessive for many of the modern stressful situations we find ourselves in today. If the body stays in this stress mode then it contributes to many kinds of serious illnesses, such as hypertension, increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. Regular mindful meditation is associated with reduced amygdala activation and a speedier return to a normal baseline and numerous other health benefits of both body and mind. We can become better at modulating our stress responses by improving working to build stronger pathways in the Pre-Frontal Cortex and the amygdala by means of regular mindful meditation.
I called this blog The Invisible CEO for many reasons, to highlight my role as a mentor, trusted advisor and meditation teacher but also to draw attention to the ways in which our minds act as our internal CEO, which influences so much about how we are and the ways we interact with the outside world. If you would like to discuss my services for you or your organisation please contact me but most importantly, remember to take time out daily to wash, not just your body but your mind too!