Nature Versus Nurture
There exists in the study of the human mind an ever-evolving debate regarding “nature versus nurture”. In this debate “nature” refers to the traits passed onto us from our parents. “Nurture” refers to the external and internal forces that act upon us in this world. In the not-so-distant past the western world considered personality and intelligence to be fixed through the genetic information that parents passed on to their children. A grumpy personality or a happy disposition was thought to be as unchangeable as eye or hair color. “Nature” was considered to be the predominant force in the sculpting of the human mind.
In the late 1940’s Donald Hebb did a great deal of work to advance our understanding of the “nature versus nurture” debate. This great psychologist is the father of a concept that we now know as the “Hebbian Cell Assembly.” This concept is the basis of our modern knowledge of how the brain functions. The three tenets of this concept are as follows (in layman’s terms):
1) If nerve cell A is near nerve cell B, and nerve cell A repeatedly excites nerve cell B, then the connection between the two nerve cells is strengthened. In other words, if you repeat a thought many times, the thought gains strength and momentum. Thus, a thought process can become a habit. The same is true for motor skills. This is why “practice makes perfect” when it comes to fine motor skills such as playing a musical instrument.
2) Groups of nerve cells that fire together are called an “assembly.” Activity within these “assemblies” can persist after the triggering event. For instance, if you find yourself in a situation to which you respond with anger, the anger can perpetuate itself and linger even once the situation is resolved.
3) “Thinking is the sequential activation of sets of cell assemblies.” This means that these groups of nerve cells that make up assemblies link together into sets of assemblies, and that thinking is the process of linking together these sets. Thus, the “mini” assemblies actually group together to form “macro assemblies.”
The point here is that every thought that we have is wearing subtle “grooves” within our mind. Every time we get angry we are making it easier for our thought-energy to be caught in anger. Every time we find ourselves depressed it becomes easier to travel down that road. The same is true for any emotion—happiness, love, lust, etc. But that is not all. Hebbian theory is also applicable to habits. If you use a drug like cocaine your brain subconsciously records the fact that it was made to feel euphoric by the drug. The next time you feel less than euphoric the cell assembly that recorded the thoughts that led to the cocaine use lights up and you feel an uncontrollable urge for the drug.
Hebb, and other psychologists and neuroscientists since his time, showed that the thoughts and actions to which we give energy potentiate themselves. He showed that we literally shape, sculpt, and create our mind with our very thoughts. Hebb’s work fueled the argument for the supporters of the “nurture” concept by showing that attitude, mood, disposition, and habits can be molded and are not fixed at birth. But the true importance of Hebb’s work lies in the merit that it gives to the power of will.
Will Power and Our True Nature
When considering the fact that we are actually able to sculpt and create thought patterns and habits an interesting question arises. If the brain is a self-contained system, how can it become aware of the need for change? How can a closed system become aware of a thought process, mood, or inspiration that it does not already contain? The answer is simple; we are not a closed system.
We are made in the image of Spirit. Our pain and our suffering come from a distant, subconscious recognition that we have somehow separated ourselves from the perfect image in which we were created. All of the qualities that embody our true nature are familiar to us on some level. Love, light, wisdom, compassion, and peace are all known to us in the depths of our being. It is our present lack of attunement with these qualities that causes us to suffer. The way we react to this suffering today helps to determine how we will react to it tomorrow. If we become depressed by pain today we pave the way for depression tomorrow. If we become angry today we are priming the pump for anger tomorrow.
We can, however, use will power to break up this cycle. We can substitute a positive quality such as compassion or strength for anger or depression. Today we can pave the way for tomorrow’s peace and joy. Affirmation harnessed to the power of the will is one of the most effective ways to make this change.
The practice of affirmation is the concentrated use of a repeated phrase (affirmation) with the aim of saturating oneself with the truth of the affirmation. The concentrated repetition of an affirmation literally has the power to change one’s consciousness. This practice makes use of the “Hebbian Assembly”, of Will Power, and of truth. In fact, the power of affirmation comes from truth. We must choose affirmations that affirm our true nature.
Choosing an Affirmation
In choosing an affirmation keep two things in mind. First of all, analyze your temperament. If you are willful make use of your will in your affirmation, if you are intellectual make use of your intellect, and so on. Second, learn to identify the mental quality that makes the action you wish to change possible, then learn to identify that quality’s opposite.
Think of a habit or though process that you desire to change. How do you feel when you indulge in this thought or habit? What is the opposite quality to this feeling? The list below shows some examples of opposites:
Guilt…Love for one’s true Self, and patient compassion for one’s shortcomings
Use this “opposite quality” in an affirmation that makes use of your strengths to create an “antidote” for the undesirable thought pattern. An example for a person who experiences repetitive illness may be “Health and vitality flow through me, I am whole and well.”
Above all else, importance lies in intensity of concentration in the practice of affirmation. Indeed, a single thought made with complete faith, conviction, and total concentration will change your consciousness forever.
We all have childhood memories that remain fresh in our minds though we cannot remember events occurring for months before or after these memories. These memories remain with us due to the intensity with which we experienced them. Similarly, we must hone our ability to concentrate in order to make the best use of affirmation. If our attention lags, we must bring it back to the affirmation just as we remind a small child to focus on a task if he becomes distracted. In this way we train the mind. Remember not to become frustrated or judgmental of yourself if your attention wavers—just as you would not become frustrated with a “truant child.” Be patient—in this way you will create a positive environment in which to learn the skill of concentration.
Practice your affirmations upon waking or just before bed. During these times distractions are lessened and the mind is in a more receptive state. Sit comfortably in a quiet place with the spine erect. Begin by contracting and relaxing the muscles of the body to rid yourself of bodily tension. Remove thoughts and worry from your mind. Begin by repeating your affirmation loudly, then softly and more slowly. Continue to repeat the affirmation more and more softly—gathering your concentration until your voice becomes but a whisper. Continue until you are repeating the affirmation mentally.
Continue mentally repeating the affirmation until you feel yourself entering a state of unbroken concentration. At this point you will feel increasing peace and joy as your consciousness becomes absorbed in the quality of the affirmation. At this point, as you feel, you can let the affirmation go and enjoy the quality behind the words.
Habits, thought patterns, and our environment continually steer our thoughts and actions in the direction of past momentum. In order to reach our fullest potential it is necessary that we choose a new direction. Affirmation is a powerful tool for change. The persistent use of affirmation will literally change your nervous system. Old, undesirable thought patterns and habits can be uprooted and replaced with wholesome qualities that reflect your true nature.