Back to the trail-head—the second of two beginning-points for this particular trail: my exploration of mindfulness.
In the 1960’s I explored the human potential movement including several programs at Eslan which was one of the focal points for the new age of the mind in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. Rolphing to align my mind and body. Several encounter groups and the entire course work for a master’s degree in behavioral science. Then a neighbor introduced me to est. I followed est when it evolved into the Landmark Education Forum and continued until it just wasn’t providing all that I needed.
A psychiatrist said I needed both medication and some of the most recent forms of therapy that traced their roots to the 1960s. I looked at several of those. They had all evolved but were still 1960’s vintage. I even checked out a twelve step program. The one exception in all of these options seems to be mindfulness.
Mindfulness has an excellent pedigree. Its foundation dates back 2,500 years to Buddha and before that to yoga. And, its current form is part of the research and curricula at universities including UCLA and the University of Massachusetts. Its basic concepts are being validated in research projects that rely heavily on objective measurements of changes in the brain using fMRIs. There is clear physical evidence of positive improvements in practitioner’s brains and lives. Resources are available almost everywhere; my primary source are TED Talks, selected books and the programs of InsightLA.
So What Is Mindfulness?
In its simplest form it is a set of practices that are analogous in many ways to the exercises and training that athletes use to prepare their minds and bodies for competition or just the pleasure of playing a game well. Exercise focuses on the muscles and functioning of the body; mindfulness focuses on the mind and the functioning of the body for playing the game of life well.
A coach can describe and see most of how do you exercise and coach you how to do it right. Mindfulness is almost all in your mind and beyond the direct observation of any coach. In either case, the results are observable. In the case of muscles, by direct observation and in mindfulness by changes in the brain that are visible on fMRIs, and in both cases, in terms of coaching discussions and actual performance.
In its simplest form it is a matter of closing your eyes, clearing you mind, noticing your breathing, and then gently noticing your thoughts. You will probably notice a nearly steady stream of thoughts including judgments about your past or concerns about your future or both.
Focusing on your breathing is a means to allow thoughts to occur and pass through your mind like clouds passing across the sky. Notice them, but don’t pay any more attention than that. There are probably things about the past and the future you need to deal with but that is not what mediation is about. When your mind drifts, gently return to your breathing. The process is not about doing it right but about being free of thoughts of the past and concerns about the future. Simply put, to be in the present.
A stream of simple thoughts can pass quickly or an emotionally loaded thought can hijack your mind and keep you awake for hours. These are all real thoughts from your brain but they are just thoughts and they are almost never about what is happening now in the present.
Two definitions of mindfulness that work well for me:
Mindfulness is the gentle effort
to be continuously present
paying attention in a particular way;
in the present moment, and
Notice particularly gentleness and non-judgmentally. You can’t control those thoughts in your head. You can’t make them stop. Your opinions about them are meaningless.
However, by noticing them and just letting them pass, you will develop the ability to simply let them pass quietly through your mind. Over time, as you notice them pass the number and significance will diminish. That will leave more room to pay attention to the present. Said another way, you will gain more mental resources to deal with the real challenges and opportunities of your life. Less stress from memories of the past and/or imagined futures and more participation in the present moment as life is happening around you.
In the simplest of terms those thoughts from in your head are irrelevant. They carry self-doubt and self-deprecation from the past and cause unnecessary concern for the future. There is little or nothing that can be done about the past, and the future is almost never as dark as imagined.
Those random thoughts interrupt good intentions, sidetrack good ideas, and interfere with effectively listening to what others are saying. They are the source of self-doubt and the enemy of self-confidence. They focus just on doing which is where stress and struggle occur to the exclusion of a combination of doing and being which is where the joy and rewards of doing are realized.
The amount of the processing in our brain of which we are conscious is incredibly small. One frequently cited estimate is that only about 0.01% of all the brain’s activity is experienced consciously. Clearly, everything we do does not require conscious thought. We have all had the experience of struggling with a problem and “going to lunch” only to find the answer somewhere on the way back to our desk. Use a calendar rather than your memory to remember important things in time and a notebook to remember observations or insights that may be worth future conscious thought.
Mindfulness provides training in the use of the brain’s conscious activity to focus on the present, to deal creatively with the world the way it is and, to apply emotions to respond to how it is for us and those around us. In short, to live!
Mindful recognition of the flow of uncalled for random thoughts and the recognition of them as just thoughts is enough to diminish their volume and significance. It frees resources and applies them to communication within the brain that provides more useful results: clearer, quicker thinking and the expression of emotions.
No comment on mindfulness would be complete without at least one mention of the brain-science mantra that neurons that fire together wire together—the resulting brain growth in specific areas is one of the results that are visible on fMRIs.
This is the second post on this new trail through the woods of life. The first post was Hardwiring Happiness which describes new initial findings about how mindfulness improves your brain. More to come. But this trail, like any trail I travel, will be marked by my experiences and insights and subject to revision. The material here represents my own early experience with mindfulness. I am not a health professional. Just someone who has travelled a number of paths, some of which have taken me places I shouldn’t have gone and others I find exciting and valuable. I hope my sharing of what I have found provides value in your life.