We’ve all heard about mindfulness, right? It’s become one of those buzzwords and hashtags that gets thrown around out there. Google are doing it. So are Goldman Sachs. It’s even in our schools. But does it work? Is all the hype worth it? Isn’t it just some Buddhist mumbo jumbo that helps you relax?
Modern mindfulness was first developed as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) by Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the U Mass Medical Center to treat chronically ill patients. Although based on teachings from mainly Buddhist traditions, modern mindfulness is not religious. Since then, a body of scientific research from places such as Harvard and Oxford Universities, plus on-going practice and practical application has allowed Mindfulness Based Interventions to grow and develop: Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, interventions for cancer, trauma and eating.
So for those of you who are still not sure, here are five key ways that Mindfulness can help change your life
- Mindfulness practice changes the structure of the brain
It is only in the past twenty years or so that we have started to see research on the impact on the brain due to mindfulness meditation practices. This research has consistently shown several main changes. Firstly, Andrea Grabovac, MD at http://www.mindfulness-matters.org/ shows that mindfulness practice can increase the thickness of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain associated with self-regulation and empathy. Secondly, research by Prof Richard Davison at the Center for Healthy Minds has shown that mediation can change activity levels in the left side of the pre frontal cortex, the part associated with a more ‘approach’ mindset, being more emotionally positive, and with more adaptive responses to negative or stressful life events. Other structural changes include a reduction in the size of the amygdala, centre for fight or flight has also been reporting; an increase in the size of the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory; and finally an increase in alpha waves, which minimise distraction, increasing your focus and making you better able to regulate how things that come up will affect you.
- Mindfulness helps us get out of automatic, habitual patterns
All this science is great, but what does it really mean on a day to day level? For large parts of the day, we are operating on our Automatic Pilot: driving, eating, reading, walking, thinking. We do these things without being aware of them. This is not a problem in itself: the ability to walk without having to think “Lift foot, move it forward, place it down” saves a lot of time.
The problems can occur when we respond automatically, especially to unpleasant or stressful events – and when that automatic response is unhelpful for us. One example is our fight or flight response; useful when needing to automatically move away from a threatening situation, but when this response is triggered over and over again by emails, arguments with your partner, bad traffic, watching the news, and so on, our systems become over stimulated. Similarly, we have habitual cognitive processes, for example, automatically having negative thoughts in response to a stressful life event. In the long term, these automatic responses can lead to psychological problems such as depression as well as physical illnesses.
Mindfulness helps give us a choice of how to respond. In our mindfulness practice, we are developing our awareness of our felt experience in the present moment. The more we develop our awareness, the greater our ability to step out of automatic pilot and choose a different response. It might be how we respond in argument, or it might mean being better able to ‘surf’ the urge to shop, or over eat, or reach for another glass of wine. Over time, with practice, we can rewire the brain so that these habitual responses become less automatic.
- Mindfulness changes the ways in which we relate to our emotions
Feelings and emotions is an area few of us like to go. We cling onto feelings which are pleasant and avoid or push away those that we find uncomfortable. Paul Gilbert from The Compassionate Mind Foundation has developed a different way of looking at our emotions, which shows how even unpleasant feelings have a role to play.
In evolutionary terms, we developed a Threat and Self-Protection system to ensure we stayed alive. Emotions such as anxiety, anger and aversion are a key part of this. In fact, this is how our brains are wired with a negativity bias: designed to seek out threats to our survival. Secondly, we also developed an Incentives and Resource Seeking system of drive, motivation, buzz, wanting and striving. This is also part of our evolution. It is what keeps us developing and growing and also ensures ongoing survival. Both of these systems involve a lot of Doing and are very stimulating. The body is flooded with cortisol, adrenaline and dopamine.
Current thinking is that our ancestors spent 30% of their time in these systems, and 70% in Soothing and Contentment: content, safe, resting, connected with others, relaxed, feeling ‘OK’: a more Being mode. The body is filled with oxytocin and endorphins, and the body and mind recover from the stresses of striving or fighting. In today’s world, where do you think we spend most of our time? Our modern lives leave very little time for the third system of rest and Being. Even when we think we’re Being, we are actually stimulating ourselves through exciting box set serials or dopamine highs from social media notifications. Caffeine, sugar, alcohol and other stimulants also play a role in ensuring we are rarely just Being.
