Updated: Jun 23, 2020
What does it mean to have a flexible mind? What is neuroplasticity?
Observe your own mind for a few minutes. What do you find? Is your mind flexible and open, or is it filled with thoughts and caught up in the patterns and habits of everyday living? Flexibility is everywhere in nature. It is the same quality, whether it is found in a plant, a building, a human body or a human mind. Flexibility is the ability to adapt, to be willing to change, to be open, to bend and to respond with sensitivity. It is the opposite of rigidity.
A rigid mind is full of fixed habits and strong views on what is right and wrong, good and bad, intelligent and stupid, just and unjust etc. A flexible mind is open to new ways of viewing the world; it is not prejudiced. Spiritual traditions value mental flexibility for our wellbeing and evolution. It is not hard to understand why, as it is through the mind that we observe the inner life of the heart. The spiritual journey of the heart is full of wonder, taking us into a vast inner universe. There is no room for rigidity when venturing into the unknown!
Neuroplasticity and Emptiness in Zen Buddhism it is called shoshin, original mind or beginners mind. Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki says: “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.”
He also says: “People who know the state of emptiness will always be able to dissolve their problems by constancy.” What is constancy? Perhaps it is the ability to cheerfully accept things as they are, with a mind that is soft and open. It is also that unchanging, immutable base of fluidity.
Suzuki also says, “It is the readiness of the mind that is wisdom. ... wisdom is not something to learn. Wisdom is something which will come out of your mindfulness. So the point is to be ready for observing things, and to be ready for thinking. This is called emptiness of your mind.” Mexican Shamans understand the same principle. They try to shut down the internal talk, the restless internal chatter of the mind.
Carlos Castaneda writes: “We talk to ourselves incessantly about our world. In fact we maintain our world with our internal talk. And whenever we finish talking to ourselves about ourselves and our world, the world is always as it should be. We renew it, we rekindle it with life, we uphold it with our internal talk. Not only that, but we also choose our paths as we talk to ourselves. Thus we repeat the same choices over and over until the day we die, because we keep on repeating the same internal talk over and over until the day we die. A warrior is aware of this and strives to stop his internal talk.”
What Prevents neuroplasticity?
We clean our houses, our cars, our clothes and our bodies, so they don’t become dirtier and dirtier. Imagine a house that has been lived in by a family for thirty years and never been cleaned! Yet how many of us clean our minds?
Do we remove the build-up of mental patterns that we accumulate through our senses, our emotions and our reactions and attitudes to the world?
Imagine all the past experiences and emotions that have accumulated throughout our lives. As they accumulate and form patterns, we become more and more fixed and inflexible. It is difficult to change unless we remove them. When we are born we are innocent, open and flexible. As babies we are like a painter’s fresh clean canvas, full of potential.
Parthasarathi Rajagopalachari says, “Observing little children growing up around me, I have nothing but wonder, and a sense of tremendous gratitude, for the amazing rapidity with which they shed memories of persons, places and things.” He also says, “For me, spirituality is nothing more than becoming like a child, because the ego is what is associated with becoming adult.” He describes this openness and flexibility of mind as being “like the wonder in the eyes of a child – anything it sees is wonderful. Is wonder in the things that we see, or in the way in which we look at things?”
Wonder is the way yogis have always observed the world and developed their philosophy of life, based on practical experience. As we grow up, we learn values from our society and family. We learn what is right and wrong. As childhood turns into adulthood, we become more and more set in our ways, creatures of habit. When we are confronted with new situations we resist change. When we meet someone, who is different from us, we react with prejudice. We think that we are right, and they are wrong, or we are better than them. We are not flexible and open, unless we do something to reverse the accumulation of habits.
“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.”
How Can We Improve Mental Flexibility?
It starts with regulating the mind. From many thoughts the mind learns to gently and naturally focus on one thought. Then dive deeper into the heart in meditation, so that your experience evolves from thinking to feeling. Beyond feeling is the experience of direct perception, and beyond that the state of being. Eventually meditation will take you even deeper into the realm of un-becoming, as you traverse the heart towards your own centre.
For mental lightness and flexibility, learn to unwind your mind and heart at the end of the day. The mind needs to be cleaned and refreshed just like the body, and if done regularly it brings stillness and calm, so that the mind is able to regain its natural flexibility.
Connect with your own Source
Connecting with your own Source is also known as prayer. It removes self-importance and leads to humility. It creates an inner condition of emptiness in the heart that can then be filled with love. It is a great secret that prayer takes us into the infinite world of the heart, which is filled with so much joy and beauty. The heart is a natural facilitator. For mental lightness and flexibility, learn to unwind your mind and heart at the end of the day. The mind needs to be cleaned and refreshed just like the body, and if done regularly it brings stillness and calm, so that the mind is able to regain its natural flexibility.
Be one with nature
Nature teaches us to be simple, flexible and accepting. Take time to observe the world around you and discover that Nature is full of flexibility: the water and the trees don’t have to try to be flexible, they just are. That same state of naturalness and simplicity is uncovered within us through a spiritual practice
Letting go of habits is not always easy, and character refinement is highly valued in all spiritual traditions, for example, the teachings of the Buddha and Patanjali’s Yama and Niyama. Carlos Castaneda writes, “Self-importance is man’s greatest enemy.” In some traditions, the practice of bowing is used to develop humility. Shunryu Suzuki says, “Bowing helps to eliminate our self-centered ideas. The result is not the point; it is the effort to improve ourselves that is valuable. There is no end to this practice.”
Article written by Elizabeth Denley. Originally published in the August 2016 issue of Heartfulness Magazine.