Very simply, mindfulness is a way of thinking. It’s training your brain to pay attention and focus. It’s learning to direct your attention to what is happening in your present experience, including your mind, body, and environment. Mindfulness is both a state of mind and a quality that you develop through practice. Over time, it becomes a way of being and part of the fabric of who you are. Repetitively and consistently thinking and behaving mindfully alters your brain’s form and function.
Your Brain Is Wired To Be Efficient – Not Mindful
Your brain is very efficient. Whenever possible, it minimizes the effort and energy required to do something by delegating control to your subconscious. Everything from speaking to driving can be managed by highly automated routines largely inaccessible to your conscious mind. Some routines are instinctual. Some are learned.
Have you ever driven somewhere and had absolutely no recollection of getting there? That’s the opposite of being mindful. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shared something from my business Facebook page to my personal one, and two seconds later, I couldn’t tell you if I’ve done it or not. That’s not being mindful.
Mindfulness is about bringing some of these subconscious routines into your conscious awareness. It’s about waking up from automatically going through the motions of life. Living mindfully asks you to identify your beliefs and reasons for behaving and thinking the way you do routinely. Then, it’s about choosing what you want to believe and how you want to act with conscious intent and awareness.
Mindfulness Means Waking Up From Life on Automatic
In his book, The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, Daniel J. Siegel, Director of the Mindsight Institute, writes:
Mindfulness in its most general sense is about waking up from a life on automatic and being sensitive to novelty in our everyday experiences. With mindful awareness, the flow of energy and information that is our mind enters our conscious attention, and we can both appreciate its contents and come to regulate its flow in a new way. Mindful awareness, as we will see, actually involves more than just simply being aware: It involves being aware of aspects of the mind itself. Instead of being on automatic and mindless, mindfulness helps us awaken, and by reflecting on the mind we are enabled to make choices and thus change becomes possible.”
Mindfulness Changes Your Brain
In terms of your physical brain, mindfulness asks that you deliberately shift control of your thoughts and actions from your limbic system — the emotional, instinctual “reptilian” brain — to the conscious awareness of your frontal lobe. The frontal lobe of your brain is essentially your “humanness.”
Thinking mindfully repeatedly activates the frontal lobe. Because of neuroplasticity, mindfulness develops frontal lobe connections to and control mechanisms over the limbic system. With repetition, this thinking pattern can become the go-to default for navigating life situations rather than the emotional brain.
Science shows that beneficial changes in your brain can start to happen almost immediately with mindful thinking and become cumulative over time. Research hasn’t determined what the “minimum effective dose” is or precisely how fast you can expect results. Of course, these variables are going to differ from person to person and depend on other individual factors. Even considering this, it isn’t inaccurate to say that mindfulness can make lasting changes to your brain pretty quickly.
A Mindful Brain Is a Calmer Happier Brain
As indicated earlier, your brain is wired to be reactive. Its number one priority is always your safety – not maintaining calm and happiness. Back when our ancestors were hunted for food, this was an evolutionary advantage that helped them survive. But today, this hair-trigger reactivity, called negativity bias, doesn’t help you much. In fact, it can leave you feeling anxious, agitated, stressed, worried, and negative.
For health and happiness, you want your brain to exist in the responsive mode most of the time. You can only fully experience gratitude, joy, contentment, connectedness, intimacy, and love with a calm brain. You also need a calm brain to learn. Unfortunately, these days many of us spend way too much time with our brains in a stressed reactive mode.
Studies have shown mindfulness to significantly improve a variety of conditions including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Mindfulness has also proven successful in preventing relapse of chronic depression and substance abuse. (For a full explanation of the meaning of mindfulness, read here and for a complete explanation of what is happening in a mindful brain, read here. )
10 Characteristics of Mindful Thinking
Thinking and living mindfully is a skill you can learn and develop. I consider myself a mindful person. Does that mean I never get upset or react? No. It means I try to override my habitual patterns of reacting and consciously choose my behavior and attitudes. I don’t always succeed. However, I’m a heck of a lot calmer and less emotional and reactive than I used to be! I feel much more in control of myself and my life.
According to the article, 10 Mindful Attitudes That Decrease Anxiety, there are certain attitudes that are central to mindfulness. They are:
- Volition or intention is the foundation that supports all of the other attitudes. Your intention, will, or volition is what sets you on the mindful path to working within yourself to gradually transform your anxiety and find more ease, freedom, and peace. By bringing intention to working with anxiety, you’re developing persistence in seeing yourself as whole, capable, and resourceful.
- Beginner’s mind is an aspect of mind that’s open to seeing from a fresh perspective. Meeting anxiety in this way, with curiosity, can play an extremely important role in transforming your experience. When you’re willing to adopt another point of view, new possibilities arise, and this can help you challenge habitual anxious thoughts and feelings.
- Patience is a quality that supports perseverance and fortitude when feelings of anxiety are challenging. Patience offers a broader perspective, allowing you to see that moments of anxiousness will pass in time.
- Acknowledgment is the quality of meeting your experience as it is. For example, rather than trying to accept or be at peace with anxiety, you meet it and your experience of it as they are. You can acknowledge that anxiety is present and how much you don’t like it, even as you apply patience and see anxiety as your current weather system, knowing it will pass.
- Nonjudgment means experiencing the present moment without the filters of evaluation. In the midst of anxiety, it can be all too easy to experience a secondary layer of judgment on top of the already uncomfortable anxious feelings. Stepping out of a judgmental mind-set allows you to see more clearly. When you let go of evaluations, many sources of anxiety simply fade away. When you feel anxiety, adopting a nonjudgmental stance can reset your mind into a more balanced state.
- Nonstriving is the quality of being willing to meet any experience as it is, without trying to change it. With nonstriving, you understand the importance of being with things as they are—being with your experience without clinging to or rejecting what’s there. (Note that nonstriving relates to your present-moment experiences during meditation and doesn’t in any way negate the value of setting a wise intention to grow, learn, and change your relationship to anxiety.) In the midst of strong anxiety, the first response is often to flee or get out of the situation. If you can pause and really be with your experience without exerting any force against it, you gain the opportunity to know your experience more clearly and choose your response. You can also become less fearful of the physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions that accompany anxiety.
- Self-reliance is an important quality for developing inner confidence. With practice, you can learn to trust yourself and your ability to turn toward your anxiety or any other uncomfortable feeling. In turning toward these feelings, it’s important to bring other qualities of mindfulness to your experience, allowing the feelings, acknowledging them, and letting them be.
- Letting be or allowing is similar to nonstriving. It’s a quality that gives space to whatever you encounter in the moment. For example, if anxiety comes up as you meditate, you could choose to work with it by allowing the feeling to be there. In time, you can learn to ride a wave of anxiety until it dissipates, just as a storm runs its course in the sky.
- Self-compassion is a beautiful quality of meeting yourself with kindness. Yet, sadly, so many people are their own greatest adversaries. Most of us probably would never treat another person the way we sometimes treat ourselves. Self-compassion will naturally grow as you practice meditation. And bringing this quality into your experience of anxiety can be like being your own best friend in the midst of hardship, offering your hand in a moment when help is needed. As your self-compassion grows, you will come to know that you are there for yourself, and your anxiety will naturally decrease.
- Balance and equanimity are related qualities that foster wisdom and provide a broader perspective so that you can see things more clearly. From this perspective, you understand that all things change and that your experience is so much wider and richer than temporary experiences of anxiety and other difficulties.