I often get asked, “so…what is mindfulness?” Mindfulness has become a buzzword over the last few years, but what it actually is still remains unclear. I’ll begin with the basics.
Mindfulness is a way of life derived from Buddhist teachings and philosophy. Buddha believed that pain is unavoidable and inevitable in life, but suffering is optional. The teachings compare suffering to two arrows. The first arrow is pain and stress. It is a part of being human. No one is exempt from it. The first arrow’s pain can be felt from things like natural disasters, death, loss, aging, betrayal, etc. These are all things that are out of our control.
The second arrow, however, is the one you shoot yourself in the foot with when you ruminate about the painful event or circumstance. You are, in essence, creating your own suffering when you rehash the thoughts and feelings again and again. You beat yourself up for the way you are feeling. You don’t want to feel the stress associated with loss or change. Therefore, more suffering ensues.
The idea of mindfulness is to be open to feeling your feelings; the full range of them. When you struggle against what is, you suffer.
Mindfulness is about acceptance at the deepest level.
Even if you are not able to come to full acceptance of something, you can at least learn to tolerate difficult feelings and emotions better. Thus, you will suffer less and you will struggle less against unwanted reactions to events outside of your control.
The Role of the Amygdala
When you do find yourself in a place of stress, there are a range of physiological reactions occurring in the mind and body.
In this post, we will focus primarily on what is happening in the part of the brain called the Amygdala. The amygdala is the middle part of the brain that is always scanning for threats in the environment (or even in your own emotions). Its job is to sense a threat and then sound the alarm to initiate the fight-or-flight response in the body.
Now, the amygdala is very important (it’s not all bad!). It keeps you safe from real dangers. We would not have survived as a species without it.
The problem with out modern day lifestyle is that even things that are not truly dangerous or life threatening are seen as dangers by the amygdala. Things like being in traffic, running late, or having a lot of work to do. The body reacts to these stressors in much the same way as it would an attacking lion. Thus, we find our amygdala’s often end up highly sensitive and highly reactive, causing a cascade of physiological issues. The body and the nervous system become very dysregulated over time. Things get out of whack and out of balance.
Mindfulness is both:
A way of life
Mindfulness as a Way of Life
When I talk about mindfulness as a way of life, I am referring to the set of values inherent in mindfulness. These are values such as openness, non-judgment, non-attachment, compassion, and acceptance.
The idea is to be open to the present moment without judgment; to allow yourself to experience the range of thoughts, feelings, and sensations without being attached to them (merging with them) or pushing them away.
The intention, then, is to experience the thoughts, feelings, and sensations with compassion and acceptance. You accept reality as it is, without clinging to it OR trying to change it in any way.
This is where I lose some people with the concept of mindfulness. I mean, if something were bad, why WOULDN’T you try to change it? Great question! (And it isn’t the point).
What we are talking about here is things that aren’t in your control (truly). You can’t change certain events or circumstances, but you can change your response to them. And THIS is what mindfulness is really about. It is about the choices you make in each and every moment, when you are truly present and grounded in what is.
You can choose openness, non-judgment, non-attachment, compassion, and acceptance in any moment.
Mindfulness as a Skill
This brings me to my next point; that mindfulness is a skill. When you learn to quiet the reactivity of the amygdala, then you are better able to think and function in any given moment. You are able to respond with clarity and calm, rather than reacting to a never-ending set of perceived crises.
With practice and over time, the amygdala will become less reactive to stimuli (including your own inner states). You are effectively wiring the brain toward greater resiliency and less anxiety.
Your stressful thoughts and feelings will become more manageable. You will be less inclined to fight, run, or freeze up under pressure. Life becomes SO much more enjoyable when you are not fighting against it.
What I love
As a therapist, I strive to be inclusive. What I love about mindfulness is that is it is applicable to people of all ages, races, physical abilities, and religious or spiritual beliefs.
This, my friends, is mindfulness explained in a (little) nutshell. There is much more, and that’s the beauty of it. It is a simple concept, but offers us a deep well to explore and seek nourishment from.
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