Change can come at any age

By Matthieu Ricard on August 21, 2010

The Dalai Lama often describes Buddhism as being, above all, a science of the mind. That is not surprising, because the Buddhist texts put particular emphasis on the fact that all spiritual practices—mental, physical and oral—are directly or indirectly intended to transform the mind. Nevertheless, as the meditation master Mingyur Rinpoche writes: ‟Unfortunately, one of the main obstacles we face when we try to examine the mind is a deep-seated and often unconscious conviction that ‘we're born the way we are and nothing we can do can change that'.” The truth is that the state we generally consider to be ‘normal' is just a starting point, and not the goal that we ought to be setting for ourselves. Our life is worth much more than that! It is possible, little by little, to arrive at an ‘optimal' way of being.

A renowned French psychoanalyst was asked the following question about Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian politician who was kidnapped while campaigning in Colombia: ‟Can six years of detention in extreme conditions alter one's personality?” His response was: ‟No. After the age of twenty-five, your personality is fixed.” Personally, it was around the age of twenty-five that I really began to change! This was also the case for most of the meditators who took part in the research; they changed from the moment they began to seriously engage in a process of training the mind through meditation.

To what extent can we train our mind to work in a constructive manner, to replace obsession with contentment, agitation with calmness, hatred with kindness? Twenty years ago, it was almost universally accepted by neuroscientists that the brain contained all its neurons at birth, and that their number did not change with experience. We now know that new neurons are produced up until the moment of death, and we speak of ‘neuroplasticity', a term which takes into account the fact that the brain evolves continuously in relation to our experience, and that a particular training, such as learning a musical instrument or a sport, can bring about a profound change. Mindfulness, altruism and other basic human qualities can be cultivated in the same way, and we can acquire the ‘knowhow' to enable us to do this.

One of the great tragedies of our time is that we significantly underestimate our capacity for change. Our character traits continue as long as we do nothing to improve them, and as long as we tolerate and reinforce our habits and patterns, thought after thought, day after day, year after year.

See Why Meditate?