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?
It was 6:25 am today when the bed started to shake. I heard a picture frame hit the floor outside our bedroom door. Our youngest son was in the bed with us at the time and woke up and said, “What is going on Daddy?” He didn’t seem too worried and either was I having grown up in Los Angeles where the earth’s little “shake and bake” routine happened from time to time. This was a pretty good one with a magnitude of 4.7. I went to check on my other son, he was still asleep, hadn’t even stirred. One thing it did remind me of was that from time to time, life throws us little reminders to pay attention to what matters.
This morning I was reminded that “Life is about who you love and how you love them.” I gave my son and wife a big hug.
As mindful as we can train to be, we can never control what happens to us in any given moment. Training the mind in presence is a way of preparing the mind to respond with more presence during the difficult events of life (and of course to the joyful events as well).
I’ll never forget the year my wife was pregnant with our first child and it seemed like everywhere I turned people were telling me, “Savor this time, it all goes by so fast.” It didn’t matter what race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status the person was coming from, it was a universal experience.
But this experience doesn’t belong to people who have kids; this is a universal experience across human beings that we often wake up to after some a loss or
After a mysterious blue fog surrounded the boundaries of America, there was a communication breakdown and all Smartphones and computers disappeared. Everyone woke up late as the economy halted and people were left in a state of shock unclear on how to relate to one another. Riddled with “phantom vibrations” coming from their upper legs, stress began to build with no access to their favorite social media sites. It wasn’t long before social unrest broke out leaving people to meet outside in the streets.
But what happened next wasn’t expected.
Have you ever thought about what your thoughts really are?
Consider for a moment even as you’re reading this the voices and images that are naturally appearing in your mind as your brain processes this sentence.
Close your eyes for 10 seconds. Imagine you’re in a dark movie theatre and just watch these mental events forming and unforming. Some are voices questioning what you’re doing, others are telling you what you should pay attention to, or yet others are just a string of different images shifting and changing (You can also be guided through this practice).
Even after looking at them are hearing them in your mind right now, are you any closer to understanding what thoughts are?
The truth is not a single scientist can tell you for certain what a thought is, but somehow we become highly identified with them.
We say, “I am a teacher,” or “I am a good person” or “I am a failure” or “I make the best chocolate chip cookies” or “I am an addict” or “I am a depressed person” or “I am unworthy, unlovable and defective.” The stories go on and on.
From the time we are born we collect these stories to define who we are and what we can achieve in this life. When the thoughts are judgments, can we say for certainty that they’re true? The answer is almost always, no. But the thoughts lead to feelings or the reinforcement of feelings that were already there. Inevitably they feel true.
What it comes down to is we are not our thoughts, not even the ones that say we are.
How do I know this?
I always say if there’s anything we’re assured of in life besides death and taxes, it’s stress and pain. While that may seem like a doomsday statement, if you look at it again, it’s actually quite freeing. If you know stress and pain are inevitable, then you can learn how to be grateful for the good when it’s here and be graceful when the stress and pain arrives.
Here’s a short passage from Mindfulness Meditations for the Anxious Traveler: Quick Exercises to Calm Your Mind that gives voice to this.
“It is what it is, while it is. Nothing lasts forever. Difficulties will pass and so will the wonders; tune in to the preciousness of life.
Bring this awareness into the moments of your day, tuning in to what really matters.”
Life is so precious.
How can we get better and better at setting aside the trivial mind traps that keep us stuck and drag us down into states of anxiety and depression?
Believe it or not, five years ago starting a blog called Mindfulness and Psychotherapy seemed like a risky venture. At the time, some people I mentioned it to said, “Well, there are a whole lot of blogs that come and go within a year.” The integration of mindfulness, compassion and neuroscience as a therapy in our daily lives has now become key to millions of people. Through posts and interviews we’ve looked into practical applications for stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, trauma, grief, happiness, joy, self-compassion, forgiveness, relationships, business, medicine, technology, politics and so much more.
Since the inception of this blog we’ve seen the publications of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, The Now Effect and Mindfulness Meditations for the Anxious Traveler. It has been incredibly rewarding to share these years with you and I wanted to thank you all deeply for all your interactions, they have been a source of living wisdom for me and the other readers to benefit from.
Now, here are my Top 10 Favorite Posts from 2013:
Once in a while a moment occurs in your life that causes your jaw to drop open in awe. Recently, my wife, Stefanie Goldstein, PhD and I were at Denim N’ Dirt Ranch in Santa Clarita, California giving a workshop on mindfulness for equine-assisted psychotherapists. The premise of the workshop was to teach how mindfulness and self-compassion enhanced presence for the therapists and ultimately made them more effective at the work they did with their clients. But what happened was completely unexpected and I might even borrow a word from one of the participants, “magical.”
We were all sitting in a circle in the horse ring, here’s a picture of me talking and my impromptu horse assistant “Jazz” encouraging me.
Since Jon Kabat-Zinn appeared on Bill Moyers in 1993, research on the applications of mindfulness has soared exponentially. If you’ve been following this blog you’re highly aware of that already. His Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program has splintered off into Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for depressive relapse, Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) for addiction, Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting (MBCP), MB-EAT for eating disorders and many more.
After the research became clear, corporations starting coming out of the woodwork interested in the applications of mindfulness for stress, productivity and reducing healthcare costs. Every year now it seems that Google, Facebook, Intel, Twitter and many more take part in the Wisdom 2.0 conferences, curious about how to integrate this into their work environments. Emindful.com has a 12-week live online program that has clear evidence of reducing stress in the workplace, increasing productivity and reducing healthcare costs. Mindful Schools, CALM for Teens, among others are bringing it into the school systems and now Apps for the various Smartphones are abundant.
But you know something has hit mainstream when Hollywood takes notice. In a new film by Paul Harrison, appropriately titled “The Mindfulness Movie,” we see leaders come together such as Rick Hanson, Dan Siegel, Mark Williams, Dan Millman, Kristin Neff, Jeffrey Schwartz, and so many others (including myself) to weave together important mindful insights about what it means to us and where it is all going.
Here’s a short clip to see what I mean:
Smiling is something almost all of us could do a bit more often. Past science shows that smiling – especially the kind of smile that involves the muscles around the eyes – creates a specific type of brain activation that’s connected to being in a happy mood. More recent research shows that even adopting this kind of smile, known as a “Duchenne smile” leads to lower heart rate levels and quicker recovery from stressful activities. Resilience and positive brain activity are maybe good reasons to grin a bit more in our lives, but there’s even a better reason.
The following video will show you exactly what that is.