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?
I began the Mindfulness and Psychotherapy blog on Psychcentral.com over 5 years ago now. Since then I’ve written hundreds of posts on the intersection of mindfulness and psychotherapy. Recently a new book has been published called Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy. While this is a wonderful and practical guide for therapists, someone who is not a therapist would also benefit from the guidance and exercises. Today I have the benefit of interviewing the authors of Sitting Together; Susan Pollak, MTS, Ed.D., clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School and president of the Institute of Meditation and Psychotherapy, Thomas Pedulla, LICSW, faculty at the Institute of Meditation and Psychotherapy and Ronald Siegel, Psy.D., author of The Mindfulness Solution and also faculty at the Institute of Meditation and Psychotherapy.
Today Susan, Ron and Tom talk to us about introductory practices we can use when feeling overwhelmed, when Lovingkindness is best practiced, the critical importance of equanimity and when not to use mindfulness.
Elisha: What do you find to be the most effective introductory practice(s) for a client who is feeling overwhelmed with the stresses of life?
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?
We’ve all heard the saying that in life there are ups and down and there is the classic eastern saying that life is filled with 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. With this there’s the wisdom that all things come and go, but the brain has a funny way of amplifying the sorrows and minimizing the joys for good evolutionary reasons. Whenever the brain perceived something as “bad” it starts to worry about it. But often times there is no real utility to the worry, it only serves to dig us into a deeper hole and blinds us to the joys that might be waiting around the corner.
Here is one of the best cartoons I’ve found that says it like it is:
I’ve been spending a lot of time recently creating a new 28-Day Basics in Mindfulness Meditation Program that I’m hopeful will be supportive to many people in launching or deepening their mindfulness practice. As I completed the program I had a wonderful feeling of accomplishment only quickly to be followed by the thought, “Okay, now onto the other book you’re writing on Uncovering Happiness” and immediately my shoulders got tense. I feel so fortunate for the work I do because not too long after that some voices arose in my mind that saved the moment for me and ultimately are a great source of my own happiness.
The main voice that arose said, “Hold on a minute you really worked hard on that, is there a space to appreciate this and can you have joy for your own joy?” Here is some proof that I must’ve changed some neural architecture in there to make this awareness arise spontaneously.
What followed was a more conscious mindful joy practice with the intention of planting the seeds of my ability to feel joy for my own joy and extend that sentiment to people I care about and eventually to all people.
A “bellringer” is a short activity that some teachers put on the board in the beginning of a class so students have something to do while attendance is being taken. Recently, one teacher among a quietly growing group tried something radically different to start his class –a mindfulness practice. What did he notice? Student participation is up and class disruption is down. He also noticed that the quality of their writing was far better and students wanted to continue the practice.
This is completely in line with a growing number of anecdotes talking about the power of bringing mindfulness to kids, tweens, teens and older adolescents.
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.
The Now Effect is based on a very simple quote from a psychiatrist and holocaust survivor named Viktor Frankl. He said, “Between stimulus and response there’s a space, in that space lies our power to choose our response, in our response lies our growth and our freedom.” But for most of us that space is non-existent as the speed of the day skips right over it. From the moment we wake up, the brain already has a routine preplanned that skips over the spaces where life is unfolding. It knows that maybe after we wake up, we make breakfast, drink our coffee, read news on our phones, take a shower, get dressed and the rest of the day unfolds like this. Sadly, for many of us our lives go on like this until some crisis wakes us up. But we don’t need a crisis, right now we can train our brains to break this pattern.
Philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel said:
“Life is routine and routine is resistance to wonder.”
The most popular practice I know to take back control of our lives and step into the choices and wonders that are all around us is the STOP practice. A few years ago when A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook came out I did a YouTube video of this practice and it has almost 70,000 views. A year ago when The Now Effect came out I put a more professional video out again and it already has almost 10,000 views. The reason this is so popular is because it benefits children, adolescents, adults, parents, politicians, educators, athletes, business people, and any human being. It’s necessary for healing stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, trauma and stress-related medical conditions.
The fact is, we all need to learn how to:
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?
In a study out of the Journal of Communication, researchers showed how media multitasking not only makes for poorer cognitive performance and makes us less effective at home and work. It turns out that even the idea of multitasking is a myth. In an interview with the National Institute of the Clinical Applications of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM), Dan Goleman, PhD, author of the recent bestselling book Focus talks about how the concept of multitasking is a myth, why it makes us less effective and how we can get more focus.
You can watch this one hour interview free on Wednesday February 5th, 2014. This series also lines up Dan Siegel, Rick Hanson, Daniel Amen, Bruce Lipton, Helen Fisher, among others.
It turns out that according to cognitive science the brain cannot handle more than one task at a time. Multitasking is a process of incredibly fast switching of attention. Just like a computer that has many programs open, when the brain multitasks and rapidly shifts back and forth the performance ultimately goes down.