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Meditation and Your 40,000-Year-Old Brain

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The last time we observed an evolutionary shift in humans was roughly 40,000 years ago. That was the point when our ancestors started to do more than just fight for survival. They started to create art and search for a higher purpose. Items like musical instruments and cave painting started to appear. They began making jewelry and idols. For the first time they recognized the spiritual nature of the world and of themselves. It's as if something spread throughout all of humanity and transformed Homo sapiens into what we now call modern humans.

It was a wonderful change in our evolutionary biology. But we haven't really evolved since then. Yes, humans have grown taller and certain organs are no longer as necessary as they once may have been, but we still have the same wiring we had 40,000 years ago, and that is a problem. Because our old wiring simply doesn't work that well in the 21st Century world we now live in.

Don't get me wrong. Our old wiring worked great for survival. It kept us alive and brought us to the top of the food chain. It enabled us to create the world we now live in. But the world we created is vastly different from the world our brain was designed for.

Its No. 1 job was, and still is, to keep us alive. So it keeps looking for things that are out of place. It rapidly jumps our attention from one potential threat to another. It throws us into a fight or flight mode whenever it senses the slightest risk. It was a wonderful response when we lived on the pre-historic plains, but in today's world we just don't face the same kinds of risks we did back then. In fact, it ends up hurting us more than helping us in most instances. Its ability to jump from one point of attention to the next can create stress and anxiety. Its fight or flight response can cause us to panic when we should remain calm. The fact that we are living in a Neolithic body in a 21st century world is, I think, why so many of us have problems guiding our lives in the direction we want it to go.

Think about it. When you're out on a date, instead of being your best your stomach tightens itself into a knot, your heart starts beating faster, and your brain gets a little muddled. When your boss calls you into their office, instead of being cool and collected, more often than not you start to scramble for answers. When you have to give a presentation in class or at the office, just when you should be at the top of your game, your body starts to betray you. It's nobody's fault. It's just your 40,000 year old wiring doing what it was programmed to do -- keep you alive. It senses stress and it pumps you full of adrenaline and endorphins that undermine your ability to be at the top of your game. What the brain doesn't realize is that today survival is a whole different ball game.

Survival means staying calm and collected instead of spiraling into a fight or flight response. Survival means thinking and acting for the long-term, rather than for the moment. Survival means thinking bigger picture and managing your 401k, rather than fighting or flighting at the drop of a hat. Even the much-admired Navy SEALs learn to overcome the natural tendencies so that they can wait until the best shot appears, and then they take it, and you can't do that if your brain keeps running your actions or your life.

So start thinking of your brain as a 40,000-year-old organ that you need to start managing, and start thinking of your mind as a 21st century collection of thoughts that you need to cultivate. If you can overcome your natural tendency to respond, if you can overcome the habits that have been ruling and often ruining your life, then you can empower your 21st century mind to take you in whatever direction you want to go.

The reason you're able to do this is due to the brain's ability to change. It's called neuroplasticity and is something that researchers are just now bringing to the forefront. You see, your brain constantly rewires itself based on your life and your needs. That means that your actions can steer your life in whatever direction you want it to move in through the little choices you make every day without even thinking about them. You can take control of your life and live the life you want to live.

Doing this is easier than you may think. All it takes is training your brain to quiet down. When you quiet your brain you stop that voice in the back of your head from popping up at the worst of times, you allow your 21st century mind to open up and take the lead. When you stop your 40,000-year-old auto-responses from running your life, you enable your mind to make the decisions that are right for you in today's world, not some antiquated logic you were programmed to follow.

This is what modern meditation is all about. It's not just about helping you to rest and relax, but enabling you to turn off that voice that has ruled your life for way too long. It's the key to minimizing the distractions that your brain naturally creates and that keep steering your life off-track. It's also the key to managing your life in the direction you actually want it to go.

It's a brave new world out there. You might as well enjoy it YOUR way.

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