Get Out of a Rut and Make a New Path

Using Mindfulness to Rewire our Brains

How many of us have experienced a time in our lives where we fill stuck, unmotivated, uninspired? How many of us have reached a point of discontent with our work, our relationships, our very selves? Most of us have, at some point and in some area, found ourselves stuck in a rut. Filled with discontent, but unsure of how to make a change. Finding that the habitual has lost some meaning or purpose, but unsure just how much we are willing to risk and change.

Sometimes, feeling stuck is just that: a feeling. Boredom, frustration, a vague disinterest or disengagement from our work, our families, our lives. Other times, we realize that a pattern we have been living out on repeat no longer serves us. We find ourselves consistently yelling at our children each evening before dinner, ending up frustrated with them and with ourselves. We find ourselves in another romantic relationship with someone who doesn’t treat us with respect. We end up feeling a sense of dread or anxiety with the holiday season approaching, knowing that we will fall back into our old familial role.

And we want to stop. We want to feel a sense of agency, a feeling of being able to choose a different way. A way with more patience, wisdom, and compassion. A way that is less reactive. A way that holds more meaning and connection.

Amazingly, our brains themselves develop ruts, well-worn neural pathways that develop over time as our brain makes associations. As neuroscientists have taught us, neurons that fire together, wire together. This means that the more commonly we experience a certain emotional response, the more strength that response receives. The more often we make an association, the rut. Our brains actually build a physical connection between sets of neurons. For example, each time we engage in a dinnertime shouting match with our kids, our brain begins expecting and looking to respond with negativity around dinnertime, associating the time of day, the smells and sights, the physical space itself, as a trigger for stronger and stronger negative emotions.

Our brains are also much more sensitive to negative experiences than they are to positive ones, still stuck in the stone-age need to constantly scan for danger. This means that we have to make much more of an effort to integrate positivity into our brains. None of us complain about being in a “rut of positivity.” When we feel stuck, it’s usually a result of too frequently experiencing negative reactions or feelings.

So how do we create a new path?

The good news is that it’s possible. Scientists are learning more and more about brain elasticity, the capacity of our brains to create new neural pathways, to change our mental and emotional patterns. This is amazing news for those who have experienced brain damage, but it is also amazing news for those of us who want to change our reactions, to get out of a rut. Our awareness of the desire for a change is the first step to creating a new path.

One of the most powerful ways to enhance our brain elasticity is through practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is simply defined as being aware in the present moment, on purpose, without judgment.

How does mindfulness work to rewire our brains, to get us out of a rut to a new mental path? This topic has been covered in numerous books, including Mindsight by psychiatrist Daniel Siegel and Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science Of Contentment, Calm and Confidence by neuropsychologist Rick Hanson. Essentially, mindfulness can allow us to observe our experiences with awareness, which gives us space to see our thoughts as just thoughts, stories we tell ourselves, and not necessarily truth. When we practice mindfulness, we integrate our neural pathways in a different way and have space to choose our reactions rather than just to travel the well worn rut of automatic response. And we reshape our brain in the process.

As Dr. Siegel says of practicing mindfulness, “You can see what’s going on in the news and feel the thoughts and emotions associated with that, and you know how to drop down beneath reactivity into the plane of possibility. From there you can see alternative pathways you can take. If you’re in an argument with someone face-to-face, dropping into the hub [of mindful awareness] will give you a little space between impulse and action and maybe you can react differently.”

So how do we practice mindfulness? How do we create new paths in our brains?

There are many, many ways to practice mindfulness. Some of the most basic include mindful breathing meditation. We use our breath because we can only ever breathe in the present moment, so tuning into our breath out of necessity brings us to the here and now.

We find a comfortable seat in our chair, maybe allowing our eyes to close or to rest gently in front of us. And we just allow ourselves to breathe, at whatever pace is normal and natural. Maybe we focus our attention on the movement of our bellies with each breath, or on the rise and fall of our chest, or on the flow of air at the tip of our nose. Wherever our breath is most obvious to our awareness, we let our attention rest there. And then, we just breathe. When thoughts come into our awareness and pull our attention away from breath, as they do and always will, we catch ourselves in our distraction and kindly and gently bring our attention back to our breath.

When we breathe mindfully, we are practicing the skill of awareness, separating our experience of breath from our observation or awareness of our experience.

If sitting still and breathing is hard for you, as it is for most of us when we start, you can bring your awareness and attention to the thought that it’s hard, and the spinning judgments that often go from there (“I’m an awful meditator,” or “I can’t focus on anything,” or “This is a stupid exercise.”) Or to the awareness that your nose itches, or you hear the sounds of cars or people nearby. The beauty of mindfulness practice is that we get to be aware of all our experiences, not just the “zen” ones. Even just being aware of the thoughts and judgments that arise is practicing mindfulness; then, return to your breath.

There are also lots of other ways to practice mindfulness. Google “mindfulness practices,” and you’ll find over two million hits. Here is a list of forty different mindfulness practices that you can integrate into your day. Most of them relate in some way to bringing awareness to our bodies, using our senses to ground us in the present moment.

The more we bring awareness to our experiences, the more we have space to make different choices, to act wisely. And the more we have the possibility of choosing to see the positive, to practice gratitude, to really notice the lovely taste of a cup of coffee or the feel of having a loved ones arms around us. Be curious about your world, find moments in the day that do hold meaning and purpose and connection, even in the midst of a rut.

And soon, we may notice that instead of automatically yelling at our kids each night, we take a breath, smell the food cooking on the stove, become aware of the hunger that drives negative emotion, and make a different choice. We may notice that we learn more about our attractions and make choices to intentionally find partners who are respectful and kind. We may notice that instead of blowing up at the family dinner table, we take a breath, feel our feet on the ground, notice our emotions, and decide to take a walk or pull aside a trusted family member to process our feelings.

And, perhaps most importantly, when we still act habitually or find ourselves stuck in a rut, instead of thinking that change is futile, we practice the radical act of self-compassion. We give ourselves kindness and permission to be on the ongoing journey of life, always growing and changing, just like our brains. We give ourselves curiosity instead of judgment, kindness instead of blame.

And all of a sudden, a new path opens up.