What is Mindfulness, Anyway?

Of all the things I realized that I’ve never posted, mindfulness is, surprisingly, at the top of the list. Odd. Well, it’s odd for a blog that’s called The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness. So, in an effort to address that void and provide some clarity on the subject from my point of view, I’ve included some brief descriptions and definitions from my brain to yours, below.

Being in the Moment: Children are, Adults, not so much. The truth of the matter is that we are comprised of actions and behaviors that become largely ingrained in our brains as “habits.” As I like to say, the more you do something, the more you do something (in neurologist-speak, “neurons that fire together, wire together”) And it’s true. The brain doesn’t care what it is that you do, really, it will just record those actions–really really well–and urge you to repeat them, especially if you do them over a period of time. It’s funny, children haven’t really developed habits and are blank chalkboards in a way. Notice how a child experiences something as simple as a toy or a treat–it’s as if they’re experiencing nirvana, because for them, they are. They are fully, and freely engaged in that moment and experience. That’s mindfulness. It’s open. It’s clear. It’s unfettered by unnecessary thoughts. And here’s where we go astray as adults: we think a lot about the past, and a lot about the future, but we don’t give the present moment “all that much thought. Kids do, though. They’re steeped in the moment. They do the backstroke in an olympic-sized pool of mindfulness. But as we grow older, and as we become more “set in our ways” (just a euphemism for ingrained neural networks, which are, in effect, habits), we become more and more removed from the moment; more and more removed from mindfulness. I have a simple definition for mindfulness. Mine may not be like yours, but nonetheless, it goes like this:

mindfulness meme

Mindfulness often makes time seem to “go away,” and creates moments of the “endless now.” For some people, they achieve full mindfulness in running. For others, it’s gardening, for others, it’s meditating. Or some combination of any number of activities or “non-activities.” And through it all, there is a sense of “noticing awareness,” of not judging what’s occurring, but simply experiencing and observing it.

Ancient and Modern. Mindfulness is, in a way, contrary to the modern–Western–way of life where the main goal of the game of life seems to be to: a) work incredibly hard, b) make lots of money, c) buy nice things, d) worry a lot about everything, e) retire, f) die. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but have you noticed that as you get older, time seems to be moving…faster? There’s a reason for that. I believe, based on all the research I’ve read and everything I’ve steeped myself in to learn about mindfulness, that the older we get, the less mindful we tend to be. Our habits begin to define who we are, and we often don’t “stop to smell the roses,” let alone notice that there are roses at all in the first place. Modern-day mindfulness is, common wisdom has it, harder to come by, simply because there are so many well-known distractions: smartphone; Internet, on-demand everything; music anywhere, anytime. It’s as if we’ve built a culture of externally induced Adult Attention Deficit Disorder. The Internet, especially, is a well-known distractor that keeps us “out of the present.” Or it can, at any rate. As ancient bipeds, however, we lived much more in the moment. We had little time to develop ulcers thinking about the future or worrying about the past–there was, by and large, only the now, and, of course, shelter and our next meal and trying not to get killed. These ancient tools were useful for keeping us alive, but today, they’ve created a bit of a civil war in our bodies and minds. Today, our survival mechanisms lead to and feed off of worry, anxiety, and stress. Something that the more ancient part of the brain loves, unconditionally, and with abandon, and the modern parts of the brain attempt to “fix” the problem of worry, anxiety, and stress with modern tools of reason and logic. For most, this works out fairly evenly, but for many, the more ancient parts of the brain can win out, leading to a host of ills, mental and physical.  The good news is that mindfulness can help calm our warring inner selves through focus, concentration, and a willful action toward not figuring out a damn thing, by simply observing, non-judgmentally, the moments that we inhabit and experience. That’s it. That’s the big secret: mindfulness is simply being present in the moment and dwelling in what could be considered the most banal things possible: breath; bodily sensations; hearing; the touch of another, and it does amazing things to our bodies and our brains, from lowering blood pressure, to decreasing anxiety; from strengthening the parts of the brains that “filter out” bad news that the ancient part of the brain might otherwise grab hold of, to boosting our mood.

