I’m torn as, one the one hand, I’m a big believer in the power of mindfulness (not least because there is evidence in numerous studies to support its happiness-supporting claims), yet on the other hand it’s become such a buzzword with so much hype, I feel immediately sceptical.
But today, I want to talk about why mindfulness works.
1. You are not your mind
One of the important aspects of mindfulness is it helps you learn that you are not your mind. I read recently that Deepak Chopra actually prefers the term ‘metacognition’ to ‘mindfulness’, as that’s really what we’re talking about – observing our minds from outside of them.
We often identify with our minds – that chatter in our heads all day every day, what we think or feel. We sometimes assume that the collection of thoughts, emotions, opinions and beliefs are the essence of who we are.
But we are not our minds. Our minds are impressionable and can carry around with us unhelpful and/or untrue beliefs about ourselves and the world. Other people can leave their fingerprints on our minds as we move through life, from an overly critical parent to an influential friend in an insecure adolescence. Our emotions and opinions can change over time – but surely there’s something else that makes us, well, us?
Mindfulness practices can help us notice our minds from outside them, reminding us that thoughts are just that. Common analogies are thoughts are like cloud passing in a blue sky. We are not the clouds, but the sky itself. Or the rough waves on the surface of the ocean during a storm can represent our thoughts, but deep in the ocean, the steady currents remain unchanged by the storm above.
Who we are is actually something else that can sit outside and watch our minds chattering away.
And once we know we are not our minds, we realise…
2. …that we have a choice
If our emotions, beliefs, opinions and thoughts are not intrinsically what defines us, then maybe we have more choice over what we think and feel.
This is a large basis of cognitive behavioural therapy. What happens to you is one thing, but what you think about what happens to you affects how you feel about it, which in turn often impacts what you do in response to it.
Change your thought/belief about the external stimulus and a whole other sequence can take place.
So when someone knocks you aside to get on a busy train, you could (understandably) think, “What a jerk! Why does (s)he think (s)he’s more important than me and can get away with pushing me aside?!”, which can (understandably) lead you to feel angry, casting the offender dirty looks and under-the-breath-but-hopefully-audible comments, or even push you to tell them off and start a confrontation. (No? Just me?…)
But that same stimulus could lead you to think, “That person pushing me had nothing to do with me personally; they’d have pushed anyone who was standing there. It was rude but maybe they are stressed or under a lot of pressure, maybe they don’t even realise how pushy they were. They must be under some strain to throw social norms out the window like that. Thank goodness I’m not in such a state…”
You might still be (understandably) annoyed, but after this thought process you might also feel happier going on with your day, or even relief that you’re not in such a rush to lead you to push strangers aside. Your action may be to get into the train but give this person a wider berth, maybe even run to the next carriage instead to avoid any the aggro behaviour. It doesn’t make it okay for someone to push you aside (literally, in this case), but it can make it easier for you to make choices that take care of you, such as avoiding conflict, rather than choices that might actually make you miserable, like carrying the grudge of it with you into your next interaction of the day or getting into a big fight on public transport.
3. We can change our sense of perspective.
“I remember the old man who said he had had a great many troubles in his life, but the worst of them never happened.”
James Garfield, 1881
Or to put it another way:
Taking control of our internal spotlights of attention, we can start to shine it on the things that matter, or that bring meaning or fulfilment or pleasure to our lives.
We can also get perspective on the terrible things our brains want us to notice – many of which are all in our heads.
From judgements of others we imagine (that realistically no one is probably even noticing) to future catastrophes that don’t come to pass, as we practice mindfulness we can start to see these for what they are, and give them proper attention.
Sure, we will still worry. Mindfulness won’t stop that. But being aware of our thoughts and practising this regularly makes it a hell of a lot easier to see that one fear may be taking too much prominence in our lives. So maybe I still feel stressed when I’m running late, but I am also recall that perspective that being late to an important work meeting won’t mean everyone at work thinks I’m a massive failure. I can call bullshit on my inner drama queen that wants to make everything into a big deal.
So is it worth all the hype?
To be honest, there are other ways people can get these things. Understanding yourself well can help you know who you are despite the changing tides of emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and opinions. Doing some CBT or CBC so you can start to notice your knee-jerk cognitive and emotional responses to things. And anything from ascribing to a spiritual practice to engaging with science or art or charitable work can give that sense of perspective to life.
So mindfulness is not the only way…but it’s a damn good one. It’s free, it’s easy to work into even the busiest of lives, it doesn’t require a wider spiritual or philosophical belief system, and it does have evidence to suggest it helps people with stress, anxiety, depression, whether learned online, at home, or in workplaces ranging from the US Marines to social workers in East Sussex.