The driving force behind evolution is adaptation toward survival. That organizing principle has enabled life from bacteria to Homo Sapiens to thrive. But we have reached a new phase in human development. To a great degree, threats from the natural environment no longer define our existence. Night-roaming carnivores are generally not the nemesis. The most virulent threat we face today is rooted in our own Darwinian heritage. It springs from tribal and xenophobic impulses buried deep within primitive brain structures. These impulses create conflicts between countries, races, religions, and even neighborhoods.
But we can jumpstart evolution and leverage it on our own terms. We can literally rewire our brains toward greater compassion and cooperation. As always--it begins with the individual.
A recent study led by Massachusetts General Hospital found that half hour per day of meditative practice over only eight weeks led to increased feelings of compassion, self-awareness, introspection, and reduced stress. The study also reported that changes in brain structure appear to underlie these perceptions. Increases in gray matter density have been observed in structures associated with these compassionate states, as well as areas linked to memory and cognition. Researchers sometimes refer to such measurable changes from meditative practice as "self-directed neuroplasticity."
We spend a lifetime learning the details of our culture and the tools of intellectual inquiry. But we invest virtually no energy in mastering our own consciousness. Taking control of mental states positively impacts both personal and societal well-being.
There are many meditative paths: Buddhism's Zazen, Transcendental Meditation, Tai Chi, ritualized dance, cycles of the rosary, visualizing energy moving up and down the spine as described by Hindu traditions, Islamic prayer chants, and Judaism's Torah readings. Prayer and meditative practices are part of every major religion; they take us out of ourselves. The primary goal of meditation is to minimize internal chaos and noise -- a calming and centering activity. In an era of multitasking, jump-cut media overload, and the demands of 24/7 technology connectivity, these practices become even more important and beneficial.
Meditation can become an integral part of daily life. A simple pause to look at the trees or the sky helps to momentarily shut down mental checklists and rehashing of the day's activities. It can change our mood almost instantaneously. Stopping regularly to observe the breath is another powerful interrupter. Before bed, imagining consciousness leaving the confines of the body and becoming expansive can lead to relaxation and restful sleep.
Recent developments in the biological sciences indicate that environmental influences can alter a newly recognized layer of genomic control called the epigenome. And some epigenetic changes have even been shown to persist across generational boundaries. Until recently, this was thought to be impossible. Extrapolating this notion, we might speculate that the benefits resulting from meditative practices could conceivably be passed on to future generations.
Evolution on-demand springs from the human ability to self-determine. Xenophobic instincts, while inarguably part of our biological hard-wiring, do not have to dictate our interactions. The capacity for choice is one of our greatest gifts as a species. We can positively affect our personal behavior through meditative practice. And we can all participate in that process -- starting now.