One common stumbling block on the path to awakening is the experience of mental and emotional patterns that seem almost carved in stone. While the effects of ingrained habits in the mind can sometimes seem insurmountable, they are not. When you are focused on becoming the conscious creator of your life, you absolutely have the power to rewire your neural processes. The neural pathways that are responsible for what we experience as habits, have been learned, and with some effort and practice, can be unlearned as well. By changing how you use your mind, as well as employing some simple techniques for rewiring the brain, you can begin effectively dissolving old patterns that cause suffering, and replace them with positive and uplifting thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
While Western medicine attempts to change neural activity using chemicals that target specific receptors in the brain, these effects have not shown to have a lasting effect, nor does this approach take into consideration the holistic nature of the human ecosystem. Everything in the human body is connected in some way, and when you begin tinkering with individual components, it undoubtedly creates imbalance in other areas of the system.
Beyond the biological and chemical aspects of neural processing, are the energetic qualities that relate to mental functioning. There is a theory that the right hemisphere of the brain is connected to the yin (feminine) aspects of our energetic expression, while the left hemisphere is connected to the yang (masculine) expression. Along this vein, many spiritual traditions place an emphasis on creating balance between the two hemispheres as a way to regain wholeness and energetic homeostasis in mind, body, and spirit. The outward manifestation of the masculine and feminine coming together in romantic relationship may directly reflect this phenomenon happening within each one of us on our path back to wholeness.
When a person is either described as “left brained” or “right brained,” it is in reference to the dominant neural processes associated with their behavior and the hemispheres of their brain—the left hemisphere typically handles logical, practical, and linear processes, while the right hemisphere typically processes creative, non-linear, intuitive, and spacial processes. Interestingly enough, the distinct functions of each hemisphere mirrors the yin and yang aspects of creation. It is believed that by increasing the communication between the two hemispheres, we can achieve a greater sense of balance and wholeness within. There are a few powerful techniques for balancing the two hemispheres of the brain.
Pranayama is one such technique, and was discovered by yogis thousands of years ago. Without the aid of science, these yogis intuitively knew that the hemispheres of the brain could be trained to stay in balance using certain techniques, the breath being one such tool. The idea is that the two hemispheres of the brain mainly communicate via a flat band of neural fibers called the corpus callosum. This band of fibers acts much like a muscle, and is responsible for sending information between the two hemispheres of the brain. And just like any muscle, the corpus callosum can be strengthened to increase the efficacy in which neural signals pass through.
The process for strengthening the corpus callosum is relatively simple, and is reflected in the practice of Pranayama. Essentially, each hemisphere is responsible for processing information that is received from the opposite side of the body. For instance, sensory input on the left side of the body is processed in the right hemisphere of the brain, and vice versa. By alternating sensory input from the left and right side of the body, the corpus callosum receives a work-out, having to handle the increased work load of electrical signals as they pass back and forth between each hemisphere of the brain.
You can appreciate this phenomenon of increasing communication between the hemispheres of the brain if you’ve ever observed an extremely “right brained person” or “left brained person” in action. Often times the person seems stuck and rigid in their way of life. The stereotypical image of a “left brained person” would be that of the brainiac. He or she may be a master of logic, information, and reason, but has little capacity for empathy, feelings, or creativity. Compare this image to that of the right brained “artistic hippy,” who is incredibly creative and intuitive, but cannot stay organized or keep an appointment. Ideally, we can develop and integrate each side (the masculine and feminine expression) fully in our lives, being able to use the mind for completing tasks, learning skills, staying organized, while not losing touch with our creative, receptive, and intuitive capacities. A balance between the right and left hemispheres allows for greater neural elasticity, and the formation of new neural pathways. The following techniques can help you master that balance through changing your neural activity.
In the Pranayama practice (also known as “alternate nostril breathing”) a person holds the left nostril closed with their first finger, while only inhaling through the right nostril. At the peak of the inhalation, the person then covers their right nostril with their thumb, simultaneously releasing their left nostril, exhaling only through the left nostril. The next inhalation occurs through the left nostril. At the peak of this inhalation, the left nostril is once again covered with the forefinger and the thumb is released from the right nostril, allowing the person to exhale through the right nostril. The process is then repeated for 5-10 minutes at a time. Because the function of breathing in each nostril is connected to the opposite hemisphere of the brain, each hemisphere becomes activated alternatively with each breath, causing the corpus callosum to increase it’s capacity and “strength,” while it allows for more information to fluidly move between the two sides of the brain. This is a great breathing practice to integrate into your morning routine.
Another wonderful tool for increasing inter-hemisphere communication in the brain is an auditory technology called binaural beats. This technology was developed in 1839 by Heinrich Wilhelm Dove, and utilizes frequencies of sound to strengthen the corpus callosum in a similar way as pranayama. The audio technology involves playing two tones of sound that have a slightly different frequency into the right and left ear simultaneously. A tone of 300 hz, for example, would be played into the right ear, while a tone of 305 hz would be played into the left ear. Because the frequencies are almost identical, the brain sends the signal to the opposing hemisphere of the brain, attempting to synthesize one auditory experience. But because the frequencies are not the same, the signal gets repeatedly sent across the corpus callosum, resulting in a strengthening of the neural band of fibrous tissues responsible for inter-hemisphere communication.
