How can Mindfulness help?
Mindfulness has become a buzzword of late – known for being a vital component in a self-care tool kit, along with exercise, eating healthily, and all those other things that you know are good for you but you don’t actually do… (Or is that just me?)
I knew that mindfulness and meditating can help with self-compassion but I couldn’t get on board for some time. I tried meditating but didn’t ‘get it’. My mind wouldn’t stop wandering, I couldn’t focus, my thoughts were just too deafening. It felt like another thing on my to-do ‘to make you a better person’ list that I was failing at.
Until, I discovered some wonderful books on mindfulness by Ruby Wax. She makes the subject inspiring, accessible and funny. She is encouraging, stating that any time sitting in meditation, even if you can bring the focus back to your breath just once or twice over the session, is worthwhile. When the bar is lowered it makes for a far more obtainable task.
As someone who has always felt bad about feeling bad, giving myself a hard time for feeling depressed, anxious or comparing myself to others, I found her explanation of where our negative thoughts come from strangely comforting. Her description of our how our brains are programmed to work alleviated the guilt I felt for my same old, same old thought patterns.
What, exactly, is Mindfulness?
A mindful practise includes meditation or day to day exercises to strengthen your ability to pay attention. Mindfulness is focusing on thoughts in the present, without an extra layer of judgement. Or in the words of Ruby Wax, ‘noticing your thoughts and feelings without kicking your own ass while you’re doing it.’
Starting to see your thoughts objectivity is the first step towards recognising a pattern. I became more aware of my repeated thoughts, my default settings. Ah, you again! So when that happens I react like this. Again. Knowing ourselves, with all our hang ups, judgements and messy parts we’d rather forget, is the first step towards changing our thinking.
Wax states, ‘When you’re in observer mode, just witnessing your thoughts, they lose their power and sting as you begin to realise that you aren’t your thoughts.’
Where do our negative thoughts come from?
In her Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled Wax explains how our thoughts are a by-product of our evolutionary survival kit. Our modern brains haven’t quite caught up.
Our reptilian brain has helped us survive by being on the lookout for danger and predators, but this deep seated primeval instinct also kicks in when we don’t need it (often when we are tired, run down or stressed). The old ‘fight or flight’ response.
Moving on from hunter gatherer times, we started living in groups and began rating ourselves against others to compete for food, territory and sexual partners. New feelings emerged for those that considered themselves ‘low down of the totem pole of status,’ as we developed a sense of self.
Wax states that we need a sense of self for three things: self-reflection, consistency and identity. But this sense of self backfires when we start to compare ourselves to other people – it creates a sense of inferiority, shame, and low self-esteem.
So fears of being rejected or outcast from a group have been around for thousands of years, and have helped us survive in communities, but are not so helpful when it becomes a comparison game (hello, social media!).
Wax states that our modern way of living – filling our brains with information, multitasking, doing things on autopilot – accounts for a lot of our anxiety.
‘We’re constantly caught in a trap of remembering so many imagined disasters that no longer have anything to do with survival and this leads to rumination; one negative, self-focused thought snowballs into the next, into infinity.’
Neuroscientist Rick Hanson goes into further detail in his book Hardwiring Happiness. He talks of the negativity bias, the fact that ‘your brain has a hair-trigger readiness to go negative to help you survive.’ He says that our brains are like ‘velcro for the negative, teflon for the positive.’
So far so, erm, negative! But there is hope.
Studies have shown that the brain is malleable throughout life and that with regular practise, we can start to break negative thought patterns and create new, more positive ones. Practising mindfulness and meditating can forge new neural pathways, literally shaping our brains.
Rick Hanson talks of ‘taking in the good,’ actively working to redress the negativity bias through exercises that strengthen positive neural circuits.
A kinder outlook
Armed with the knowledge that our brains naturally lean towards the negative, that comparing ourselves to others has been vital for survival, I feel less shame about sometimes veering towards negative thinking.
Rather than trying to push negative thoughts to the back of my head, I have started to allow myself to feel them. Only by experiencing our thoughts in a compassionate, non-judgemental way can we notice them, and break the cycle. When you use mindfulness you learnt to accept your feelings for what they are, without beating yourself up so much in the process.
Buddhist nun Pema Chodron states, ‘If you follow the breath and label your thoughts, you learn to let things go’.
Creating a meditation habit can be easier with apps such as Headspace or Calm.
Ruby Wax’s book – Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled contains a 6 week program which suggests mindful activities you can do in your day to day life. Also see her other books – Sane New World, How to be human.
Pema Chodron writes beautifully on the subject of self-compassion. I found her book Start where you are – How to accept yourself and others particularly useful.
In Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson gives scientifically proven tips for helping to ‘take in the good’, shape our brains towards the positive.
As always, if you suffer from depression or anxiety then professional help / therapy can do wonders.
Recently, for me, mindfulness has been a change that feels sustainable and worthwhile.