Lately, many have been talking about the power of mindfulness practices.
It’s more than a tool to focus attention and reduce stress, as helpful as those outcomes are. Mindfulness – defined as presence, openness, engaged awareness and compassionate acceptance of life as it is in this moment – allows us to re-wire our brains to support more flexibility in how we process information and more resilience in how we respond to the slings and arrows of our personal and collective outrageous fortune. It’s also a valuable tool for helping transform negativity, ease self-criticism, and build the inner love and peace that can infiltrate all areas of their lives.
Here are 4 other benefits of practicing mindfulness – offering a powerhouse of benefits for emotional and relationship health.
- Mindfulness helps us to see clearly. It also helps us intentionally shift to a more skillful response to what is happening in me or you in that moment. Neuropsychologist Dan Siegel calls this the capacity of mindfulness to “monitor and modify.” We are present, engaged, open. We notice and we know. We discern moment by moment by moment what is unwholesome or unskillful in what we are doing, thinking, feeling. It opens us to a way of being in the world that has more balance, more perspective, more equanimity, and thus more of the wholesome states: more gratitude, more generosity, more compassion, more joy.
“When we are truly mindful, we are never stuck.”
– James Baraz
- Mindfulness interrupts the habits of our nervous system. Our brains assess and react to the stimuli of our basic daily existence on automatic pilot most of the time, thank goodness; that’s nature’s way of being efficient, leaving our brains’ processing capacities free to write symphonies, create governments, and solve global warming. When our learned, conditioned habits are skillful – without thinking we reach down to pick up something someone else has dropped or we cover our mouths when we cough to avoid spreading germs) we and everyone else benefits. When our learned conditioned habits are unskillful – becoming impatient with a computer that takes a full 20 seconds to boot up or yelling at a driver who has just cut us off in traffic, mindfulness allows us to catch our reactivity quickly and shift gears to calm down our nervous system.
“We can train our minds to change our brains to benefit all beings.”
– Rick Hanson, PhD
- Mindfulness can help us hold, and then release, the deeply challenging, difficult, afflictive experiences of life, the pain and suffering of the human condition. A Buddhist teaching story analogizes the power of mindfulness to do this. If you stir a teaspoon of salt into a glass of water and take a sip of the water, ick! The water is too salty to drink. If you stir a teaspoon of salt into a large freshwater lake, and then take a glass of water from the lake and take a sip of that water, the salt is dissolved in the lake, no big deal to drink it. When we are present and mindful, when our awareness is spacious enough and our acceptance of life in this moment is steady enough, we can allow even the most difficult, potentially traumatizing experiences to arise in that stable container. We can be with the experience, hold it, name it – and not be emotionally swept away by our experience.
“Mindfulness creates the conditions for revelation.”
– Sylvia Boorstein, LCSW
- Mindfulness re-wires the neural circuitry of the brain. The steps of pause-step back-reflect on experience that are so integral to the practice of mindfulness begin to change the neural structure of our brains. Actually, any mental activity, any processing of experience at all, changes neural firing patterns in our brains, for better or worse. (Why setting intentions can positively shape what happens during the day. Why unconsciously repeating our same old bad habits only grooves them further into our circuitry, making them harder to change.) We can harness what scientists call neural plasticity – our brain’s capacity to grow new neurons, new neural circuits, even new neural structures lifelong – to deliberately re-wire those circuits toward more skillful patterns of neural firing. And we’re more than dissolving the old patterns but actually transforming the wiring of the old patterns by pairing them with the new; the old memory goes back down into long term memory storage changed.
Mindfulness can help with difficult emotions, develop a habit of less identification with negative thoughts and communication in your relationships. And it can legitimately change your brain.