I’m sure you’ve heard the gag which goes something like this:
“Do you know what I think?”
“No, do you?”
This might sound like a snatch from some stand-up comedy duo – but, on deeper reflection, it’s a more profound retort than first appears.
As has long been recognised in Eastern culture, what we think has a major role in determining our sense of well-being. According to Buddha, “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. “
Buddha also noted a connection between our thoughts and our fate: “To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.”
John Milton (1608–74) expressed a similar sentiment in his epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’:
“The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
Put more prosaically, it’s the old glass half-full / half-empty paradox. How we think determines our outlook on life and thus affects our mental and physical health. Positive thinkers are more likely to feel good than those trapped in a gloomy cycle of hopeless pessimism. Easy to say, but often difficult to achieve!
Meditative practises such as yoga encourage students to reflect upon their own thoughts, in other words to think about what they think about, and to evaluate such thoughts with respect to their own emotional state. It is the practice of consciously monitoring thoughts which would otherwise remain subconscious. Self-help manuals refer to this subconscious narrative as ‘internal dialogue’ or ‘self-talk’. Tuning into this often noisy ‘chatter’ will better enable you to control its direction, and thus assist you in ensuring that the flow is from negative to positive rather than vice versa.
Better living through chemistry
Such a major transition in your thinking is more achievable, however, if you are also aware of the connection between bodily tension and the brain chemistry which creates such powerfully destructive emotions as anger and resentment as well as those dreadful sinking feelings which we interpret as heartache or anguish. Medical science often describes this as a “chemical imbalance” and explains, for example, that low levels of a neurotransmitter called serotonin are associated with depression.
Of course, the reality is infinitely more complex than this might suggest. As is explained on the Harvard Medical School website [reference]:
“To be sure, chemicals are involved in this process, but it is not a simple matter of one chemical being too low and another too high. Rather, many chemicals are involved, working both inside and outside nerve cells. There are millions, even billions, of chemical reactions that make up the dynamic system that is responsible for your mood, perceptions, and how you experience life.”
Put simply, it is the innumerable combinations of our body chemistry which allow us to translate our life experiences into emotion – those numerous shades of feeling which span the vast gulf between misery and elation.
Hence another fundamental yoga insight: the practice of breathing deeply from the abdomen as opposed to taking shallow breaths from the upper chest. This is intended to calm the solar plexus region and thus dispel the harmful rigidity which helps to generate all those chemical blends associated with negative states of feeling.
This sensation of relaxation within the solar plexus chakra – chakra meaning point of spiritual energy – is achievable at will when you become more self-aware, more ‘mindful’. By regularly monitoring this area of your body as you go about your daily life, and by consciously keeping it relaxed, it is possible, over time, to redress a negative “chemical imbalance” and thus improve the quality of what you feel and, therefore, what you think.
Conversely, a tight knot of tension within this area releases a chemical cocktail which can cause real emotional pain, ranging anywhere from mild stress to agonising despair. The solar plexus is the place where, if you look in a mirror, you can see the pulse of your own heartbeat. No wonder it is often referred to as the seat of the emotions!
Medicate or meditate?
However, the closest that the UK education system seems to get to such deep spiritual insights is the type of GCSE English Language examination question which requires students to be able to summarise an author’s thoughts and feelings in a random comprehension passage. Unfortunately, there appears to be little focus on helping our children to comprehend the infinitely more important relationship between their own thoughts and feelings.
And yet the physical and mental health of our students should be of paramount importance. The NHS business services authority has revealed that the number of prescriptions for Ritalin in England rose from 158,000 in 1999 to 661,463 in 2010. There is also much concern in many quarters about the side-effects of Ritalin which can include insomnia, anxiety, nausea, decreased appetite, dizziness, headaches and skin problems.
Interestingly enough, a study conducted by Colorado University in 2010 explored the effectiveness of using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) when treating young people diagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Out of a group of 300, 150 were given CBT plus a Ritalin-type drug whilst the remaining 150 were given CBT and a placebo. At the end of the course, both groups experienced an equally significant reduction in their symptoms and thus the determining factor in modifying their behaviour appears to have been the CBT rather than the drug.
For those who are unfamiliar with the term ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as: “psychotherapy especially for depression that emphasizes the substitution of desirable patterns of thinking for maladaptive or faulty ones.”
And lo and behold, we have suddenly been transported back several millennia to the fundamental teachings of the Buddha. What goes around comes around. Karma and all that.
So, the solution may well be: Meditate, not Medicate.
“No, Far East man!”
I don’t know, what do you think?