It is not difficult to see how these findings relate to the idea of karma. What’s essential in this process is that each of our experiences—thoughts and ideas, emotions and sensations, behavior in the world—is reflected at a cellular level. Millions of neurons come alive in a complicated network of activity that underlies each experience. And to the extent that these specific patterns of activity are repeated, the neural connections are facilitated—the mental grooves deepen. As a result, engaging in any particular thought or behavior will make us more likely to engage in the same action in the future, as every act reinforces the neural connections that are associated with it.
Millions of neurons come alive in a complicated network of activity that underlies each experience.
Viewed from one side, this can be seen as energy conservation or simple biological cause and effect; from another side, this is the law of karma playing out in our daily lives. In a very literal sense, what we think, our brains become. The karmic aspects of neural plasticity have important implications. Buddhism says that at the heart of suffering is ignorance and delusion—our inability to see the true nature of reality. Instead of seeing the impermanence and emptiness of all phenomena, we tend to view things as independent and stable, imbued with an essential nature. We reify the objects and people around us, making them discrete, separate, and assigning them inherent identities. Most of all, we take the same kind of concretized view of ourselves. This mistaken view of reality is the cause of dukkha, leading to an unending stream of desires and aversions aimed at satisfying and protecting our sense of self.
Where does this leave us? Are we doomed to play out our lives at the mercy of our habitual neural patterns? Both Buddhism and modern neuroscience say no. In fact, the neuroplastic capacities of the brain that contribute to our karmic limitations become the same ones that hold the key to our liberation.
For centuries, the experiences of contemplative practitioners have shown that transformation is possible. More recently, neuroscience—in part because of its engagement with Buddhism—has discovered a previously unknown potential for brain plasticity throughout one’s lifespan. This is the good news: with repeated practice the brain can be changed, and to a surprising degree. Indeed, because neural plasticity is always operative, the brain is continuously being “rewired” based on our experiences. The key is to put some conscious intention into what those experiences are.
Through repeated meditation practice, we can build awareness of our existing mental habits. With awareness, there is space—allowing us to interrupt habitual response patterns and bring intention to our responses, choosing to form a different association. In time, we can begin to carve a new path into the riverbank.
Biologically speaking, we will likely never completely “undo” the physical manifestation of our mind’s conceptual structures. After all, we need our concepts to act meaningfully in the world. However, awareness can shape the way we relate to our concepts, allowing us to see them for what they are. With study and practice, we can move beyond our reductive thinking, lifting the veil to reveal the true nature of reality.