Exploit the brain’s natural self creation processes to transform yourself into the person you have always wanted to be.
At dawn, midday, afternoon, sunset, and evening, Muslems symbolically wash away the profane by engaging in wudu, a ritual cleansing of their faces, hands, and feet, before performing salat, recitations from the Qur’an. Christians fast, confess their sins, and receive absolution before accepting the “body of Christ.” Buddhists meditate, mindfully tending to the moment of experience that lives between the past and the future.
These seemingly distinctive practices have one thing in common: they serve to modify the practitioner’s internal psychological experience for a brief period of time. And it is our experiences that ultimately give rise to our sense of our self — and our sense of our place in the universe.
There is no way to prove or disprove the idea that these practices might actually be tuning our minds to a divine presence. But on the basis of neuroscientific evidence, we now know that they are modifying the neural networks that create our “self” — a representation in our brain of the essential features of our relationship to the physical and social world. We know that it is the activity in these neural representations that ultimately gives rise to our mind.
All of the major religions and spiritual traditions began with the felt experience of an individual. After years of ascetic and meditative practice, Siddhartha sat beneath the pipala tree for days, grappling with the temptations of “the master demon” until at last, “the final veils of ignorance fell.” Rising again as the Buddha, he began to preach the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, and seekers of salvation followed him.
We have no way of knowing whether the extraordinary experiences of spiritual leaders reflected the visitation of a divine entity or some other form of supernatural event, but we do know that they were preceded by long periods of disciplined psychological and behavioral practice. We also know that these practices, performed with diligence over time, can induce epiphanies.
When we engage in a practice, whether it’s religious, spiritual, or secular, our “ritually constructed experience,” extraordinary as it might be, is treated by our intelligence system in precisely the same way as any other experience. Its relevant sensory, perceptual, emotional, cognitive, and physical information is transmitted to the outermost part of our brain, by a set of specific neurons. These neurons are structurally changed by the act of transmission in such a way that they form a network: a “memory” representation. And our neural “self” representation — the “I” within — arises from these activated memory networks. So, when we engage in an intentional practice, we create neural memory records of these special experiences and our “self” is immediately, if minimally, transformed in the process.
When the great religions and spiritual traditions began, virtually nothing was known about the biological basis of our psychology. Only a few centuries ago, the entity that we now call our “mind” was called our “psyche” and was conceived of as being our “spirit” or “soul” (in fact, the word “psychology” literally means “the study of the soul”). But we’ve come to learn that our mind actually arises from the activity of the brain, and scientists have begun to detail the nature of that relationship. As a consequence, many seekers have the notion of a spirit as separable from our physical being, while others have chosen to retain their belief in a transcendent soul. But regardless of one’s position on the mind-body problem, there is no longer any question that we all have the ability to change our brain, our mind, and our self by intentionally structuring our experiences.
Six Elements of Intentional Self Creation
The most direct approach to self transformation is to simply exploit the brain’s natural processes. With an understanding of the factors that influence the formation of a self representation, it is now possible to create your own program — one centered around a practice composed of elements specifically chosen for their ability to directly influence the transformation process.
The comprehensive program in which these elements are used is flexible in some ways, but it does require that you adhere to a daily practice schedule and institute some lifestyle changes.
1. Frequent Practice
The most devout practitioners of the world’s major religions and spiritual traditions engage in a prayer or meditation practice three to five times a day, and with good reason. The higher the frequency and greater the regularity of practice, the more quickly transformation occurs.
Here’s why: The practice itself generates an out-of-the ordinary experience, which is then encoded in your brain. This change effects a slight transformation in your neural representations of “self,” which, in turn, produces transformative changes in your perceptions, feelings, thoughts, and subsequent behavior. Your transformation, minimal though it might be, influences your subsequent experience, and the cycle continues.
However, if you practice at regular intervals, three to five times a day, the “you” who is engaging in each subsequent session will be farther along on the path of transformation than the “you” who engaged in the last session. As a consequence, your practice aftereffect periods will increase in depth and endurance until your moments of ordinary experience are few and far between.
