What is mindfulness?
Written in our stars?
At the start of our 8-week mindfulness course we explore how we are born with certain tendencies and predispositions to behave and act in certain ways. For example we inherit paternal and maternal stress and we are born with personality types. These tendencies and personality types can harden over time. The brain wants to fall into patterns of thinking, feeling, expressing and acting or autopilot thinking.
As the neuroscientist Heb noted in the 1940’s “Neurons that fire together wire together”. The more we think, feel and act in certain habitual ways, the more our patterns become engrained. That’s why it’s so important to keep trying new things and walk the road less travelled.
Our autopilot thinking often serves us well. It helps us navigate a busy world full of distraction. However in an increasingly complex world we can overly revert to autopilot thinking. This is particularly true when we feel that we don’t have enough time. When our experience goes unexamined and we take life for granted we fall into the following thinking traps:
- Assuming life is permanent and forgetting the joy to be had from simple things
- We miss opportunities for personal development and creativity
- We find it hard to listen to our gut instinct
- We develop one-dimensional relationships
- We can feel like the spotlight is always on us and forget that we are also part of someone else’s very unique life experience
- We act and react in habitual patterns and fail to examine whether those patterns continue to enable us to thrive
A world of distraction and overly attending to threats
In addition to becoming overly embedded in our habits and routines there are also a number of other factors, which can get in the way of optimal health and wellbeing:
Increasing distraction and choice may lead to an elevation in our stress levels – the average person now absorbs five times as much visual stimulation compared to 1986. The phrase continuous partial attention has arisen over the last few years. We can often feel like we are in a partly switched on anxious state of being. We often face increasing demands on our time as we advance in our careers and build families.
We are hard wired to focus on threats and deficits rather than celebrating successes and abundance – from an evolutionary perspective it makes sense for us to focus on the things that threaten us but this can lead us to overly attending to our deficits. As we noted above neurons that fire together wire together. The more we get into the habit of focusing upon threats the more dark and dangerous the world can feel.
As we age we may start to transition towards looking for more meaning in our lives – this self reflection can be both empowering but also creates uncertainty and upheaval.
These types of pressures can make us feel time poor. A lack of abundance thinking can make us focus more on what we don’t have rather than what we do and overly fixate on our work and our problems rather than the things which bring us meaning and fun.
How much brain hard wiring have you had in your life?
If you are 40 now and haven’t practiced much mindfulness before then that’s 40 x 365 x 24 hours of conditioning or 350,000 hours. In truth we are all naturally mindful at times. Great acts of courage or sporting endevour or love or being in awe of nature all bring us to the moment and help us see the world afresh. The challenge of overly using auto pilot thinking is perhaps greater now because of the level of distraction we face.
We know the hard wiring is their in all of us BUT the research shows that attending an 8 week mindfulness course (which includes single pointed meditation) and practicing some techniques every day makes lasting changes to our outlook and behaviors.
Mindfulness helps us to examine life. Leonardo da Vinci was described as the disciple of experience. In order to grow and thrive we need to keep examining each precious moment of life and not taking any of it for granted. By observing life as it emerges we foster gratitude and a sense of awe. But what are the tools that mindfulness provides us?
A common definition of Mindfulness is, “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something” or “to be in the moment observing whatever arises in a non-judgmental way”. Another way of being mindful is to attend to or pay attention to something. But what is the “of something” we are focusing our attention on? Mindfulness is not a simple construct. For example we can be mindful of our internal world:
- Our thoughts & feelings;
- Each of the five commonly understood ways of detecting sensations within our body;
- Our breath;
- Our posture
And we can also choose to be mindful of the world around us by using each of our five senses. The here and now that we attend to can be our inner world or the outer world and to a great extent what we attend to is not within our control. Society, culture, our parents, our peers expect us to attend to certain things more than others. And we often go along with these expectations without truly questioning whether they make us thrive.
What we attend to will determine everything about our lives. It will determine success, wealth, relationships and our spiritual and emotional development. It is the most important tool that we have. For example we may have great emotional intelligence, social intelligence and analytical abilities but if we are so mired in habitual routines and drowning in a sea of distraction we will find it difficult to deploy our skills.
Whether there is truly free will to direct our attention is a mute point but as the great philosopher William James proclaimed in the 1880s
“I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life..….At any rate, I will assume for the present — until next year — that free will is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”
Up until that point James had suffered a string of failures and suffered depression but at that point he took some personal responsibility. From that point on his life became a glorious success. And the starting point was that he believed that he could change. He decided that he could overcome his hard wiring and the shackles of conditioning.
Learning to sharpen our attention
Lack of attention can rob of us our humanity. It stops us tapping into our wealth of talents. It can take us away from connecting with people and make us feel sad, isolated and lonely. Proclaiming free will and embarking on a course of mindfulness is liberating. It enables us to connect fully with ourselves and with our environment. A mindfulness course not only teaches us to focus but also provides the psychological framework to enable us to thrive.
A framework for mindfulness
My Vipassana meditation teacher, S. N Goenka, taught me that breath awareness and other techniques, to sharpen the attention, are wonderful tools but they are merely part of a package. He describes training the attention in isolation from a holistic framework to be merely creating “bare attention”. It feels relaxing but may merely be a stress management Band-Aid. It’s like sowing seeds on barren ground. When you open your eyes the world is still, at times, a violent and dangerous place. A holistic personal development framework complements attention-focusing techniques and enables brain change. Mindfulness provides us with powerful thriving tools:
- Developing kindness and compassion for others
- Learning techniques to overcome our inbuilt negativity bias i.e. developing self love
- Understanding the relationship between posture and how we physically move and mental resilience
- Learning how to regulate our breath in order to reduce base stress levels so that we are better able to see the bigger picture
- Learning techniques to help us focus on one thing – this builds new synaptic connections and more grey matter
- Having tools to observe our inner world of thoughts and emotions. And understanding that thoughts and emotions come and go and do not define who we are for all time
- Finding a teacher
I hope you found this useful. When you are looking for a mindfulness teacher it’s important to understand what their training has been:
- Do they have many years of a personal mindfulness practice either in a Buddhist school or as part of a Yoga tradition?
- Do they have a mental health background and training in evidenced based psychology – this is particularly important if working with vulnerable people.
- Are they continuing a daily personal practice of developing attention (single pointed meditation), continuing professional development to raise their self-awareness and developing kindness and compassion for others ?