In the ebb and flow of life, change is a constant companion. Appealing to our experience: change is what reality is made of. What would happen if the energy in the universe stopped changing? What if molecules, atoms, and their particles stopped moving? What kind of reality would we live in if time did not pass? We can't even imagine such a thing because imagination itself is subject to change and is based on our experience, which is always an experience of change.
It is not change itself that entails suffering, but our excessive attachment to things at a particular moment in life. This attachment is based on fear —with many faces— and on the illusion of permanence. The truth is that change is necessary for the very existence of things in this universe, the only one we know so far. So, learning to live in contact with reality is learning to flow with change as someone who has learned to navigate on sometimes calm, sometimes stormy waters, knowing how to stay afloat and calm. As beautifully stated by author Sharon Salzberg (2011):
«The content and quality of our lives depend on our level of awareness.»
Neuroplasticity and change
We are not static beings but are continually evolving. Every experience we encounter every challenge we face, reshapes our neural pathways, influencing how we think, feel, and react to future events. This neurobiological and mental malleability is a testament to our inherent potential for growth and transformation.
The idea of learning to flow with the ever-changing flow of reality aligns with the concept of neuroplasticity: our brains are malleable and capable of learning to adapt to changes. This adaptability of our brain —and of every living being— is not just a biological fact but also a beacon of hope, as it means we are always learners and that change, although inevitable, can be a path to personal development. However, to learn from changes, we need to be attentive and aware of our mental formations —mainly thoughts and emotions— in the present moment. As psychiatrist and neuroscientist Daniel Siegel (2018) says:
«Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows.»
This is a central principle in his book "Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence," where Siegel addresses the idea that what our mind does changes the way our brain behaves, and this can have lasting effects on how we act and who we are. Hence, cultivating mindfulness or Mindfulness is not a luxury for people who have free time, but an inherent necessity of our mind, a need of our deepest being that requires emotional balance and serene attention to be able not only to overcome personal and socio-environmental crises but also to learn from each experience and evolve on the personal and socio-relational levels (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).
Metacognition is the ability to observe one's mental formations (thoughts, beliefs, memories, imaginations, emotions, sensations...) and is crucial in leveraging neuroplasticity. It involves taking a step back and observing our emotive-cognitive processes as if we were a serene observer in front of our mental landscape, whatever the state of our mind at the present moment. This reflective practice is cultivated in Mindfulness, which allows us to recognize our patterns or habits of thought and behavior, giving us valuable information about our mental functioning. By understanding these patterns, we can consciously direct our thoughts to transform our harmful emotional states into more beneficial ones and our harmful behavioral habits into more positive and healthy ones.
Acceptance: The first step towards change
Acceptance is perhaps the most challenging part of dealing with life's changes. It is about making peace with the facts without pretending to ignore or reject them when they do not conform to our expectations. Accepting the facts is not a sign of defeat but a first step towards a significant internal change. Acceptance does not mean resignation or passivity; it is, instead, an active recognition of the current state of things and involves a sincere discernment of what we can modify and what we must simply recognize and accept as accomplished facts, not subject to modification or change. As we accept the facts, whether or not they conform to our expectations, we make peace with reality and predispose ourselves to learn from our experiences, drawing lessons and strengths from what we have lived.
1. Mindfulness practice: Start by focusing on your breath. As you breathe in and out, observe your thoughts and emotions without judgment. This practice improves your metacognitive ability, helping you to be more aware of your mental formations allowing you greater emotional self-regulation.
2. Neuroplasticity diary: Write down the new experiences or challenges you faced and how you reacted to them each day. Reflect on how these experiences might be reshaping your thought processes.
3. Acceptance exercise: Identify a change in your life that you find difficult to accept. Write down your feelings about this change and explore why it is difficult for you to accept. Then, write down the possible positive results and/or learnings from this change.
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In short, through neuroplasticity, our brains provide us with the ability to adapt and evolve. Metacognition offers us the possibility of understanding ourselves better, and acceptance paves the way for transformation toward an increasingly better, wiser, and more compassionate version of ourselves.
Remember that the changes in life, whether small or monumental, are opportunities for growth and learning if you keep an attitude of mental openness and a certain detachment from your expectations or desires before them.
Until next time,
Siegel, D. (2018). Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence.
Kabat-Zinn, J. Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition).
Salzberg, S. (2011). Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation.