Mindfulness is a way of regulating our nervous system by paying attention to our experience in this moment with curiosity and kindness instead of judgment.
This simple practice of noticing with acceptance what is happening inside us and around us gently shifts our nervous system out of it’s more reactive states and into a state of greater openness and ease. We are more present and attentive, can navigate difficult thoughts and emotions with greater equanimity, and choose more skillful responses to what life throws our way.
Instead of being pushed around by strong emotions and reacting automatically, mindfulness makes space for us to choose how we will respond to this moment. Instead of being preoccupied by thoughts and distractions, mindfulness makes space for us to choose where we will place our attention.
How do we do it?
We develop kind awareness through short moments of paying attention on purpose. This is a skill that can be trained like math, music, or sports.
We can practice mindfulness in the moment as we go about our day, and we can also set aside time for formal practice, the way we go to the gym to exercise our body or practice a musical instrument. Formal practice can be 2 or 20 minutes of bringing attention, awareness and acceptance to things like sound, breath, body sensations, thoughts and emotions. Attention and anchoring When we practice using the breath, body, or sound, we are training our attention by focusing on one thing at a time. This strengthens our ability to direct our attention and hold it steady for longer periods of time. It’s also a way of engaging our parasympathetic nervous system to help us when we are stuck in fight, flight, or freeze.
Emotions and the body Because emotions show up in the body, focusing on our somatic experience and developing awareness of what is going on in the body will help us become more adept at regulating our emotions. Focusing on the physical sensation of the emotion with compassion and acceptance allows it to move through our system more quickly than when we resist it or spin on the mental storyline behind it. The time it takes to notice the physical sensations of an emotion also makes space for us to choose a more skillful response instead of reacting.
Self-compassion and empathy Undergirding all of our mindfulness practice is heartfulness: cultivating a warm and gentle relationship with whatever is arising in our awareness and developing a kind and curious approach to whatever we are noticing in others. We can develop self-compassion and empathy through heartfulness practices such as gratitude and generating kind thoughts toward self and others.
Why do we do it?
Reactivity & Chronic Stress We are biological creatures, hard-wired when threatened or afraid to shut down all but the most primitive parts of our brain to prepare for fight, flight or freeze. Our brains evolved during a period when this was key for survival, but in modern times this knee-jerk reactivity often gets in our way. Mindfulness gently shifts us out of this fear-based, self-protective circuitry and gives us access again to the more highly evolved parts of our brain. With our nervous system no longer activated and all of our mental resources back online, we can respond skillfully instead of reacting. For many of us, the fast pace, information overload, and multiple stressors of modern life are keeping our nervous system in a constant state of low grade fight, flight, or freeze. What was designed as a momentary stress response has, for many, become chronic. Mindfulness teaches us to recognize what this feels like in our minds and bodies and how to find a new set point for our nervous system.
Negativity Bias & Tunnel Vision This same reactive survival circuitry also predisposes us to constantly scan our environment for threats and potential negatives so we will be ready to respond. Neuroscientist Rick Hansen saysour brains are “velcro for the negative and teflon for the positive.”We can appreciate that this negativity bias is our brains’ attempt to help us, but it also contributes significantly to despair, overwhelm, and unnecessary conflict among other things. Tunnel vision is a biological phenomenon. When we are stuck there, mindfulness opens back up our brain and nervous system so we can include a wider range of realities in our perspective on this moment. With practice, we can make a habit of nurturing ourselves deeply with the goodness and beauty available to us in any moment. Researchers have found that the cultivation of positive emotions not only increases joy at the time of cultivation—it also becomes a platform of experience for individuals to rely on during times of distress. Over time, mindfulness and heartfulness practices slowly erode our negativity bias and stabilize our brains in new neural pathways more conducive to well-being and loving connection with others.
Making space to live in alignment with our values When we bring awareness and acceptance to our thoughts, emotions, and body sensations, we make space—literally in our brains and in this moment—to live in greater wisdom and alignment with our values. When our experience is difficult, bringing awareness makes space for greater choice over how we will meet this moment. When our experience is pleasant, bringing awareness makes space to soak in the goodness of the moment and be present and awake to it. With mindfulness, no matter what the moment holds it can be used to move our system toward greater ease and open the way for more fully living out what we value.
The power of brain plasticity to turn states into traits In the same way that exercise changes our bodies, practicing mindfulness changes our brains. In formal and informal practice, neurons are firing together in a pattern over and over again, and this strengthens and solidifies new neural pathways in the brain and body. The stronger these pathways become, the more easily and often we will find ourselves in a state of mindfulness. Over time, mindful states deepen into lasting traits as presence, ease, and compassion become our default approach to life.