2. Stilling the Mind: Meditation
Neural networks function associatively, which means that an activated network will, in turn, activate other networks that represent related information. This property ensures that what we are thinking or doing in one moment largely determines what we will be thinking or doing in the next moment. Although this seamless neural activity enables us to get the ordinary work of life done, it also generates our mind’s incessant processing of things on our to-do list — our “monkey mind,” as a yogi would say. And because our internal self arises from whatever networks are currently activated, our sense of who we are is carried along on this runaway simian ride. In order to begin to change, we need to create an opportunity for the default activity of our brains and minds to damp down.
For many spiritualists, stilling the mind through meditation is the primary or sole component of their practice. By simply allowing our thought processes to become quiescent, we are allowing for a higher-order self — one that arises from a broader base of encoded experience — to come to the fore. Over time, stilling the mind through meditation alone will effect positive transformative change. Even if you are a practiced meditator, however, there are good reasons for exploring additional elements of self transformation.
There are many meditation techniques, but one of the easiest and most beneficial is simply to take long, deep breaths while focusing your mind on the sensations that the breath itself produces. (This can be done for a very brief period of time — as little as a few minutes if you are using meditation as an initial phase of your practice.) When we give attention to our thoughts, we keep their attendant neural networks and ordinary self representations active. But when we shift our attention to the sensations of our breath, this neural activity subsides and allows our more broadly based, integrated self to come to the fore. This integrated higher-order self representation has the capacity to serve as our witness, which affords us greater ability to behave intentionally.
3. Creating a Self Model
An intentional model of self creation is a mental construction of the values and characteristics you wish to cultivate. It will be entrained during your practice and used throughout the day as a reference for deciding which thoughts and behaviors to accept and which to reject.
If you’re working within a religious and spiritual tradition, your model might be based on the founder of the tradition such as a saint or an avatar (the Christian query, “What would Jesus do?” serves such a purpose). If you’re designing a secular practice, your model can be based on anyone whom you admire and respect. Alternatively, you can create a completely unique composite of the values and characteristics that you wish to instill in yourself. What’s important is that you have a clear picture of the ideal you’re trying to achieve.
4. Cultivate Your Witness
Almost all traditional practices involve the cultivation of an inner state of being that can serve as a monitor for the practitioner’s thoughts and behaviors. Whether we call it an inner guide, a conscience, or a witness, this state is governed by a higher-order self representation that is cultivated in the meditative portion of a practice. The primary function of the witness is simply to observe whether or not we are in alignment with our intentional self model so that we can make good decisions and adjustments when necessary.
5. Choose a Motivational Feeling
Our mind arises from the part of our brain that guides behavior. It creates memory networks in order to imbue our current behavioral decisions with the wisdom of past experiences.
Each memory network is rich with information about all the important features of an experience — how we were feeling, where we were and with whom, what we did or what was done to us, and how our feeling shifted as a result of the action that occurred. Memory networks are connected to other memory networks on each of these meaningful dimensions. For example, all of our memories of feeling anxious are connected, as are those that include the presence of our best friend, as well as those in which we succeeded or failed at a particular task. Because of this complex networking, the activation of one memory automatically activates similar memories on the same dimension. As a consequence, our intelligence system is able to find the relevant information it needs in order to make good behavioral decisions. In this way, the next time we have dinner with our mother, we remember what was said the last time; and the next time we’re tempted to do something we wouldn’t intentionally choose to do, we don’t do it.
The strongest connection between memory networks is on the dimension of feelings, both physical and emotional, because they represent the immediate needs that our intelligence system is attempting to meet. Feelings motivate us to behave — to eat when we’re hungry, visit a friend when we’re lonely, and so on. If we want to motivate our selves to behave in particular ways, it’s very useful to identify the feeling state that provides this motivation and to cultivate the ability to shift into that state at will.