One of the most often-used metaphors of this kind of “inner resilience,” is working out: exercise. The more you exercise, the stronger, faster, leaner, and healthier your body gets. As it turns out, not surprisingly, if you think about it, the more that you “use the mindful parts of your brain,” the more mindfully resilient you become. But what does that mean in the real world? (It’s also well known that exercise helps build internal resilience and releases happiness chemicals in your brain.) Let’s say someone at work send an email that drives you crazy. It’s way off track, snarky, and you wanna give them a piece of your mind in response. You have the option of replying in a state of anger and stress–or  you can stop yourself, mindfully, and pause, take a moment, and think about the best approach to respond. Do you really want to engage in a firefight via email? Is that a useful, productive, healthy thing to do…OR…would it make more sense to take a break and think before responding? Or, say you’re in a hurry, and someone is in your way, preventing you from reaching your destination. Again, you have some options: get upset and stressed, honk your horn in a car, glare huff and puff if you’re in a line at the store…OR …you can take a moment to realize that really, it’s not that big of a deal, and think of something pleasant while realizing how lucky you are to have the opportunity to buy something in the first place, or that you have the ability to drive yourself somewhere at all. We are surrounded by pretty much miraculous technology and abundance, but we’re more miserable in many ways than we’ve ever been. Mindfulness practice can help us stop, think, and create the patterns of behavior that slow us down and enable us to appreciate what we have. It can also create more sympathy toward others–something I think we can all agree that modern society could stand more of.

Mindlessness or Mindfulness: The Decision Is Yours

Decision Tree

I’ve posted the diagram above a couple of times, but I think it merits posting again. Mindfulness practice can help build what’s often referred to as “resiliency” against everyday torments by enabling one to “pause” and step back before acting or speaking –and that can make the difference between flipping off a driver who cut you off (and mitigating the inherent dangers of that potentially dangerous scenario) and just chuckling to yourself about how important it is to stay alert when you’re driving is and how grateful you are that your car has airbags and seat belts! 😉

Louis CK made an excellent point for mindfulness (whether he knew it or not), but commenting on the a fellow air passenger’s complaint about the slowness of the Internet on a flight. It does, in a way, say it all:

The beauty of Louis CK’s mindful commentary is that his fellow passenger is mindlessly complaining about something that’s truly incredible, but he doesn’t see it, because he’s been “dulled” to what’s happening in real time. He takes the world, and all it has to offer, for granted, and therefore instead of being amazed by the fact that he has access to the Internet 5 miles off the ground in a metal tube, he’s decided to complain that it’s not good enough. Instead of taking a moment to realize that we’re living in a magical, surreal world where you can access anything online–even while flying through the air in a tube at 600 miles per hour, comfortably, having a cocktail or food, and landing safely at your destination, he instead engages in negative whining. This is, as it turns out, the default mode for many–what’s known as our brain’s negative bias.–and it was necessity borne of our ancestor’s survival  mechanisms. But we don’t need the negative bias too much anymore; we don’t need it to help us remember that a negative twig snapping could be a predator hunting us. It’s still there, though, in the Limbic, and most ancient portions of our brains, evolutionarily speaking.  Mindfulness practice can help counteract this, because it builds new habits–neural wiring, really–that help you remember the moment that you’re in; help you appreciate what’s happening “in the now,” and reduce the tendency toward the negative. It’s one of the modern science’s most amazing discoveries (that many in the East have known for thousands of years, of course) that we can actually change how we think and how our brains are wired. It took the West a while, but we finally figured it out. But it takes practice.

Mindfulness practice on its own–say, a form of Buddhist-derived meditation, such Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or Buddhist meditation practice–can go a long way to help build mindfulness and internal resilience against our world of nonstop distraction and dulled negative bias. Taking in the good is a wonderful adjunct to this practice, whereby we don’t just practice meditation, but take those moments of grace and wonder and really internalize and dwell in them. As readers of this blog know, I’m a fan of Rick Hanson (author of Hardwiring Happiness), because he explains in easy-to-understand terms how we need to dwell in positive moments to help create a happier, more positive brain–and not just the modern parts. Our ancient brains (including the amygdala) also manage our reward systems, so by taking in the good and really dwelling in moments of appreciation and gratitude, you can build such as a happy amygdala! 🙂

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

web logo evol

The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness

Leave a Reply