Have you ever tried to meditate and wondered why your thoughts and desires are so hard to control? It happens to the best of us, and it’s not some kind of critical failing on our part, though often people take it that way. It’s just science, folks!
That difficulty with self-control is all due to an ancient part of our evolutionary process, the “reptilian brain”. This is the oldest part of our brain and it controls the body’s vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. Our reptilian brain includes the main structures found in a reptile’s brain: the brainstem and the cerebellum. It’s very reliable and durable—charged with overseeing our survival and instincts—but tends to be somewhat rigid and compulsive.
It’s also somewhat reactive. When we perceive a situation or event to be life threatening, the reptilian brain is activated and launches myriad stress responses: a surge of cortisol, diabetes, hypertension, heart problem, even cancer.
It’s no wonder we struggle to remain reasonable or grounded and rational when stress is triggered because the reptilian brain center has been around for millennia and is deeply embedded. Over time, the surrounding cortex of our upright ancestors developed to allow us to survive by more sophisticated means ; through the use of fire and cooking, language, and tools.
Our norm is to operate with reason leading the way. But when we go off course due to stress or reactivity, the brain stem hijacks our command and control center and drops us right back into fight or flight mode.
Sounds dire, but there’s hope…in the form of meditation.
The more we meditate, the better we are able to manage our response to stress and remain in the reasoning centers of the brain. This allows us to gain perspective over threatening circumstances.
Give it a try. Just a few minutes spent in quiet mindfulness each day can reset the reptilian brain and give us more control over our responses to life.