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July 18, 2019

Is mindfulness just a fad, or does it really matter?

Mindfulness

As managers, leaders, coaches and trainers we aim to have major and positive impacts on the lives of our staff and clients. To be great at what we do, it is imperative that we have a never ending thirst to learn. We must continue to build our suite of tools and techniques to help others achieve their goals and dreams. We need to move through life with endless curiosity, continuously seeking new knowledge and experience that we firstly apply in our lives, and then share with those we serve.

One of those areas that should spark our curiosity is mindfulness.

There are good reasons that we seem to be experiencing somewhat of a mindfulness revolution.

Mindfulness practices such as meditation go back thousands of years, but it is only recently that the study of the brain and neuroscience can provide evidence as to why these practices have such as positive effect on our lives.

According to Professor Ronald D Siegel of Harvard University, and backed up by an extensive array of research, it is estimated that over 80% of all visits to the doctors are for some stress related disorder. How could this be?

Well apparently how our brains are hardwired has a lot to do with it. Our evolutionary tendencies lead us to be stressed even when we are actively pursuing things we love or having a great time. For example, you might be at the pub having a champers or a beer with some friends to celebrate your birthday and yet, in the midst of fun and celebration your mind wanders off to create a problem. It starts thinking about if a taxi will turn up on time tomorrow morning, if the kids are going to like the meal you left them for dinner and even thinking that these good times just won’t last.  Turns out that most of us are like this and there is good reason.

Science is uncovering that our mind and brain have evolved in a way that predisposes us to being unhappy, this, in turn, sets us up for all sorts of physical and psychological disorders.

Now there are always exceptions to the rule, and, as you can imagine these exceptions are studied with great curiosity. Jack Kornfield, author, Buddhist practitioner and one of the key teachers to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practices to the West, was one such person who studied these remarkably happy and healthy people. Here, in a nut shell, is what he learned.

We can learn a lot from dogs!

 “If you can sit quietly after difficult news; if, in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm; if you can see your neighbours travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy; if you could happily eat whatever is put on your plate; if you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill; if you can always find contentment just where you are: you are probably a dog.”

Think of the dog, dogs appear to experience everything without judgement or analysis. They find eternal joy in every moment, in every activity. They appreciate the small things as much as the big things. They don’t appear to be worrying about ‘what’s next’.

But for us humans, it’s apparently not so easy. As humans our propensity for psychological distress is quite universal. So therefore we need to be somewhat forgiving of ourselves, family, friends and clients and find ways to support them to improve their wellbeing and their outlook on life.

Why Aren’t We Hardwired for Happiness?

It appears the answer to this can be found in our evolution. In times long gone by, when our survival was a daily challenge, we had to evolve in ways to keep the species going. Unlike the other animals in our environment – we were not the fastest runners, we were not the fiercest killers, and we certainly did not have the most acute senses that would keep us safe. So how did we survive? Turns out it might have been because we had the biggest and most sophisticated brains!

We started crafting tools and weapons and, over the course of our evolution our brain grew and further adapted so that we could stay safe in our environment.  The part of our brain that brings a whole lot of information together to enable decisions to be taken, grew larger and larger. It’s role became to constantly analyse the past and imagine the future. Specifically to analyse the past pleasure or pain, and work out how to maximise future pleasure and avoid pain. The more the brain developed this capacity, the more it seemed to have set us up for psychological suffering. Why? Because way back then, the world was a scary place. So our brains were tied up with thoughts of  starvation, parasites, lions, tigers and all the things that could kill us. The pleasures were few and far between, and short lived!

In order to survive our ancestors had to err on the side of caution. So our brains worked out is was better to mistake a tree for a bear, than a bear for a tree! Every day was spent remembering the bad things that happened and anticipating more trouble – so that we could survive. This is the mind our ancestors bequeathed to us – and just as well they did, because the ones who didn’t think this way, well, they died of course.

The good news is we survived. The not so good news is we developed a negativity bias. This means the negative things seem to stick in our mind more than the positive things and, on balance, we tend to think more negative thoughts than positive.  We are ‘teflon’ for good experiences and ‘velcro’ for bad. This is why we see a plethora of negative political campaigns.

This means if you got 30 things done today but made one mistake – there is a good chance that as you go to bed you will be dwelling on that one mistake, rather than the 29 things you did well. This does not serve us well today, but way back, from a survival standpoint, it did. After all, it was the bad things that could kill us. Today, the bad things are unlikely to kill us but our brains haven’t evolved enough to distinguish the difference.

