When I work with clients, I like to start with a check-in about how they understand the term “mindfulness.” Invariably, most can give me synonyms or a basic way of describing it. They usually say: “Slowing down my thinking,” “Paying attention to what I’m doing/feeling/saying,” or, “Recognizing what is going on around me.” Indeed, mindfulness is a straightforward word; and it’s something we already have the capacity of doing without changing who we are. Yet, most of my clients are coming to see me because they are wrapped up in obsessive, inaccurate, or maladaptive thoughts about the past or the future, which is getting in the way of them being fully present and authentic in their lives. They know that something needs to change, and I believe mindfulness is place to start.
So, what is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the ability to observe the thoughts you have as “just” thoughts. Thoughts are essentially sensations or neural fires from the brain…. NOT FACTS. When we take this approach to coping with our difficulties, we are better equipped to distance ourselves from them and become less reactive. This does not mean that we avoid or push away the thoughts and we don’t even emphasize changing them. We simply allow them to come into our awareness and let them fade away. Being mindful is the opposite of acting without thinking. Mindfulness skills help you create a space between you and your thoughts and impulses. Instead of avoiding challenging emotions or listening to or responding to that “inner critic,” you observe your experience without judgment. When you are calm, in control and can use the information you have about what is happening, you are more effective in dealing with the situation.
Research shows that mindfulness is a powerful way to cope with many issues including anxiety, depression, and anger, among other difficulties. Mindfulness promotes long term health and well being because it doesn’t just help you “feel good;” it helps you rewire your brain (Levinson et al, 2014).
Let’s put on our scientist hats for a moment to better understand how neuroscience plays a role in mindfulness. Consider an important term in the field of neuroscience: neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity essentially means that your brain continually takes in and adapts to the various demands around you by strengthening neural circuitry. Moreso, the brain creates new circuitry (or “rewires”) based on what is going on externally. Whether you know it or not, you are always training your brain to do something. So, what you do on a daily basis can strengthen pathways which support different behaviors. If you choose to practice mindfulness regularly, you are supporting your brain’s wires that are responsible for regulating powerful emotions. By short-circuiting the pathways that would otherwise keep you caught up in distressing experiences and emotions, you can pay attention to external events flexibly and adaptively….and then move on.
In this series of mindfulness, we will discuss its impact on a variety of concerns, and we’ll provide several strategies that you can practice- whether you are brand new to the concept, or someone who is looking for additional pointers/support for your ongoing practice and lifestyle. For now, try out a very simple exercise:
A fundamental aspect to mindfulness is learning how to be an observer. One way of doing this is to get “centered.” This isn’t some obscure term; it literally means to pulling your attention to This. Present. Moment. Anyone can do this. Stop whatever you are doing and simply notice your feet planted on the ground. Feel the sensation in your toes and heels. Slow your breath and relax your mouth and tongue. Soften your gaze and lower your shoulders. Notice how that feels. These actions have brought you into the present moment.
Now that you are grounded in the present moment, concentrate on a sensation happening in your body, like your chest rising and falling with your breath, or focus on one thing externally, like the movement of a single leaf on a tree. Try to hold there for a few minutes just focusing on that one thing. Don’t fret- your mind will try to go elsewhere, because that’s what it does. Just bring your attention back to what you were focusing on.
Notice what happens. Did you want to do something else? Did your mind get distracted or get reactive? Did you judge the exercise (“This is so lame!’)? It’s okay if any of those things happened. The more that you practice this simple exercise, the more you will be able to redirect yourself back to the only task at hand- being in the present moment. As you do this more frequently, you will find that you can implement this in a variety of circumstances…and can ultimately rewire your brain.