Updated: May 26, 2020
“I heard, like, when you smoke you get holes in your brain.” The guys at juvie are always coming up with creative ways of understanding the messages we bring them in our weekly meditation classes, and the discussion of brain science I have been leading over the past two weeks has been no different. “Neuro means brain,” I told them, “and ‘plasticity’ means like plastic, like silly putty – it is shapable.” I don’t know what kind of drug education program these guys have had to go to that had them all solemnly nodding when one guy piped up with the smoking=holes in the brain equation, but regardless, it was a very helpful way to understand neuroplasticity. Smoking anything certainly affects our brain, but it is not just smoking – every moment of our life experience is reshaping our brain. And thankfully, we have the power to influence this process through our choices. It seemed to me that the guys understood this. It sounds simple enough right?
Well this past week I started class with a pop-quiz, asking folks if they remembered the vocabulary word from last week: “neuroplasticity.” I was greeted with blank faces until one brave soul ventured: “Is that that brain shit?” When one fellow offered up that he thought it had something to do with the way that you can smile to make yourself feel happy, or scowl to make yourself feel pissed, I said “exactly!” and let it rest at that.
During our check in this week one of our regulars shared that he had discovered a new part of his finger he had never noticed before, a kind of bump right near the fingernail. Everyone laughed, and in a way it seemed like he was just being silly, but noticing ordinary details became the theme of the class. Francesca led a few minutes of yoga, having us balance on one leg, and then notice how it feels to balance on two legs as we bring our raised leg down to meet the floor. It is a common experience to balance on two legs, but everyone agreed it is pretty weird, once you really start paying attention to it.
We have ended class the past two weeks with a five minute meditation, which is a long time for this crew. I asked them the first time if they thought they could sit for five minutes, and one of our regulars immediately said no, he couldn’t do it that long. I asked him to just do it anyways, and the next week when I asked if everyone thought they can do five minutes of mediation it was yesses all around. It felt like guys were going pretty deep into themselves this week, no toe-tapping or furtive eye-glancing, so afterwards I asked them to each say one thing that they noticed as they were sitting there – just like one of them had noticed his finger earlier, and we had all noticed our two-legged balancing. One guy noticed the sound of my ticking watch, another the vibrations in the floor coming up into his feet as doors slammed elsewhere in the building. One guy noticed the pulsing of blood through his veins, and another noticed his rapid fire stream of thoughts.
I left feeling both impressed with how quickly these guys are dropping into meditation practice, and inspired by how cheerful they seem to be, even when the have plenty of reasons not to be. We keep offering tools and encouragement, hoping that some of these incredible young men will use them to help make a good life for themselves. I would love to hear from you all in the comments below: What is one thing that you noticed today? & if you have ever explained brain science to a young person, was there a particularly successful trick you used?
Till next time.