Before starting any endeavour it is good for us to consider why we are doing it, particularly in terms of what benefits we can anticipate. There are only so many free hours in the day and each one ideally should be used to bring more happiness to ourselves and to others. Mindfulness is no different, and so I always like to begin by describing some of the key benefits. I often classify these under three broad headings:
Enhancing the positive – our brain has evolved to have the quality of neuroplasticity; this means that the way we use our thoughts influences the structure and qualities of our brains. The famous saying goes “neurons that fire together wire together”. One implication of this fact is that positive or negative habits strengthen the associated brain pathways.
Humans have evolved a negativity bias, meaning that we have a tendency to focus on threats as monitoring these will keep us alive (from sabre tooth tigers through to dangerous drivers) and the positive experiences are more of a “nice to have”. This is why if you meet many nice people in one day and then one difficult person it is likely that you will tell your friends about the difficult person and say little of the nice people!
But by using mindfulness to focus on positive experiences, the thoughts, sensations and emotions associated with them, we can strengthen these neural pathways. This can become a positive feedback loop – focusing on positive experiences make us feel good and feeling good enhances our focus, often when we talk about savouring an experience this is what happens. Neurotransmitters that we associate with positive experiences like endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine are released through meditative practices and positive life experiences and we can further enhance this by being aware of the process and feelings.
Managing the negative – But as a human being we will also experience negative emotions and in mindfulness we are not trying to suppress these, or trying to always be happy and to deny that negative experiences happen. This is where mindfulness presents a number of skills that are very useful in managing negative experiences. In fact this is a growing area in psychotherapy where mindfulness is being used to manage depression, anxiety, pain management, stress related illness etc. Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, Mindful Compassion Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy are examples of these approaches. The non-judgemental quality of mindfulness is at the heart of this aspect, the ability to observe our thoughts, sensations and emotions without the secondary reaction, allows us to defuse from the negative emotion. This defusing process allows us to tap into the observer self, which is the part of our mind that is simply aware of experience.
The observing quality of our mind allows us to create distance and space which lessens the emotional pain and gives us more room to see a solution and to be more creative and flexible with our minds. It’s important to note that acceptance doesn’t mean we don’t take action to improve our situation, it just allows us to be kinder to ourselves and cope with the things we can’t change more effectively.
Mindfulness also helps us to breakdown the experience into manageable pieces so the emotion seems less solid – the pieces consist of the different sensations in our whole body, the thoughts and emotions. We also see that these experiences are actually more fluid and constantly changing which helps to give us more freedom and equanimity, the whole cluster of experience is no longer fixed and tangled together in a strong complex. It now becomes a dynamic and more manageable cluster of flowing sensations, thoughts and emotions.
Essentially mindfulness helps us to manage our naturally evolved stress response, what is often called the fight or flight behaviour response which is associated with the sympathetic branch of our nervous system. Along with mental health benefits, we are starting to understand that this also provides physical health benefits, as stress is being seen by the medical profession as an integral part of most illnesses.
The experience itself – this brings us to the practice itself which engages the other side of our nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system which Harvard Professor Herbert Benson called the relaxation response. Although relaxation is not the aim of mindfulness, rather awareness of moment-to-moment experience (which may include tension and stress), often as a side product there can be deeper levels of relaxation which are enjoyable in of themselves. The release of the neurochemicals described above, are associated with wellbeing and positive emotions and there are specific meditations designed to generate positive emotions such as loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.
If these benefits sound worth spending 10 or 20 minutes a day to cultivate then why not sign up for our new 8 week course starting in February, check out our website www.themindfulnesscircle.com for more information.