On Mindfulness: How this practice changes lives

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. ~ Victor Frankl


I. Introduction

It's moved far beyond the realm of esoteric and is now well within mainstream acceptance. By now, even military units tout the powerful, simple practice.  It's gaining steam for good reason. 

The benefits are well-documented.  Neuroscience, psychology, and a great number of social studies now confirm with confidence that introducing the practices of Mindfulness can measurably impact the life and results of an individual, team, or company within the first 8 weeks.  It brings positive impact in 3 main areas: 1) Personal Well-being; 2) Relationships; 3) Performance.   Major media (e.g. Time and CNN), corporations (e.g. it started with Google and has since spread to many others, especially in Silicon Valley), and pro sports teams (e.g. Seattle Seahawks) are among those affirming mindfulness.

For people like me who practice mindfulness, it’s great to see this rapid, extensive growth. Practitioners know that there are few habits which create greater impact on quality of life, and thereby collective high performance in a company and greater harmony and peace within a society.  It has this power because it is a meta-competence, a competence which supports the development of all other competencies.  I would like to share a simple anecdote that helps us understand why from a very human angle.

Before we go there, however, I would like to offer a bit of additional context. 


II.  Context

A flurry of studies on the brain and our behavior made during the last 20 years has shown us the possibly surprising fact that the physical brain is not static and unchangeable.  These studies reveal perhaps an even more shocking fact – that our thoughts, attitudes, words and habitual actions have a physical effect on the brain’s structure and shape.  Neuroscientists call this quality of being able to rewire our neural networks through thoughts, attitudes, words, and actions neuroplasticity

In practical terms, we have around 50,000 thoughts every day, and around 95-98% of those are the same as we had yesterday.  (Yawn.) And perhaps even more surprising, 80% of our daily thoughts are negatively-oriented, such as chewing over things that went wrong, or our habitual worries about having locked the door on the way out, having said the wrong thing, and so on.  Day-by-day we reinforce our brain's hard-wiring for worry.  We overgeneralize that worry is helping us but it's actually just based on habit and self-reinforcing negativity. 

It's a little scary that we strengthen negative thought patterns unless we learn to do something about it. We sometimes are tempted to think that if we just achieve enough outwardly, the negativity will go away or transform on its own and we will have a happier inner climate.  But we now clearly understand that that's false.  We need to work on the way we think directly.  

In neuroscience terms, our amygdala (often called the lizard brain, the most unevolved part of our brains) --the source of fearful, stressful, and worrisome thoughts-- actually gets smaller through mindfulness.  And the most evolved parts of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, gains strength (i.e. actually gets thicker) through mindfulness.  In everyday words, we gain power and freedom. 

It's exciting to know that mindfulness provides a path by which we can change negativity and habitual patterns.  Through mindfulness practice, we increase our capacity to relate to situations in ever more constructive ways.

Mindfulness has gained traction amongst individuals and companies for exactly this reason.  We are all interested in accessing the deeper potential that we know is there.  Sometimes we get in our own way.  Mindfulness helps us change that. 


III. Story

A client of mine began practicing mindfulness meditation 1 mere week ago. I was congratulatory and excited when he shared the following story with me at the end of our most recent session. It’s a simple story. His tiny tale of mindful triumph helps us immediately grasp what it is that mindfulness can do in our lives, at work and otherwise.   (I always like it when a client or anyone else for that matter cries tears of joy.)  It is a concrete example of creating a space of freedom in which to relate to events more constructively. 

He was out with his girlfriend on a pleasant Saturday afternoon. She made a comment that normally would challenge and irritate him. (His omission of details indicated irrelevance of details even though part of me wishes I had more specifics to share.)

Despite our love for our partners, we've all been there. We’re all familiar with those voices of our lesser selves.

He was struck in that moment by something he remembered from his nascent mindfulness practice. He realized the thought connected to irritability was simply a negative interpretation and fleeting.  He realized he could simply notice and observe the thought pass. He could thereby have the freedom to choose how he wanted to relate to his girlfriend in that moment. That’s what he did. He expressed his better self instead of putting a damper on the afternoon.


IV. Elaboration

It’s that simple. Often times when we are irritated or experiencing any other negative emotion, we completely identify our selves with the narrative which passes through our mind and the emotion which passes through our body. We take our story as though it IS REALITY.  In fact, it’s one of infinite ways to see and experience that situation.  Not everything we think or believe is true.  When we are somehow triggered, our thoughts are reactive and habitual. In Frankl's terms, sometimes the space between stimulus and response is miniscule indeed and the reaction is automatic.

Different negative emotions take different forms in each of us. But whatever the form, we are not in these cases bringing conscious attention to what passes through our mind.  We are prisoners of whatever old defenses and well-worn neural networks we have. Prisoners may be a strong word, but it indicates exactly where we lack freedom.  Mindfulness is a key out of the prison of old behaviors and habits of thought, words, and actions which no longer serve us.  When we are interested in change and inviting in something new in our lives, we might consider the importance of mindfulness practice. 


V. Change through Mindfulness

We may assume we’re an impatient type of person (for example), but it’s amazing to realize that that can be changed. Our qualities and ways of being are malleable! There are actually paths by which we become more established in who we know ourselves to be.

Mindfulness amplifies the space between stimulus and response to create greater freedom. We’re able to choose more constructive responses which express how we actually want to show up in the world. As the new neural networks form, and our ability for self-observation grows, we have greater freedom to become more and more anchored in our own deeper human values. We obviously enjoy life more when we are more responsive than reactive. Sometimes our annoyance with ourselves comes when our reactivity gets in our own way.

Mindfulness is a practice which opens up no less than the possibility of personal mastery. It helps us to become responsive to situations and show up at the height of our capability. Of course, this has untold value in our lives and professions.