For many years now, all the most authoritative scientific studies have stated that the mind is plastic: our brain adapts and assumes the shape of what we “give it” most often.
Our thoughts create real scenes, and these become our personal way of perceiving ourselves in life.
We cannot turn off the mind, nor stop the thoughts, but we can see them pass by without identifying with them, as when we see cars pass by the roadside without getting into them. And by identification we mean not being totally absorbed in them and therefore being imprisoned.
So we cannot totally switch off the mind, but we can learn not to be identified with our thoughts.
We are what we tell ourselves
Through daily training we learn to concentrate and try to be in control of our thoughts and emotions, trying to guide them towards positive and constructive emotions.
All this becomes concretely possible by the conscious turning away from negative and disruptive emotions; their wide range escapes us much more than we think because, as we are used to this state, we consider it “normal”.
We are able to recognise our emotions when they are “strong”, whether positive or negative, and we do not realise that we are constantly pervaded by “unseen” emotions that run through us: apathy, boredom, subtle melancholy, being slightly annoyed or dissatisfied.
Becoming aware of these, through a gentle self-observation, allows us to distance ourselves from thoughts and emotions of discouragement, frustration and recrimination.
Our mind takes the directions we ask it to take
Training our mind, to become more in control and aware of it and therefore more able to guide our emotions, is a skill we have within us: if trained in the direction described above, it generates an emotionally more healthy and satisfying life.
For many of us, serenity is a utopian vision: we are in fact used to thinking of serenity as a short-lived emotion, linked to particular moments; something that always comes after the realisation of something else.
In fact, our typical phrases are: I will be happy when I graduate, get married, have a career, find the house or partner of my dreams, or even when I retire – practically never a joy.
“Duty before pleasure”
This is the mantra of the culture by which we have shaped our lives and built our current society. And with what results?
In Italy, it is estimated that more than 11 million people use psychotropic drugs, and among young people there are increasing addictions to alcohol and drugs. Almost all of us suffer from stress.
But there is something new in this scenario: we now know what these dramatic results are due to, and how we can invert the trend.
We live in an incredible age of advancing knowledge, in which neuroscience has finally revealed “how we function” and shown us that serenity and happiness are skills that, if trained, allow us to flourish as individuals and as systems.
We know that our behaviour matters and that our everyday experiences are constantly modifying our brain.
If, therefore, we choose to focus on positive or enjoyable experiences, we nurture ourselves of confidence, self-esteem, a sense of security and safety.
These conditions not only make us feel good, but are also the basis for achieving our goals and successes where we want them. Before we understand how, however, we need to take a look at how we function.
Focusing on dangers and threats to survive
Evolution has left us a heritage of a greater inclination to perceive dangers, threats and, in essence, negativity in the external environment than to enjoy the benefits of positivity.
On the other hand, in order to survive and transmit their genes, our ancestors had to learn to defend themselves from dangers and threats of all kinds, from predators, from hunger, and for the latter from barbarity by their fellow humans.
In order to survive, therefore, their minds had to focus exclusively on any threat signal: the continuous repetition of this process “wired” their minds, generating the “cables” that are still present in our minds today. A positive signal, such as the result of a pause, was of no interest for survival, so the mind did not “fix” it.
This physiological mechanism therefore evolved during the course of evolution to help us survive whatever might threaten our lives. When we are faced with a stressful situation, our cerebral cortex sends a message to the sympathetic nervous system to prepare the body for immediate action.
Let’s take a simple example: we are in bed and are woken up by a noise. We wonder if it could be a burglar, and we immediately enter a state of alert: we sit up, tense our ears, our heart beats much faster, our lungs expand to take in more oxygen, and we prepare to react. Suddenly our partner shouts “Sorry, I dropped a plate”. We take a deep breath and relax.
In a very short time, we realise that there has been an error in our processing of the event and our body quickly returns to balance.
Many of us are constantly fighting “invisible dangers”, perceiving threats everywhere and constantly activating the “fight-flight” reaction, even when there is no real danger.
Even if today we are no longer in caves facing all sorts of threats, our brain triggers the same alert mechanism whenever, for example, someone “insults” us, we argue with our loved ones or colleagues, or even find ourselves slightly slowed down in traffic.
In all these situations, today as in the past, our brain triggers an instinctive and primordial reaction of “fight-flight”, called precisely “stress reaction”.
As if this biological heritage were not enough, we are constantly immersed in a flow of negative information from TV, social networks and various media, which continue to feed our deepest fears. And it is because of this biological and cultural overload that we struggle to overcome obstacles in our daily lives.
But today we know that serenity is a skill, and skills are “learned” and must be trained. We know that we can do it, because science has shown that genes are not our destiny and that our brain is plastic, i.e. it changes and learns continuously.
Thank you for your attention