Minding your own business

Most of us live in a kind of temporal blur. We spend so much time regretting the past and fretting about the future that we completely miss the present. We have wandering minds. Sometimes I think that I am so busy being mentally else-when that I don’t even see my own children clearly.

Wandering minds tend to stray to whatever is bothering us at the moment, and to the many things that have bothered us in the past. Research shows that this habit of brooding on the negative is a kind of chronic stress that creates minds that are physiologically prone to exaggerate and overreact to problems.

Chronic stress actually causes the centre of emotional overreaction, the amygdala, to grow measurably larger. The amygdala is the “flying off the handle” centre of the brain, so a larger amygdala leaves us with a tendency to fight (or fly) before our conscious brains have even registered that there is a problem.  Having it grow large and over-reactive is clearly not going to end well for us.

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” [*]

Mindfulness, in contrast, causes the amygdala to shrink, and makes the conscious mind quicker and more agile – more able to step in before we overreact. Mindfulness is nothing more than focusing on the present moment, on what you are feeling and experiencing right now. It can be as simple as listening to the birds chirping in the nearby trees, or as difficult as meditation.

Last week I was lucky enough to be present for a talk from an eminent mindfulness researcher, Dr Craig Hassed, that comprehensively blew my mind. Dr Hassed presented us with a summary of the current state of mindfulness research. Many of us probably think of crystals and hippies when we think of mindfulness. It seems like the latest spiritual craze, and not terribly relevant to our every day lives.

Except that mindfulness is scientifically proven in a whole lot of stunning ways. It boosts our immune system, reduces our stress, and causes measurable physiological changes in our brains. It also slows the shortening of our telomeres (a biological measure of ageing). In short, mindfulness meditation is better for you than antibiotics when you are sick, or any selection of vitamins you can name. Mindfulness also leads to better empathy, improved problem solving, and enhanced emotional control. It is an anti-stress, anti-ageing wonder drug – except it’s not a drug.

Chronic stress is physically and psychologically brutal. Sometimes you can’t reduce the stress in your life, but you can change your response to it, by simply bringing your mind back to what’s in front of you, instead of endlessly chewing over stress from the past or the future.

Sometimes I’m tired, sometimes I’m shot
Sometimes I don’t know how much more I’ve got
Maybe I’m headed over the hill
Maybe I’ve set myself up for the kill
Tell me how much do you think you can take
Until the heart in you is starting to break?
Sometimes it feels like it will

I go to Extremes – Billy Joel

Craig Hassed put it beautifully – you can sit in a chair and meditate, but it’s what you do when you get out of the chair that matters. It’s relatively easy to meditate for a short time. It’s much harder to be mindful throughout your day, every day.

I suspect there is a connection between mindfulness and what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow – that wondrous state where you are completely focused on what you are doing. Flow is a feeling that no time has passed when you have actually been absorbed in something for hours. It happens when you are engaged in something that you are good at, that you are challenged by, and that you enjoy. I feel it when I’m teaching. If you are lucky enough to have a job where you experience flow, then you will be mindful at those times. But this is “accidental mindfulness”. You are perfectly mindful, but only because you are engaged in the perfect task.

Being mindful when you are doing something mindless – something that doesn’t engage you – is much harder. For example, this morning I was putting out the washing. Not exactly a riveting occupation, so my mind began to wander. Instead of allowing it to dwell on recent traumas, I brought my mind back to focus on the breeze, and the feeling of sunshine warming my skin. I listened to the birds chirping nearby, and I noticed the flowers that have come out recently. In short, I paid attention to the moment. Rather than spending those ten minutes contemplating stress, I spent them contemplating the world around me. For ten minutes I was not focused on trauma, not reinforcing the negative pathways in my mind, and not ramping up my stress levels.

Ten minutes is easy. Doing it all day is much harder. I suspect that perfect mindfulness is not an achievable goal for a human being, but it does get easier with practice. Becoming aware of your thoughts and bringing them back to where you are is much easier than trying to force yourself not to think about stressful things. The more you stress about your stress, the more you reinforce it. If, instead, you think about the patterns of light and shade in the leaves outside your window, you can pull yourself back from stressing over the past and fearing the future, and immerse yourself in the present.

Teaching yourself to be more in the moment can literally save your life. It could obviously be the difference between life and death when you’re driving – paying attention to the road in front of you rather than the phone on your lap – but it can also add years to your life through increased health and happiness.

How mindful are you?


[*] Killingsworth MA, Gilbert DT. A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind. Science 12 November 2010: Vol. 330. no. 6006, p. 932 DOI: 10.1126/ science.1192439

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