the Mind

How To Exercise the Mind

Almost every week we hear new ways that mindfulness and meditation can help with our problems. Anxiety, insomnia, depression, stress, binge-eating, substance abuse, ADHD… the list goes on. In some workplaces such as Google, mindfulness has become ubiquitous in the culture, with on campus meditation rooms and mindfulness seminars offered.

It’s a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot as a solution for distress, but it still feels out-of-reach for many. How do I know this? When I mention mindfulness to patients, I often hear agreement with a hint of dismissiveness. “Of course, of course…” followed by an excuse (i.e. can’t sit still), “it doesn’t work for me (I can’t make my mind blank),” or “I like to go to yoga sometimes,” as if that should be the end of the discussion. Some people might admit that being left alone with their thoughts is the last thing they want to do.

Not surprisingly, when asked to explain what they think meditation entails, most people talk about making their mind blank or they might say it is focusing on breathing, which are both misleading. If you search the web about mindfulness, you will find many resources promoting a path to mindfulness, but it is hard to get a clear, concise description of what it is and how it works. What is the actual definition of mindfulness and meditation? How are they related to each other? Do you have to go to an ashram and fast in order to be a legit practitioner (No)?

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a state of mind in which you become the observer to your thoughts and feelings so that you no longer have to react to them. This might make more sense with the use of imagery. You can think of most people as swimming in the river of their thoughts and feelings at any point in time. Some people can go their whole lives swimming in that river without a problem, assuming that anything they think, feel, or do is valid and consistent with who they are. But most people will at some point experience rough currents, often precipitated by stress. And if you have a predisposition for mood dysregulation, anxiety, or other mental illness, the waters can get quite turbulent. For example, Johnny gets passed up for a promotion and feels worthless. His mind fixates on thoughts of his worthlessness, which triggers a downward spiral of negative thinking and depression. This is Johnny being swept away by his unexamined mindstream. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is the state of mind in which he can stand on a bridge overlooking the river of his thoughts and feelings so that he doesn’t get swept away. Johnny can see his negative thoughts go by and choose not to react or pay attention to them.

What is meditation?

While mindfulness is a state of mind, meditation* is the practice that leads one to be able to achieve mindful states more easily. There are other ways to access and exercise mindfulness states (nature meditation, guided meditation, visualization, body scanning), but meditation cuts straight to the core of it. You can think of it like training for a race. It would be nice to be in shape and be trained to run when you need to (some people may need to often). Similarly, meditation is the practice of standing on that bridge so that the mind muscles are in shape to be able to stand on that bridge when needed. At first it is tedious and painful. Meditation involves sitting still for longer periods of time than you are used to, so the back muscles might also have to get trained. But just like training for a marathon, little by little, over time, you can begin to sit for stretches of time.

What exactly are you doing when practicing meditation?

A lot of what you are doing is focusing attention on your breathing. It is a useful sensation to focus upon because your body does it automatically and it can feed back into the nervous system to change your autonomic state. Slower diaphragmatic breathing puts us into more of a rest and digest state conducive to mindfulness states. Much of mindfulness and meditation involves focusing on body sensations because it is a grounding experience that gets us out of our heads (that river of thoughts and feelings) and into the present. The breath is used as the grounding experience that we can return to in order to let go of the thoughts that are generated in our mindstream. So, while focused on the breathing, thoughts will inevitably come up. It is important to keep in mind that you cannot stop thoughts from coming up. They just bubble up from somewhere in the mind machinery.

After the thought surfaces you focus your attention on that particular thought and label it as a thought. Then you examine it like a compassionate scientist and handle it gently. Oh, this is a thought that my mind came up with. Hmmm, look at that. If it’s a negative thought, you might recognize it as such. The goal is to remain in the observer stance to give space to examine the thought without reacting.

Next, you let the thought go. How do you do that? By focusing back on the breath. You might even imagine your exhale as blowing the thought out of your attention. Why is this important? Because if you can intentionally shift your focus and let go of a thought (after looking at it) then the thought loses power over you and becomes like any other thought. Like water under the bridge.

Now back to the breathing… and then another thought pops up… label… examine… let go… focus on breath… rinse, repeat. Unfortunately, you may have to get past boring thoughts of your to-do list before more interesting thoughts occur. And you may only be able to sustain this for 5 minutes at first, but that’s ok. You will gradually train the mind muscle to tolerate and maybe even enjoy longer stretches.

Mindfulness during distress

When we are in distress there is often a component of negative thinking that is perpetuating distress. These thoughts can be powerful and intrusive, commanding our attention. It is highly compelling to react to these thoughts by avoiding, lashing out, pushing down, or distracting oneself. You can think of these thoughts as terrorists hijacking your mind. For example, Johnny thinks that everyone in the room is judging him negatively. He is highly tempted to flee (calling negative attention to himself) or drink heavily (shutting down thoughts). Instead, he takes a time out in the bathroom and uses mindfulness concepts. He looks at his anxious thought that everyone is judging him negatively. He recognizes that these are the same old terrorist thoughts that hijack his mind and lead him to bad outcomes. He refuses to negotiate with terrorists. He chooses instead to focus on his breathing, shift his attention to more reasonable thoughts, and wait for his anxiety to subside. He then returns to his function in a calmer state of mind. This process is much easier once the mind has been trained through mindfulness practice.

How does mindfulness fit into your life?

While meditation cuts to the core of mindfulness practice, it may not be the right fit for everyone, especially to start. You may need to walk before you run, and some people are just fine with swimming. There are other forms of mindfulness practice that use body sensations or visualizations to help focus attention away from the mindstream and there are plenty of ways to explore this. But now that you have read the nuts and bolts of what mindfulness is, how you can do it, and what it can do for you, I challenge you to leave the theoretical world of the mindstream and experience it for yourself.

As always thanks for reading and until next time. If you liked what you just read then please consider making a small Donation or Join my Patreon so the site can keep going 🙂 Thank you!

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