Many media outlets have been talking for a number of years now about how ubiquitous mindfulness is, the impact it’s having in a variety of sectors and all the wonderful science that continues to be published. But I noticed that many people in the media don’t talk much about the actual formal practice of mindfulness meditation and that’s probably because it can be a hard habit to establish. One thing I’ve learned is if you want to establish a practice you have to look directly at what’s getting in the way and allow those obstacles to be your greatest teachers.
Here are five obstacles that have been in people’s way for thousands of years and the antidotes to get over them.
Antidote: We have to remember that thoughts are just thoughts; they’re not facts (even the ones that say they are). When we notice this doubt slipping
It seems like every day interest in mindfulness is reaching new heights. All the major news networks have covered it and recently Sharon Salzberg was on the Katie Couric Show explaining how to achieve mindfulness. But the question on many people’s minds is; has mindfulness become another form of snake oil, claiming to cure everything under the sun from anxiety to sneezing? Last week a post broke out on the New York Times claiming there is a “Mindfulness Backlash” afoot where some people are questioning the science, seeing it packaged as a commodity and even warning against it.
It doesn’t appear that there is a single person on this planet who is not affected by depression in some way. You’ve either experienced it directly or you have a family member or friend who has been caught in the throws of it. One in 10 adults report depression and that doesn’t count the millions more that live in the shadows of shame and the millions more on top of that who simply live with some low grade life of apathy that doesn’t appear to lift. For this reason it has become one of the most important topics of our time.
That is why I am so happy to bring to you Jonathan Rottenberg, PhD, author of The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, to give us some insight into why depression is so tenacious and how we can begin making small shifts toward greater health and well-being.
Elisha: Jonathan, what I find so interesting about The Depths is how you explain depression in evolutionary terms. Tell us more about the evolutionary manifestation of depression as we know it today.
Jonathan: Mood is a very ancient adaptation. It’s easy for most people to see that high moods could be useful in energizing behavior to pursue rewards, but, low moods are useful as well. Low moods focus attention on threats and obstacles and restrain behavior. When conditions are unfavorable, or when goals are unreachable, low moods pause behavior to ensure that an animal does not engage in fruitless efforts. This efficiency is important given that resources of every sort — time, energy, or money — are finite.
During the day many of us are moving so fast, sometimes physically, but almost always mentally. Our neurons are firing in hyper speed with so much to do and so much to pay attention to. We’re all working so hard to get somewhere that we forget to be here. Sometimes when I’m rushing, I’ll notice that I’m “rushing home to relax.” In that moment I become present and realize that I don’t have to rush home to relax, I have arrived in the present moment and can choose to “be” different.
Here’s a trick I learned that helps me train my brain to be present while simply walking.
A family of four, with two young boys, walked into a Chinese restaurant. The family was sat at a table adjacent to a couple of older women who had already been eating their food. From time to time the father would catch the woman at the nearby table looking over at his family and shaking her head in what seemed like judgement. He was confused, what was she so disapproving of? This happened about two more times. Unnerved a bit, he noted this interaction to his wife. Before the food came he got up to bring his boys to the bathroom to wash their hands and as he did this she stared him down one more time and shook her head in what felt like disgust.
This father was me and this woman had broken through my mindful barrier and cued my fight or flight response.
I used all kinds of effort to stay present and mindful, but it was as if I was possessed and something inside of me was fighting to come out.
From my experience the gender that is overwhelmingly attracted to mindfulness is women, men aren’t quite as attracted to it. Why is this? In the early days, the man’s greatest responsibility was to protect the tribe. Our brains have been crafted over thousands and thousands of years to guard against vulnerability. The problem with mindfulness for men is that the practice of it asks us to look toward and open up to vulnerability because that is where the gold is. We are also asked to relate to it in very feminine language like with “warmth,” “tenderness,” and “gentleness.” However, the physical threats that men were guarding against in the past, in most cases, are no longer the threats of modern day. But the brain hasn’t figured this out yet and treats emotional vulnerability as a threat, keeping men from truly reaching our highest human potential.
But things are changing! There is an evolution afoot as more men are starting to see the benefits of integrating mindfulness into daily life.
If you’re a man or you know one, here are five reasons why I think men should give mindfulness a try.
When you’re focused on any activity, whether it’s your email, listening to a friend or sitting in a formal meditation practice, your mind is bound to wander. In The Now Effect I introduce the phrase “See, Touch, Go” as a way to remember how to work with the wandering mind. When it wanders we “See” that it wandered, then we “Touch” or spend a moment with the thought, and “Gently Go” back to the initial intention. Recently a friend opened my eyes to how this phrase can be adapted to be a simple and practical way to strengthen a more compassionate brain.
I can’t wait to share it with you.
Recent I had an eye opening dream while I was asleep.
I was in a war torn region and superheroes existed (Keep in mind I have a couple younger kids).
I was injured somehow, but some of these superheroes were telling me I could fly.
As I tried to fly, I felt a little lift but kept falling.
A few people who were the enemy were chasing me and I was afraid. I ran and tried to fly, but couldn’t get that far (At this point you are welcome to psychoanalyze me).
The superheroes told me:
“You have to believe, believe you can fly and you can do it.”
At that point I decided to risk it, I leaned it a bit further and took a leap (literally and figuratively), believing that if I did this I would fly.
Lo’ and behold I was up in the air flying around. I couldn’t believe it.
As the dream continued I was able to help some people, but I would lose my belief from time to time and had trouble getting up in the air.
I remembered the words, “You have to believe, believe you can fly and you can do it.” I risked again, took the leap…
Scientists John Gaspar and John McDonald from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia have recently discovered that we have an anti-distraction mode in our brain (See an overview here or the actual study here). This means that focusing on what matters moment-to-moment is not only about intentionally paying attention to something, like reading this blog post or listening to a friend, but also about suppressing all of the distractions in the background.
Why is this important to us and what can we do about it?
In our culture the notion of surrendering has a negative connotation to it. It means you’ve been defeated and that you’re powerless. But if you look to the world’s wisdom traditions you’ll find that the idea of surrendering is a courageous act that creates more insight and freedom from the unnecessary mental struggles of life.
The 13th century Sufi poet Rumi uses a wonderful metaphor to bring this to life:
Very little grows on jagged rock.
Be ground. Be crumbled,
so wildflowers will come up
where you are.
You’ve been stony for too many years.
Try something different.
Many of us harden into patterns of life that keep the struggle going. We can’t seem to let go of the self-judgment because our brain believes it’s there to keep us in line. We numb out to the world through eating, drinking, over-use of social media, among so many other ways.
Question: Why is our brain so afraid of surrendering our unhealthy patterns of thinking and behaving?