There is nothing ‘wrong’ with being in the first two systems. They are essential for life. Mindfulness is all about how we can spend more quality time in the third to achieve a better balance. Meditation practice brings us into that third system, by activating our parasympathetic nervous system and releasing oxytocin. Learning to come out of automatic pilot and regulate our fight or flight response also allows for more time in the third system.
- Mindfulness helps us get out of our story
Mindfulness is all about our current felt experience in the present moment. Our current experience is based on what’s happening now plus our response. We might have physical sensations, or emotions bubbling up, and probably lots of thoughts! Mindfulness is about noticing, maybe labelling, these things and just sitting with them as best we can. Allowing the experience to be as it is, whether it is pleasant or uncomfortable.
What often happens is that we avoid what is really going on for us by getting caught up in the story behind the current experience. I might have had an angry email from my boss, which triggers my fight or flight response: short breaths, racing heart, lots of negative thoughts, feeling anxious. This is unpleasant, but rather than sitting with the experience, I go into the story:
“it’s not my fault that happened, the other department never gave the figures; he hates me, he is such a nasty so-and-so, I bet his wife has left him, that’s what it is; I can never do anything right; this is all because I didn’t go to that meeting; I’ll get a bad review; I’ll get fired; I’ll never get another job; I have such a hard life, no one ever helps me; my partner is so unsupportive, and my mother! This is so unfair …..”
The question Mindfulness asks us to consider is: how helpful is the story? The present moment experience might be unpleasant, but listening to and believing the story can make it all so much, much worse. Often our story is a form of resistance to what we’re experiencing: avoiding, justifying, attaching, blaming. How might we respond to the email if we are in this story? How might we respond to the email after sitting and breathing with the discomfort for five minutes?
Mindfulness is not about negating your story. Practicing mindfulness helps get closer to our current felt experience and gives us a choice of how to respond. Does the story serve us in this moment? Or does actually feeling what is going on for us give us another option in how to respond, both within ourselves, and with other people?
- Mindfulness helps us become more compassionate
If we are to practice sitting with all of our experience, comfortable or no, then bringing an attitude of kindness and compassion towards both ourselves and the experience is essential. This is one reason why compassion is a cornerstone of mindfulness.
In particular we are looking at kindness and compassion towards ourselves. Kristen Neff PhD describes self-compassion as accepting ourselves as are, flaws and all; treating ourselves with kindness as we would a good friend; focusing on our common humanity – how am I the same as others? What is our shared human experience? Mindfulness is key here: sitting with what we are experiencing now, even if it is painful. We might not even know we are suffering if we are criticising ourselves.
Interestingly, Neff argues that we think we need self-criticism to motivate ourselves. Actually the opposite is true. Self-criticism activates both our fight or flight system AND our striving, reward grasping system we talked about earlier We are both the attacker and the attacked. This leads to a huge injection of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
Mindfulness offers another way. When we practice, we release oxytocin. Our bodies are programmed to respond to warmth, touch and gentle voices. When we feel safe and supported, then we can do our best.
As we practice kindness and compassion towards ourselves, it becomes easier to practice these towards others, especially those whom we find difficult or challenging. Practicing compassion is not the same as being nice. One glass of wine after a long day might be kindness for yourself – but two or three more are nice, but not necessary kind, especially the next day!
As we move away from the story we tell ourselves about that difficult person, and as we practice being with the discomfort of being around them, we might find that we choose to interact in a different way with them. Perhaps this means we notice we need a better boundary with them. Perhaps we find we are able to get closer to them. Maybe, just maybe, this might affect the relationship, the connection, for the better?
Mindfulness reminds us that we are all human. We are all wired with a negativity bias, we all have automatic ways of responding, we all like to believe our own stories, we all have a loud voiced inner critic. We are all imperfect, living imperfect lives – no matter what it looks like to others, or what we portray on social media. It is this imperfection that is our common humanity, our shared human experience. Practising being with our current felt experience reminds us that we all feel this way, some of the time. And that’s OK.