If I asked you the question “What is mindfulness?”, what would your answer be? When I ask this question at the start of courses that I run the answers I get are usually variations around a theme, and that theme is paying attention to what is going on in the present moment. This is something that we are all capable of doing, this is an innate human capability, and if someone asked you what you are doing right now, you would be able to say you are reading this blog, right? But what else is going on? What is going on in your environment? Is it noisy, quiet, dark, light, peaceful, chaotic? How do you feel? Relaxed, uptight, tired, hungry? And what is going on in your mind?
The chances are, as you read this, your mind will be evaluating and judging these words, creating meaning from them and comparing them against your beliefs, values, attitudes, and most of it is probably occurring outside of your awareness. You may even have wandered off, your mind taking you to a past event or an imagined future one.
These activities of the mind relate to what is known as the doing mode of mind in modern psychology. This is very often the mode of mind we are in as we go about our daily lives, busy planning, analysing, judging, etc. Now, these are all wonderful capabilities and help us to run our busy lives. Nobody is saying we should be giving them up. However, this mode of mind tends to dominate our experience to the detriment of the other mode of mind which is the being mode. The mind is capable of thought, we all understand that, but it is also capable of being aware, and these two capabilities of mind roughly relate to the two modes of mind just mentioned: Doing is when we are thinking, Being is when we are resting in awareness. Now we can be aware and thinking at the same time, but the key thing is that when we are in the being mode of mind we are aware of what we are thinking and awareness is the primary activity of our attention, not thinking.
We just see thinking as another aspect of our experience, arising into our awareness as do sensations in the body or sounds arriving at our ears – we acknowledge the presence of our thoughts but we don’t react to them.
So, mindfulness is, at a high level, a way of practicing how to enter this other mode of mind, the being mode.
Why would we bother to do this?
Well, there has been a lot of research on mindfulness training and it’s benefits over the last forty years, and particularly since the 1990’s when research that utilised the newly developed technology of neuroimaging discovered that the brains of people who practiced mindfulness, even those who had only been practicing for a few short weeks, had changed structurally in ways that it is thought help with regulating emotions and promoting wellbeing and resilience. Why does this happen?
We know now that we can influence our internal world, our emotions, and wellbeing, through training our brains.
To understand this a little bit more I am going to introduce you to a neuroscience term, which is attention dependent neuroplasticity. A bit of a mouthful, yes, but what this term refers to, in layman’s terms, is the brain’s ability to learn and to develop based on that learning. The brain’s ability to learn is well known, that is why we have an education system, but what we are beginning to understand now is that we can go beyond our traditional ideas around learning, those related to the external world, the sciences, mathematics, the arts, etc. We know now that we can influence our internal world, our emotions, and wellbeing, through training our brains. Our brains develop based on our experience, so we go to school and learn about subjects by being exposed to them over and over. We learn to play musical instruments by playing them over and over. But we can also learn to relate to the world around us in unhelpful ways if we are exposed to the same types of experience over and over, and this includes our internal experience, such as moods and thinking.
Our attention is the vehicle through which our brains learn and develop. Whatever we place our attention on can, potentially, influence our brain development. The more we are exposed to something, the more likely our brain will change because of this experience. This is great for learning how to do things, like driving cars or learning how to play a sport, etc., but there is a darker, less welcome side to this. Remember our doing mode of mind, well if we develop certain patterns of thinking and these get activated regularly enough then our brains will start to change. Let’s look at an example of how this might work. It’s a little contrived, but please note how day-to-day this is, we are not looking at big traumatic events.
To help me take you through this I am going to get a bit of help from a fantastic 90’s tune called “Waltzing Along” by the equally fantastic band, James. The first verse of the song contains these two lines:
Mood swings, not sure I can cope,
My life’s in plaster.
So, we miss a deadline at work and our boss lets us know his/her displeasure over this at a team meeting. Imagine yourself in this scenario, or something similar, how would you be feeling and what kind of thoughts would be going around in your head? Some reflective thoughts can be a good way to learn, “what could I have done better?”, “did I take on too much?”, “was this outside of my control?” However, there can be times when we get ‘stuck’ in these types of events. We carry on thinking about it hours, or even days after it has occurred. Thoughts about what we should/could have said in the meeting to defend ourselves, about how unfair it was, going over the scenario over and over again, blaming ourselves, or maybe others. We may feel angry, hurt, humiliated, resentful. We may begin imagining similar scenarios in the future and how we would be more assertive and not be spoken to like that. We may lay awake at night thinking about what has happened, leading to tiredness and irritability. This could, in turn, lead to us snapping at people around us which leads to more conflict, anger, resentment, then perhaps guilt and sadness.
We get stuck in this cycle of changing emotions and thought patterns, and maybe a feeling of helplessness, that we have little control.
All the while this is going on, our brain is learning. It doesn’t matter whether the experience is real or imagined, the brain is developing based on where our attention is being placed. So, our real and imaginary reactions to events, from a brain’s perspective, help it to learn how it should react in the future. From our example above, only a relatively short period of time elapsed during the real-world experience, the rest was going on our imagination long after the event had occurred. When similar events occur in the future, where we have similar feelings about a situation the same kind of thought patterns, and behaviour, can occur as the brain has ‘learned’ that this is how it reacted last time. The brain learns from repetition so the more times we react in this way the stronger the relationship between these types of situations and the resulting behaviour/thinking will become. We experience a similar situation and anger, resentment, helplessness, etc. arise as we react instinctively. This is how habits are formed, and bad habits form when we allow unhelpful thoughts and behaviours to go unchecked over time. So this is where our thoughts can lead us, to a situation like the first two lines in our song.
But all is not lost, the good news is that, just as our brains learned these unhelpful thought/behaviour patterns we can also teach the brain more helpful approaches to dealing with these types of scenarios. Returning to our song, our next two lines are from verse two
These wounds are all self-imposed,
Life’s no disaster.
The first line alludes to the kind of situation discussed above, habitual thought patterns that keep us ‘stuck’ in a situation long after that situation has passed. This is self-imposed, in the sense that it is our own minds that keep us stuck, by reliving situations over and over. The second line offers us hope that life is not the disaster that we think it is when we find ourselves in these types of thought patterns, where our own state of mind affects our perception to the point where we can feel the world is conspiring against us. We can free our minds of these types of situations, but the question is, how?
Editor’s Note: This article was authored by Richard Harper of Mindful Horizons.