Last month I proposed a model of change not based on self-improvement, but on rethinking your entire relationship to yourself. Mindfulness, or what I refer to here as stepping off the hamster wheel, is a learned skill that research shows is profoundly effective in reducing stress and worrying, improving memory, focus, and relationship quality, as well as empathy and compassion for self and others.
Mindfulness is a way to upgrade your operating system that literally rewires the brain. Mindfulness practice can free up a lot of space on your internal hard drive so you experience far fewer crashes and your connectivity to yourself and your world opens up as if you’ve replaced your dial-up modem with fiber optics. But because mindfulness runs counter to our deepest personal and cultural conditioning, it requires a big shift in perspective that takes some getting used to.
Most of us in the United States take for granted the values of individualism and hard work. This means we are a nation of “doers.” When we perceive a problem, we work really hard to fix it, solve it, resolve it. When what we’re doing doesn’t work, we try harder and likely beat ourselves up pretty good for not getting it right the first time. Many of us feel alone in our striving because the value of individualism states that we should be forging our own way without help from others, which essentially promotes a sense of shame around ever wanting or needing a hand. So we just keep trying harder. We think there’s something wrong with us. We think we’re the only one.
When we’re using the old analogue operating system, we mistakenly believe that if we can fix, change, or improve the things we think are making us unhappy, we’ll find happiness. Makes sense, right? But we all know from experience that this is usually not the case.
And here’s why. Say you’ve been unhappy with your looks, your weight, or your self-image for as long as you can remember. You’ve tried everything to fix or improve your appearance so you no longer have to feel bad about yourself or be in conflict with who you are. You’ve spent endless hours worrying about what others think of you. You’ve tried to control how you’re perceived and you’ve avoided all kinds of situations or experiences so as not to feel judged or inferior about yourself. There have been times when your skin cleared up or you lost those 15 pounds, but still you’re not totally satisfied. Your inner critic is still hounding you with “not good enough” stories, and the feeling of happiness or fulfillment that you thought would come when you improved your appearance, just never appears.
By creating a problem out of your looks and then working really hard to “solve” that problem, you’re neurologically sabotaging your efforts. How? By repeatedly strengthening those neural pathways that support the underlying fear of “I’m not good enough.” Other people create problems in their relationships or with their finances or create addiction problems as a way to deal with painful and overwhelming inner fears. We all have our own set of fears and our own ways of coping to avoid them, but it adds up to the same thing: strengthening the neural pathways that perpetuate the myths that we somehow don’t measure up.
Using mindfulness, we notice our thoughts instead of believing them and getting pushed around by them. We feel and name our emotions instead of fearing and avoiding them. In this way, we begin to forge new neural pathways that promote a subjective sense of wholeness and we develop the capacity to witness our experiences instead of identifying with them. The result? We become better and better at handling our inner and outer experiences, which empowers us to choose our behaviors, rather than running on automatic pilot, which only strengthens our fear-based reactivity. When practiced in conjunction with other coping skills found in Cognitive-behavioral Therapy that address difficult thoughts, feelings and behaviors, mindfulness is a simple and profound agent of change.
Lastly, practicing mindfulness doesn’t require hours of silent meditation. You can begin right now, wherever you are. Awareness is always present and available to us. Just take a look around and notice what you see or hear. Notice if you’re hot or cold. Notice where you’re holding tension in your body and see if you can let it soften. Notice that you’re breathing. Relax with this moment, just as it is, then continue on your day.
Learning and practicing mindfulness has literally changed my life. By upgrading my operating system, I still get everything done that needs to get done and I’m as productive and effective as ever, but I run more smoothly. I’m way more chilled out, happier and better able to handle whatever comes up. But don’t take my word for it – give it a try and see for yourself. What have you got to lose?