Despite the fact that every human experience is filtered through the brain, there is little focus on cultivating this space into a place in which we want to be. Author Michael Singer aptly states that if we were to take the voice (or sometimes voices) in our minds and imagine him or her as a person sitting beside us, that person would hardly be someone we would trust or value as a confidant. With constant contradictory sentiments and continual reminders of one’s less admirable characteristics, we would probably dislike said person intensely, in fact.

And yet, we trust our minds to guide our every decision and invest our emotions in the stories they tell. Is there another way?

Through training, called mindfulness, individuals can choose to consciously strengthen specific pathways in the hopes that the mind will eventually become a kinder, quieter place. Srinivisan defines mindfulness as:

…the energy we cultivate through kind, present-moment awareness. It involves the practice of coming back to the peaceful, compassionate space we all have within ourselves with curiosity and without judgment. When we come back to this space repeatedly, it grows. The mind is like a muscle- the more it lies in certain states, the more it will seek them. Mindfulness is a way of training our minds through intentional awareness so that they stay in a more peaceful and compassionate state.” (27)

Mindfulness is an “experience-based” practice. It takes engagement in the process to both learn it and to teach it (Rotne and Rotne 47). In other words, the positive effects of mindfulness will only be experienced through what Ronte and Rotne describe as an, “intentional, systematic way of developing a compassionate and insightful presence in the world” (21). There are two major ways to do this:

  • Formal practice – meditation, silence, movement, journaling, etc.
  • Informal practice- bringing conscious awareness and attention to daily life and “returning to the moment” while recognizing the transience of experiences

In either practice, there are always two parts to sustaining mindfulness: awareness and acceptance.

  • Awareness means continually coming back to the present moment and being aware of what is happening internally and externally
  • Acceptance means viewing and experiencing these things without judgment, or being compassionate to others and to oneself

How (or Why) Does It Work?

Like babbling streams and rushing rivers, our neural pathways are built upon the waters of our every thought, memory, and insight. Each time we engage in a mental process, the currents of that path grow stronger and the banks are washed into deeper and wider channels, making it easier for water to flow. So to which tributaries do we give our energy? And are they leading us to the places we want to go?

The process of building the contours and tributaries of our brains began at a very early age, for better or worse. The systems and patterns that determine each individual’s responses to life are forged early and likely will not change without conscious and targeted effort. Graham explains,

We now know, from the latest advances in neuroscience, that capacities for resilience are innate in the brain, hard-wired in by evolution.  How well these capacities develop as we mature depends on our responses to our life experiences and how those experiences shape the neural circuitry and functioning of our brain- which in turn influences our responses.  Whether we tend to bounce back from terrible setbacks or stay where we’ve been thrown depends on learned patterns of response to others and events.  These patterns become fixed, not just incorporated into a behavioral repertoire but deeply encoded in our neural circuitry, from an early age.  They shape not only the ways we cope with challenges but also the functioning of the brain itself. (Graham xxvi)

We can, however, reshape the landscape of our brains through awareness of neuroplasticity and conscious conditioning toward new behaviors. With these tools, individuals can choose which rivers run dry and which streams will become the major waterways of thought and active response.

Conditioning is creating responses through repeated actions and patterns

  • Conditioning can create responses and patterns that are very hard to break
  • Conditioning can also be used to change patterns to new, preferred responses using repeated actions/thoughts

Neuroplasticity is the concept of brain flexibility and growth

  • The capacity of the brain to change is what allows for conditioning to be effective

What are the Benefits of Mindfulness?

Mindfulness helps to facilitate:

  • Stress management and development of inner peace
  • Conscious awareness of the current moment and less unwanted focus on past and future
  • Freedom to choose thought and action patterns and not get “caught” by unwanted habitual responses
  • Empathy and connection to others
  • Improved ability to listen

In regular meditators, studies have shown that certain areas are “thicker,” or contain a higher density of neurons than the average brain. These parts of the brain were associated with “sensory information” and “awareness” resulting in an increased ability to exert focused attention (Rotne and Rotne 131).

Furthermore, in studies monks with a regular meditation practice showed significantly less stress when encountering a worrying incident than those without a meditation practice. Stress affects the part of the brain (frontal lobe) that deals with setting goals, planning and reflection on process. It also deals with decision-making and the interpretation and response to other’s emotions. When the average person encounters a stressor, all of these abilities are lessened. The amount to which one can effectively manage stress will improve brain function.

Additional Resources

  • USC Berkeley has an online quiz that can be taken to determine one’s current level of mindfulness
  • Cultivating Conscious Leaders has good online, free guided meditations
  • Mayo Clinic also has a variety of online, free guided meditations

Works Cited

Danielson, C. (1996). Enhancing professional practice: A framework for teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Graham, Linda. Bouncing Back. New World Library: Novato, California, 2013. Print.

Rotne, Nikolaj Flor and Didde Flor Rotne. Everybody Present. Parallax Press: Berkeley, 2013. Print.

Srinivasan, Meena. Teach, Breathe, Learn: Mindfulness In and Out of the Classroom. Parallax Press: Berkeley, 2014. Print.

Zakrewski, Vicki. “Can Mindfulness Make Us Better Teachers.” The Greater Good Science Center. University of California Berkeley. 2013 Oct. 2. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.

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