In addition, the difference in frequencies used in binaural beats is believed to entrain brainwaves into a meditative state. In the example above, the two frequencies of 300 hz and 305 hz, have a differential frequency of 5 hz, effectively entraining brainwaves into this frequency. It is believed that this can produce meditative and healing results in the brain and body, depending on the frequency used for brainwave entrainment. There have been numerous studies on the effect, little of which has been validated by the greater scientific community at large. Having consistently listened to various binaural beat audio tracks over the course of many years, I know from personal experience the profound effect this audio technology has had on my cognitive functioning and process of integration. Binaural beats can be listened to during meditation or before bed. It’s important to listen to binaural beats that are good quality, and I would recommend audio tracks by the company Holosync, or the work of Dr. Jeffrey Thompson. Be sure to listen to binaural beats on stereo headphones (otherwise the audio technology will not be effective).
Using Your Non-Dominant Hand
This may seem like a relatively insignificant technique, and yet research shows that people who use their non-dominant hand during day-to-day tasks increase the volume of their corpus callosum, effectively increasing inter-hemisphere communication in the brain. A study examining the brains of musicians showed that musicians who used both hands to play their respective instruments had, on average, a nine percent increase in the size of their corpus callosum, as compared to people who predominately used their dominant hand for tasks. Research shows that using the non-dominant hand increases activity in both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously, whereas dominant hand usage tends to only activate one side of the brain.
In addition to strengthening your corpus collosum, using your non-dominant hand also reinforces mindfulness. When you are continually performing tasks using your non-dominant hand, it is like relearning the task all over again, and a higher degree of awareness and attention are required to perform the task. In this heightened state of awareness, you are much less likely to fall back into old patterns.
So consider beginning to use your non-dominant hand for many of your day-to-day tasks, such as brushing your teeth, using utensils, opening doors, using the mouse of your computer, picking up objects, shaking hands, and even writing. You may find it difficult at first, but over time it will become like second nature. As I began this practice many years ago I noticed some interesting changes. Though the effects were subtle, the overall sensation was that of doors opening in my mind. I had the recurring experience of slight and subtle shifts in how I perceived situations, and a general feeling of expansiveness. Though the shifts in my perception were likely due to numerous practices that was engaged in at the time, there is a cumulative effect that takes place by integrating many different practices for expansion.
Try Something New
Every time that you have a new and unique experience, the brain has to process new information. By constantly giving yourself new experiences, you keep your brain on its toes, growing new neural pathways all the while. A constantly changing and evolving lifestyle will make it much easier to let go of ingrained patterns and habits that prevent you from staying present and alert. This does not mean that you cannot have rituals or repetition in your life (both of which are important for a sense of grounding and rootedness), but merely that you are open to new experiences and challenges entering your life on a regular basis. Learning a new skill, taking up a new hobby, changing your diet, traveling, or even just taking a new route to work, all will all contribute to increasing neural elasticity, and will contribute to your overall spiritual growth.
You can integrate new experiences into your life in a systematic way by allotting time for yourself each week to try something new. Pick one day of the week to take a dance, yoga, or art class, to go somewhere new, volunteer your time for a good cause, or anything else that feels inspiring and exciting to you. While most people experience some form of trepidation or nervousness about attempting something new, it is this heightened state of awareness that contributes to stretching the brain and expanding your sense of self. By giving yourself a new experience, you not only give your brain a workout, you provide yourself with new and different reflections of yourself.
Meditation, Mantra, Intention, and Positive Thinking
I have already written on the importance of these practices in the process of awakening, and yet it is useful to remember that in addition to increasing your moment-to-moment happiness, these techniques also have a profound effect on the neural activity in your brain. When you choose to have a positive thought (or at least drop a negative thought, as is the process during meditation), you are literally rewiring your brain, making positivity a more likely outcome in the future. Research shows that holding a positive thought for at least 10 seconds initiates the formation of a new neurological pathway in the brain, effectively dissolving old mental and emotional patterns.
So make these foundational spiritual practices a part of your life, using them everyday. Use positive affirmations, mantras, and intentions to keep your attention focused in a way that feels uplifting and positive to you. Write notes to yourself with uplifting phrases or words and post them around your living or work space. Take a moment before starting your car to repeat a peaceful reminder to yourself such as, “I choose peace and relaxation.” Before eating each meal of the day, offer some words of gratitude to your body or food. Before you go to sleep at night, review your day, focusing on all the positive aspects and experiences. When you make your state of being your priority, your brain has no choice but to catch up with you. It may take time and practice, but the rewards will be life changing.