Dr. Christopher Germer is friend and colleague of mine who grew up with a great fear of speaking. It wasn’t always easy, but over time he began to cultivate an awareness of the feeling of fear as it arose and practiced systematically relating to it with greater mindfulness and compassion. Chris trained his brain to have what I call “The Mindful Instinct.” What actually happened?
In a Chapter titled “Compassion is a Verb” in The Now Effect I share how this practice led to an experience that changed Chris’ relationship to his fear of speaking.
“One day when he was speaking onstage, the fear came over him, physically gripping him, and in that moment, without his even being conscious of it, phrases of kindness and compassion began to wash over him. It’s as if he had reprogrammed the subconscious snap judgments to be ‘It’s going to be okay.’
The speech was great. This is The Now Effect in action.”
The fact is we can all do this and it will make us happier and more effective in our lives.
Compassion isn’t just a feeling, it’s a skill and it can be practiced and cultivated so it begins to happen more naturally. This has been studied in research and more recently Sara Lazar, MD, Instructor at Harvard Medical School, and her colleagues found that mindfulness training led to an increase in gray matter in an area of the brain called the Tempoparietal Junction. That’s a mouthful, but it’s known to be the seat of empathy. The experience of putting yourself in another’s shoes and is fundamental for compassion.
This is just neuroscience backing up the cultivation of a mindful instinct. If we can grow new neural pathways in the part of the brain that lights up when we’re feeling empathy, then it seems that we can make empathy and compassion a more automatic part of our experience in life.
If you think about it, the decisions our brains make in one moment affects the next moment and so on and so forth. What we practice and repeats becomes automatic. If the brain practices reacting to things with fearful thoughts and avoidant behaviors that is what it makes more automatic. If it practices automatic negative thoughts, that becomes stronger.
But, if we are aware of this and can intentionally practice engaging the moments of our lives with greater mindfulness and compassion, that becomes stronger and the experience of thousands of people and neuroscience back it up. Training our minds to tap into the “choice points” that are all around us has enormous implications for stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, parenting, sleep issues, at school, at work, in relationships and beyond.
A suggestion for today:
See if you can put your judgments aside for a moment of whether this will or will not work for you and let your experience be your teacher.
When you notice a comfortable or uncomfortable feeling (could even be right now) today, take a moment to recognize you’re in a space of awareness, this is that choice point to relate to it with a sense of curiosity. How does it feel, where is it felt, and can you wrap it in a caring attention? Don’t worry about the results, just know that no matter the outcome you’re practicing creating that mindful instinct en route to a more enduring mindful brain and making The Now Effect a greater part of your life.
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interactions create a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.
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Microphone photo available from Shutterstock.