Take Your Mind to the Gym

You have the power to change your habitual mental patterns. The key, Norman Fischer says, is to do your reps.

Norman Fischer
27 January 2016
Brain, Gym, Norman Fischer, Mind, Lion's Roar, Buddhism
Illustration by Xavier Vergés.

Most of us think of our minds, “the way we are,” our basic attitudes and reactions, as being fixed by our genetic inheritance and life experience. But contemporary cognitive science is proving this assumption false.

In fact, our minds, our character, our patterns of thought and emotion are much more fluid than we thought they were. Our brains are renewed through activity and reflection; they are, as scientists say, plastic. So our minds are trainable. Our basic patterns of thought and feeling can be different. This is news we are only now in the process of fully digesting.

Spiritual practice, exactly like training in a gym, takes time and effort.

We know that if we want to develop stamina and strength in the body, we have to work at it steadily and repeatedly over time. This is true for the mind as well—training the mind takes not only know-how and intention but also repetitive training over time.

Spiritual practice, exactly like training in a gym, takes time and effort. Just as there are stationary bicycles, treadmills, weight machines, and other devices, so in spiritual practice there is prayer, meditation, ritual, study, and other techniques.

Using these steadily over time, we can change our minds. We can begin to cultivate new ways of thinking, feeling, speaking, and acting, and gradually make them more and more our own. Our basic patterns over time will be different as we train our minds with intentional techniques and practices, and this will influence our relationships and our sense of ourselves and the world.

Adapted from Training in Compassion, by Norman Fischer (Shambhala Publications)

Norman Fischer

Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Soto Zen Buddhist priest who has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, including most recently When You Greet Me I Bow. He is the founder of Everyday Zen, a community based in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He and his wife, Kathie Fischer, also a Soto Zen priest, have two children and three grandchildren and live in Muir Beach, California.