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Nasty Neural Habits: Take Two Positive Thoughts and Call Me in the Morning

Human beings are amazingly resilient, and that resilience is part of our core being.

Two discoveries are changing our world in a good way: one, much of what we think is wrong in the world gets its start in and is a product of our brain. Two, there is a lot we can do to change the brain without a single operation or drug. Many of the ways that you can make yourself better and the world better at the same time are by getting to know yourself and getting over yourself. It is a life’s journey toward worthy service in the world, but really it is your brain’s journey toward renewal.

Human beings are amazingly resilient, and that resilience is part of our core being. We are wired to survive so many bad and dangerous situations, we are a remarkable piece of engineering that is truly miraculous. But accidents that occur to us over time, what I call “nasty neural habits” creep into our standard operating system. One day you are moving along fine as a child, and a parent yells at you or embarrasses you at the wrong place and the wrong time, and poof, you have a hard wire in your brain that associates humiliation with something basically good, your image in the mirror, your sexuality, your speech, or your performance in school. The parent or teacher might have been having a bad day, absorbed in their own inner wars, and never would have wanted to hard wire you for failure or pain for the rest of your life. But suddenly a pathway of neurons and chemical reactions gets triggered in your brain due to humiliation so that every time you try to eat normally, or study, or make love, or smile, or look in the mirror, something very nasty happens to your insides. You may have been doing just fine as a baby, and poof you get a wound that the doctors cannot fix and every time they touch the wound they make your scream in pain, until eventually you heal. But by then there is a nasty neural habit associated with touching, and you cannot understand why you do not like to be touched, which could haunt you for the rest of your life.

In my own life, I was brought up in an environment that was overshadowed by the childhood death of my uncle due to an accident. He died at four in a lumber yard, the only son, and my mother’s only sibling. Her parents divorced after that, and my grandmother cried for the next forty years, clearly suffering from untreated shock and depression. I was told the story of the death over and over again, and it was never admitted that I was named after him, due to superstition and trauma. It is hard-wired in me, that sense of being a precious, unique and completely endangered child. It did not help that I was born with asthma and had frequent colds, but that need not have been so traumatic.

The wiring of thought patterns here was designed for fear, trauma, insecurity, and fear of loss. I managed to overcome many hard wired fears, travelling to places of conflict that others considered too dangerous, from Palestine to Syria and Jordan, to Afghanistan. But it was only recently that I came upon an interesting spiritual approach that emphasizes the indestructibility of your highest self, or what Westerners call the soul, that there is no danger to it, no way of harming it. An interesting rewiring of thoughts on danger that have made it easier to for me to manage danger and insecurity in life’s many unknowns.

What has emerged in both science and wisdom traditions is that positive thoughts have consequences for hard wiring, especially when they are repeated often, daily. We can re-order even the most damaged parts of our thinking and feeling, when we decide to do so.

I have worked and taught in zones of violent conflict for over thirty years, with students from Syria and Iran to Afghanistan, Israel, and Palestine. There is so much bad, so much damage, in the real world, the world outside the brain. And yet we have learned that the greatest damage is brain damage, not from accidents, but from: horrible thinking about neighbors, assuming the worst about others who you do not know, stereotypes, conspiracy theories, false information, absurd indoctrination passing for education, fatalistic and defeatist thinking about your own culture and society. The first step in healing the destruction in our world is healing the destruction in our own thoughts. Moving on from that to positive thinking we have discovered an infinite world of possibility that creates real change in human relations that emerges from inside the resilient human brain.

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