Altered Traits; Letting go with Meditation


By Erin Henshaw

Last month in San Francisco, I had the incredible opportunity to see some of people and places that have most influenced my mindfulness journey.  I had tea over-looking oceanside cliffs at Land’s End with fellow tea-venturer, Jody Beavers, of Tap Twice Tea.  I met a few of the amazing people behind Google’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, and I got to see Dacher Keltner open a talk at the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley for Richie Davidson’s newest book, Altered Traits

Altered Traits discusses updated research on the science of meditation, and illuminates the path towards helping individuals change personality traits.  I’d like to review Richie’s presentation in regards to the experience of letting go because I found it inspirational and perspective-shifting. Richie opened his presentation with the quote,

“After becomes the new default.”

This is the prescription for altering traits.  Basically, this means that whatever previously happened in our lives becomes our subconscious baseline for comparison, and sticks. It is important to understand this subconscious mechanism of the brain because although altering personality is quite difficult, understanding the process of creating traits creates a path towards developing long-lasting change. 

So, how can we make sure we aren’t hard-wired to continue in the present as we have in the past?

Keep intentionally letting go. 

Richie explained that neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change neural pathways throughout our lifetime) happens wittingly or unwittingly, so we might as well be intentional about letting go of rumination and expectations.  We can elect to show up to the only thing we can affect: the present moment. By focusing on an anchor in the present moment, meditation helps us practice the process of continually letting go. 

He elaborated that the best meditation is the one that you do every day!  It takes about 1500-2000 hours of meditation (roughly five years of daily practice) to see evidence of generalizability.  Or more simply, nearly all people who meditate for over five years will begin to see similar benefits, such as enhanced receptivity, emotional regulation and ability to stay in the present moment. 

I deeply resonated with the closing message that personal mental hygiene is now an urgent social and public health need.  Well-being is a skill that has not been traditionally taught in Western society, and that needs to change.  

We put ourselves on the cushion to change our lives.” -Richard Davidson

Other tidbits of note:
-Many brains progress faster or slower than our nominal age, and that meditators brains function like younger brains.  The practice also slows down the aging process.  Meditators also have open sensory channels for pain, and thus recover more rapidly.  

-Meditation does not always lower the heart rate, it has been shown to raise during compassion practices. (Additionally, the insula, a key communicator between body and brain, activates during these practices.)

-Pro-social tendencies are a fundamental feature of the mind, and are enhanced with meditation. See: Social Baseline Theory.