Do you control your thoughts, or do you allow your thoughts and the thoughts of others to control you?
According to Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard-trained and published neuroanatomist: “Our brain is made up of cells and every ability we have is the product of those cells.” Dr. Taylor gave a wonderful TED talk entitled “ The Neuroanatomical Transformation of the Teenage Brain.” (You can watch it on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com /watch?v=PzT_SBl31-s.)
Previous scientific consensus was that the brain cells you were born with are the same as the brain cells you would die with. The idea was that the brain remains relatively unchangeable over the course of our lives. Scientists no longer believe this to be true. The current scientific consensus is that the human brain is made up of neurocircuitry, which consists of individual connections in the brain that are constantly being removed and recreated, largely dependent on how they are used. This ongoing change in neurons, together with changes in how neurons connect to one another, is called neuroplasticity.
In other words, the brain that you had before you began reading this book is not the same brain that you have now! And it is not the same brain you will have when you’re finished reading. You need to think of your brain as a tool. You have the ability to sharpen and improve that tool through reading and learning and through repetition and practice. In fact, every experience you have will change the connections in and the performance of your brain.
The human mind, both conscious and unconscious, still holds enormous mystery. A great deal of our everyday experiences are controlled by our unconscious mind and happen outside of our awareness. However, we now know that we have the ability to influence the development of the unconscious mind and even overrule unconscious impulses through conscious decisions. We also know that the prefrontal cortex is responsible for planning and orchestrating our thoughts and actions in accordance with our goals and integrating our conscious thoughts, perceptions, and emotions.
In sum, we know that we have the ability to learn. We have the ability to increase our IQs. We have the ability to improve both our conscious and unconscious minds, and we have the ability to master a wide variety of skills. The question is—what are we doing with these incredible abilities?
Malcolm Gladwell studied the lives of extremely successful people to find out how they achieved success. In the book Outliers, Gladwell says that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Repetition and practice alter the connections in your brain and have a profound impact on your abilities and your performance.
In the March 2016 issue of Esquire, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar quotes Bruce Lee as saying that he was not concerned about someone who had practiced 10,000 kicks. He was more concerned about a person who had practiced one kick 10,000 times. Abdul-Jabbar says, “I was that person. That’s why the hook was such a formidable weapon.”
Bolte Taylor also says, “We are capable of mindfulness. We are capable of changing our thoughts and changing our brains. We have the ability to pick and choose what’s going on inside our heads.”
Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention to the present moment. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings more consciously. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to all types of experiences, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment.
Mindfulness has been shown to be effective for reducing stress, improving emotional balance, increasing self-awareness, helping with anxiety and depression, and coping more effectively with chronic pain.
Mindfulness is the essence of engagement. When we are living in the present, in the moment, we are less likely to plague ourselves with fears about the future or regrets about the past. By paying attention to what’s happening around us instead of operating on autopilot, we can reduce stress, unlock creativity, and improve our performance. We also become more alert to opportunities.
Successful people operate on a different level than most people. They focus more intently. Those who perform at the highest levels are the most focused—the most mindful. They develop and improve their minds and their ability to perform at a higher level. They read—some veraciously. They practice—some relentlessly. They exercise control over their conscious thoughts and through their positive thoughts and activities they are able influence and impact the development, nature and control of their unconscious thoughts and impulses. In sum, they use and develop their conscious and unconscious brains.
If you’re a parent, you remember the joy and excitement that your children experienced when they tasted their first strawberry, saw their first puppy, or looked up and saw white clouds drifting across a bright blue sky. That excitement came from being naturally mindful.
We are all still surrounded by life’s natural wonders. The gravity of these incredible experiences hasn’t changed. What has changed is our appreciation of them. In her book The Little Book of Mindfulness, Patrizia Collard says, “By reconnecting with these simple moments in life, by truly living moment by moment, it is possible to rediscover a sense of peace and enjoyment. We may, at least sometimes, feel once again truly enchanted by life.”
When we start to focus on positive thoughts, we let go of our fears and anxieties. We become more joyful and less stressed. We perform at a higher level. Even focusing on things that are painful can be beneficial by preventing us from staying in a bad relationship and helping us to understand and overcome our depression or anger.
Collard talks about how mindfulness can facilitate acceptance that leads to healing. She offers the example of Buddha telling the story of the “two arrows” to his visitors:
“Life often shoots an arrow at you and wounds you. However, by not accepting what has happened, by worrying about it, by saying it was unfair and wondering how long the pain will last, we tend to shoot a second arrow into the open wound and increase and prolong the pain. Pain is often a given, but suffering is optional.”
People who are struggling with weight problems can use mindfulness to control their weight. Imagine eating a raisin very slowly, while con- templating and appreciating everything about it: the smell, the texture, how it looks, the taste. By practicing mindfulness while eating, we can cultivate an appreciation for the food we have and develop a sense of well-being that eliminates our emotional cravings.
In sum, there is growing evidence that we do, in fact, have the ability to control our thoughts. We do this by experiencing life more fully, more consciously, and more mindfully as it unfolds. It is important that you understand this critical concept. You have the ability to control your thoughts and you need to use that ability.
Learning to control your thoughts is an ongoing process that requires focus and effort. You won’t gain control over your thoughts immediately and your level of control will never be total or absolute, but with effort, focus and mindfulness, greater control over your thoughts is absolutely possible.
By controlling your thoughts, you can develop the courage to overcome your fears. You will gain greater capacity and an increased willingness to believe in yourself and recognize your immense human potential. You will begin accepting personal responsibility for changing your condition. You will learn how to pivot and adapt to changing circumstances. You will recognize the need to push forward and persevere to overcome the challenges that you face. You will begin to think about all of your choices more carefully and make only the right choices. You will focus and commit, to doing that which is required to achieve your objectives and seize your destiny.
All of this begins and ends with your thoughts. You have the ability to develop and improve both your conscious and unconscious mind through reading, experience and practice and you have the ability to gain greater control over your thoughts through focus, positive affirmation and mindfulness.