A good way to begin cultivating a feeling state is to search your mind for memories of times when you were distinctly experiencing your desired state. Keep a journal in which you list these memories, and include photographs, images, symbols, and writings that invoke this feeling within you. For example, think for a moment about all of the various sensory, perceptual, and cognitive stimuli you might find in a Roman Catholic church that invoke a sacred state of being — statues and paintings, candles, music, and missals — and then create a collection of stimuli that work for you. An especially powerful stimulus for invoking specific feelings is fragrance, and most traditions use incense in at least some of their services. Catholics use frankincense and myrrh, Jews use ketoret, Muslims use aloeswood, but there are many choices. The only important consideration is how deftly the scent you choose transports you to your desired state.
6. Identify Intentional Behaviors
There are a host of popular New Age belief systems that propagate the idea that we are creating everything that happens to us. This is simply not true; we are integral to the universe, not running it. Some things happen to us that are completely out of our control, and the best that we can do is manage our reactions and cultivate our desired responses. Most of the time, however, we have a great deal of control over our behavior. Within the framework of this program, our behavior is the greatest power tool we have in the quest to grow our self.
The essential behavior we can engage in is our practice, but it’s also important to grow an intentional behavioral repertoire at the same time we’re growing our intentional self. The transformational power of practice will cause some new behaviors to emerge spontaneously, but it’s a good idea to also consciously choose some new behaviors to engage in as well.
To get started, list at least three things that you’ve never done before that align with your intentional self, then rank order them from the easiest to the most difficult. When the time is right, choose the easiest new behavior and, as Nike has us thinking, just do it. Expanding your base of behavioral experience in this way can produce dramatic effects.
Putting it All Together
Construct the form of your practice so that it begins with a period of meditation in order to allow any residual feelings, thoughts, or images to damp down and your witness to come to the fore. Next, invoke your chosen feeling state in order to stimulate the relevant memory networks in your mind and motivate your behavior. Let the feeling begin to resonate within you and allow it to adjust your body posture and facial expression — from the inside out. Once you’re fully experiencing your desired feeling state, bring to mind your intentional self creation model. Then align your mind and your whole being with each of the values and characteristics of your model self, one at a time, while sustaining your chosen motivational feeling state. As a result of a practice like this, even a very brief one, you’ll shift your state of being into one that’s likely to generate more intentional experiences. The real power of the practice is what happens when you re-enter the world at large, primed to think and behave as your intentional self, and you begin to accrue new experiences that align with your model of transformation. It’s then that your brain’s natural processes to create self begin to grow a new you.
Your Inter-Practice Practice
During the periods between your practices, your objective is to remain in your witness as much as possible. When making decisions, invoke your model and ask yourself, “What would my intentional self do?” More often than not, this will enable you to choose wisely. And when you find yourself doing or saying something your intentional self would not do or say, take a moment to do a mini-practice to shift back into your intentional state of being. Beyond adjusting your normal behavioral repertoire and appreciating new behaviors that arise spontaneously from the aftereffects of your practice, this is the time to begin to broaden your base of intentional experience by engaging in a new intentional behavior.
Cultivate Your Physical and Social Worlds
Cathedrals and temples and mosques tend to be exquisitely beautiful because the people who commissioned them and the artisans who worked on them were spiritually inspired; we tend to be drawn to them because they inspire us. Our physical environment is always passively influencing our minds. Walk into a beautiful landscape or enter a sacred space - magnificence that surrounds you immediately shifts your feeling state. It’s helpful to create your own sacred space or altar where you keep your collection of practice materials and other objects that symbolically move you into alignment with your intentional state. Over time, you might want to begin to transform your entire home into the ideal place to grow your intentional self. Even more important, cultivate a supportive social environment for your personal growth by surrounding yourself with people who foster the evolution of your intentional self and are committed to intentional self transformation.
The Spiritual Science of Self Transformation
The great spiritual and religious traditions were born in the extraordinary experience of individuals who, through intense, disciplined practices, were “awakened” or saw “the face of God.” Once transformed, they spoke of the astonishing rewards that awaited all who followed the same path. In this light, our brain and mind and all that passes through them are a reflection of our principled energetic universe, and our “self” is a reflection of our interactions with each other and with our environment. It becomes clear that whatever additional values and characteristics we might want to cultivate, we must learn to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us,” for we are, in fact, co-creating each other in each moment. We are the universal self.