It's mindfulness month!
It’s all about mindfulness this month! If you haven’t heard about it, you’re missing out! I think of mindfulness as a life philosophy and a powerful psychological tool to propel me forward, to deal with painful emotions and critical thoughts. Although, it’s derived from Eastern philosophy, mindfulness isn’t all about meditation and being an unattainable zen monk. The premise of this approach is awareness of your internal world (emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations) and external world without judgement of whether something is good or bad. So, it’s noticing both your internal and external experience as an objective and conscious observer.
Why is mindfulness so powerful?
Regular practice of mindfulness helps cultivates:
This is done through structural changes in regions of the brain that are related to our abilities to focus when there are complex and competing demands; reduce reactivity; and increase internal awareness.
Most of us go through our days on “autopilot”. That means, we give into habit - habit of behaviour, habit of thinking, and habit of feeling. If our mind feeds us with fearful thoughts, we believe them and go down the fearful rabbit-hole. When we let our monkey minds feed us thoughts without filter, we run the risk of feeling overwhelmed, and being controlled by our doubts and fears.
In any given time, we’re thinking about past events, about future possibilities (good and bad), problems to solve, our to-lists…. and the list of thoughts go on! I call our minds time-travellers, it seems to go everywhere, back and forth, but rarely does it stay in the present for long.
When we’re not in the present, we aren’t able to live a truly fulfilling life because we’re not in the moment long enough to feel grateful for what we have or enjoy the moment. Regular mindfulness practice trains the mind to stay in the present.
If we want to make any type of change we first need to be aware. If we want to change how we feel or our behaviour, we first have to be aware of the feeling or behaviour we want to change. Without clearly recognising what we want to change, it’s like trying to change a lightbulb in the dark. Awareness also creates richer relationships in our lives.
Sometimes in conversations we’re preoccupied with our own thoughts - checking our phones, thinking about things not related to the conversation, judging the other person, jumping ahead to solutions etc. However, this leaves the other person feeling somewhat dissatisfied or under valued.
When we’re mindful of our interactions, we are attentive and attuned. We really listen.
When we're present with, and we’re aware of another person, richer relationships develop. This is an invaluable skill if you work in a team or manage people. Being present and aware (without judgement) allows you to attend to problems with more thoughtfulness, generate creative solutions, and identify barriers and strengths within a team. On the other hand, if you’re caught up with your own assumptions and judgments, the effectiveness of your team will be limited by that vision.
Our effective and sensitive threat system in our brain does not know the difference between real physical threat and fear of threat or something that has happened in the past.
As an experiment, think about a loved one in possible danger for a moment. What’s happening in your body? My chest immediately tense. The worst case scenario hasn’t happened, but our brain and body responds as if the worst case scenario IS going to happen. So when we have a thought, our brain believes it’s true and we start feel as if that “bad” event has already occurred. This creates an oversensitive threat system - for many people this might feel like frequent anxiety or nervous energy. A threat system that is oversensitive and always switched on leads to chronic stress.
Chronic stress is related to a number of significant physical and emotional health issues. On top of that, when we’re chronically stressed, the part of the brain that’s responsible for complex problem-solving and reasoning isn't as effective. That’s because when our threat/danger system is activated in response to an actual life threatening situation we are prepared to fight or run away.
We don’t have time to ponder over the consequences. But, remember this threat system is turned on even when we imagine or think about something that makes us feel fearful. That means when we’re fearful or anxious about something, we are less likely to to see reason and problem-solve effectively.
This is easily seen when we’re highly anxious. Do you remember a time when you had to attend an important interview or hold a big presentation, and your mind went blank? You found it heard to search for the correct word or the right response? Your primitive survival response has kicked in, making it hard for you to think clearly.
So we want to reduce this reactivity and cultivate peace through regular mindfulness practice.