Mindfulness has become a bit of a buzzword lately. Once considered a touchy-feely term reserved for those on the fringe, mindfulness has slowly made its way to mainstream society.
So why the shift? Science. The more that scientists discover about brain development and human health and wellness, the more they are learning about the power of mindfulness. To the surprise of many, mindfulness practices have been tied to a number of health benefits, including reduced stress, lowered risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure, and increased sleep. In addition, mindfulness has been shown to be beneficial in treating depression, substance abuse, and anxiety disorders. If we could bottle it, mindfulness would be the new wonder-drug.
Originating from Buddhist meditation, mindfulness is traditionally defined as the focusing of attention and awareness. By paying attention and making ourselves consciously aware of what is going on, we are empowered to make more mindful (and, hopefully, more beneficial), choices. What makes mindfulness so powerful is that it allows us to stop and reflect before we react.
So how do we become more mindful?
Within our brains, we have two opposing forces, one that is focused on our short-term survival and one that is focused on our long-term success. These two forces determine what we might be capable of at any given time. The forces are not “good” or “bad,” but rather each is critical for our survival.
The force that is focused on our short-term survival is triggered by primary threats and rewards. This is the force that gets us to jump out of the way quickly if we are about to be hit by a car. It is fast and strong, but when it is activated, our brains release stress hormones that can ultimately lead to all kinds of ailments. Many of us understand traditional threats and rewards that trigger this response, but there are also social triggers that we need to be able to recognize.
In his book, Your Brain at Work, David Rock presents the SCARF model to explain these social triggers. The triggers are:
- Relatedness, and
When we feel threatened in any of these areas, our brain automatically triggers the stress-response system.
The first part of mindfulness is having an understanding of why and how we are responding at stressful times. Recognizing when your short-term force is at work and understanding what is triggering that response is the first step in being able to control that response.
In our brains, we have a “default network.” This network is the stream of thoughts that is often playing inside of our heads when we are not consciously engaged in active thought. These thought might be about events that are happening in our lives, people who we know, or daydreams about future plans.
Mindfulness practice involves consciously stopping that default network thinking and instead focusing awareness on sensory experiences in the present moment–what you are seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, and tasting. In addition, mindfulness practice involves a focus and awareness on breathing, because conscious breathing helps to get the force that is in charge of long-term success back in control of our brains.
It does not take a lot of time or energy to begin to become mindful. It can be done anywhere, almost anytime. It doesn’t cost anything. There are no negative side-effects. Within our everyday lives, we can take a few minutes each day and work on stopping the default network and consciously choosing to be aware of what is happening in the moment.
Now that’s a wonder-drug that I can live with.