Taking the Leap and neuroplasticity

          We are all faced repeatedly with aggravations and uncomfortable emotions that tend to take hold of us, hook us or lead to a meltdown that we later wish had not happened.

We would like to avoid sudden outbursts in response to small irritations that have the possibility of hooking us. I know that I want to break free from some of these destructive patterns in my life.  Perhaps you are sometimes in the same boat as I.

My daughter is a clinical psychologist in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  I have come to appreciate her wisdom and the wisdom of a little book she gave me a year ago called Taking the Leap by Pema Chodron.  The subtitle of the book is Freeing Ourselves from Old Patterns and Fears. I particularly like small books!  This one is very small and it suggests an approach that I like a lot.

When about to get hooked by an irritant, craving, impatience, resentment, or righteous indignation Taking the Leap suggests three steps:

First, acknowledge that you’re hooked.

Second, take 3 conscious breaths and lean in. Lean in toward the energy that is swirling about in your mind. Pause. Abide with it. Don’t try to hide from it or leave it. Stay with it.  Be open to it. Be comfortable with it. Be curious about it.  Use your intellect, your very best intelligence, to consider what is hooking you.

Third, relax and move on.  Move on with your life not letting this specific discomfort become a contest that you win or lose.

I remember Pema Chodron’s process by three letters:

“A”for Acknowledge. 

“B” for Breath in deeply 3 times leaning in toward the energy that is building up.

 “C” for Cool it, relax and move on with life.

Sometimes it works! Sometimes it is very helpful. 

Chodron concludes: “By learning not to bite the hook now, with the little annoyances of the day, we’ll be preparing ourselves to work with whatever lies ahead with compassion and wisdom.”

Chodron’s process is an example of mindfulness, an important concept today in the fields of both psychology and neuroplasticity. It is curious to me how many Emory medical students have majored in college in either psychology or neurobiology.

Neuroplasticity has replaced the long-held theory that once fully developed the brain only undergoes loss of neurons and neuronal pathways from birth to death. Neuroplasticity suggests just the opposite: that following a stroke or following other forms of brain damage new neuronal pathways may be learned by the brain through constant repetition (hard work).

Perhaps the A, B, C process suggested by Pima Chodron can be learned as a response to stressful situations with which we are confronted. Perhaps through cortical remapping our brains can learn to work in new and healthier ways.  

Robert A. Hatcher MD, MPH
Professor of Gynecology and Obstetrics
Emory University School of Medicine
Atlanta, Georgia