The negative focus is further reinforced as our brains continuously assess our environment and react much more rapidly and thoroughly to negative than positive stimuli. You could say the negative contaminates the positive, rather than the positive impacting the negative.

For example, in relationships trust is much easier to lose than to gain. In fact, researchers studying the interactions between couples and seeing which interactions lead to lasting relationship have determined that there is a 5:1 ratio, 5 positive interaction between a couple to undo the effects of one fight.

Interestingly, we aren’t the only animals that have this negativity bias. Take rats for example. One electric shock at the end of a maze run and the rat won’t go down that path again. If at the end of the maze run they get food, a positive form of reinforcement, they need several different trials before they learn it.

Anxiety is a Danger Response

Constant thoughts, coupled with our negative bias, also means that we are often in a state of anxiety. We constantly feel compelled to be doing something – take action, medicate, move – just do something, anything to get out of this state. This makes sense when you consider our evolution. It was important to take action in response to danger, and anxiety is a danger response. Anxiety wants us ‘to move’, to do something, anything, to get out of danger. Until we get out of danger we can’t relax, if we don’t take action we can’t get out of danger, if we don’t take action we stay in anxiety. To make matters worse, as part of this cycle our body is releasing adrenalin into our system to get us to take action, further compounding our state of anxiety. Put simply, this is our ‘ancient brain’ trying to constantly save us from everything, all the time. Quite a vicious circle.

This has far reaching implications. As an example, research into attempted suicide has highlighted that many people who attempt to take their life were not doing it because they felt depressed, they were doing it because they felt anxious and wanted the anxiety to stop.

Neuroscience Opens New Possibilities

Our negativity bias emerged in harsh settings very different to our own, but it continues to operate today.  The good news is that Neuroscience research has discovered that learning changes the brain. Scientists originally thought that the brain matured around the age of 25 and then deteriorated. We now know the brain is more like a muscle. Whilst ultimately it weakens, turns out just like a muscle, the parts we use strengthen and the ones we don’t weaken. It’s like a river bed that deepens over time. Scientists call it ‘experience dependant neuroplasticity’.

Why is this good news? Because it means we can change the way our brain functions – but it takes conscious intervention, training and perserverance. Just like if you want to learn to skateboard, you are going to have to do it over and over again before you master it. Your body and brain have to learn new skills and initially it is going to feel uncomfortable.

Mindfulness Tools & Techniques to the Rescue

There are many coaching tools and techniques drawn from the study of psychology that exist to move individuals toward happier and more fulfilling lives. Most of these, at some level, aim to interrupt our natural negative tendencies and drive us toward more positive thoughts and actions. They include things such as affirmations, positive thinking, rituals, tracking and celebrating progress. All of these approaches can enhance our sense of wellbeing.

Mindfulness practices are another set of tools. The field of mindfulness and mindfulness practices provide profound insights into the pattern of mind that create suffering. They aim to create new states of being, to ‘interrupt’ our auto responses. In short, to re-train the brain to not respond to instinctual patterns.

As we practice mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, the first thing we tend to observe is that our minds are constantly restless. There is constant activity. The Buddhist’s call it having a monkey mind, jumping all over the place. Sitting at peace, and being ‘in the moment’ is not our natural state.

Mindfulness practice offers us a solution, a new way to respond. They provide us with tools and techniques to sit and observe in detail what our mind and body are doing without judgement or label.  Sooner or later, as we practice mindfulness a whole lot of unwanted feelings will arise. Everything you have not wanted to think or feel will eventually rise up to greet you. But, with practice, mindfulness techniques change how we respond, change how we think, change what we think and what we focus on.  They gradually move us from a negative bias, to a positive one. Gradually allowing us to enjoy the good times, to sit in peace, to love who we are and where we are in our lives – without judgement or anxiety.

I guess you could say, it is retraining our ancient brain to realise that most of the challenges we face today aren’t going to kill us and that there is a happier way to be in this world – and all it takes it to learn a new skill, or a variation on a skill that was first developed thousands of years ago. Meditation!

Outcomes That Matter

If you sum it all up, I guess you could say that when it comes to achieving outcomes that matter in our organisations and our lives, we can improve our chance of success by adopting some form of mindfulness practice. It allows us to stop and reconnect with ourselves. To tap into our feelings, our true nature and ensure our forward steps are aligned with the life and/or business we truly want to create.

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