Mindfulness: A Brain Game-Changer

Before I got seriously committed to personal growth, I had this growing curiosity about resilience, coping skills and an ability to sustain some level of overall satisfaction with life. Why did some people seem to have this in spades and others really struggled? Little did I know that my search for answers would end up changing my life in the most remarkable ways.

Back in 2014, I found myself in the psychology section of the book store and discovered Dr. Martin Seligman’s book, Flourish: A Visionary Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being.

Dr. Seligman offered a game-changing theory in the field of psychology about what really makes a good life — and his focus was on optimism, motivation and character. Simply put, flourishing was defined as feeling good and functioning well. That sure seemed like a great place to start for answers to my questions. Here’s what drew me in:

While certainly a part of well-being, happiness “alone” doesn’t give life its meaning. Seligman asks: “What is it that enables you to cultivate your talents, to build deep, lasting relationships with others, to feel pleasure and to contribute meaningfully to the world. In other words, what is it that allows you to “flourish”? (Kirkus Reviews)

Dr. Seligman was flipping traditional psychology upside down — rather than focusing solely on efforts to relieve human suffering, his focus was to look at what was going well in our lives. It was a straightforward, understandable way to “re-wire the brain” and provide balance for the brain’s negativity bias. I was intrigued by this because I had noticed that some of those folks struggling with sustained contentment in their lives often had a lot of things in the “plus” column. Yet that alone did not seem to be enough to have them adopt a “glass half full” perspective. A simple exercise that Dr. Seligman recommended was to identify 3 things that went well at the end of every day.

That simple exercise had a very relevant link — often the very reason that things went well was related to something that the person actively did to facilitate a positive experience.

Agency, action and positive reinforcement all wrapped up in a simple gratitude practice.

It was then that I had a “aha” moment. My brother is the poster child for resilience, strong coping skills and a contagious enthusiasm for life. Yet my brother has had more than his fair share of setbacks and adversities in his life and frankly he has a lot more “minuses” in the column than most. Could it be that his immense gratitude for the small, good things was the key to his ability to be so upbeat and resilient?

Whenever I spend time with my brother, I just bask in his effervescent reviews of the best cheeseburger he just enjoyed, the thrill of the round of golf we just played (even if he lost most of his golf balls) and the miraculous beauty of a sunset. He is the most appreciative, grateful guy I have ever known. Is this his secret sauce for living life with optimism, motivation and resilience?

About a year after I read Flourish, my friend gave me several issues of Mindfulness Magazine. It was my initial introduction to mindfulness and I was fascinated. Little did I know that mindfulness practices would become an integral part of my life. There’s no doubt in my mind that because I had read Flourish, I was extremely receptive to learning all that I could about mindfulness.

Flipping through those issues, I discovered Dr. Rick Hanson, an expert in positive neuroplasticity. I was so intrigued by this remarkable concept: Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to modify, change and adapt both structure and function throughout life and in response to experience. What I had already been learning from Flourish was that shifting the brain’s negativity bias simply by focusing on the good things in our life can have dramatic impacts on our quality of life — and on our ability to cope, build resilience and squeeze more joy out of life.

I began to see where psychology and neuroscience were complementing each other. It was through Dr. Hanson’s work that I began to find some of the answers to my earlier questions — we can get caught in the negativity bias, create deep trenches in our brain where we stay stuck…and have a very hard time overcoming — even when our life circumstances have changed dramatically for the better. Negative emotional cycles can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies, rumination, apathy, anxiety and depression. It can be very difficult to break these cycles, especially if you’ve been prone to lean heavily into the negativity bias for most of your life.

About the same time that I was digging deep into neuroscience, I was also soaking up all that Brene Brown was revealing about shame, vulnerability, courage and empathy. One of her findings was that when we “numb” pain, we also “numb” joy. This insight led me to think about the ways that people numb their pain and its correlation to negativity bias. When we numb, we dial down our awareness. So, we are now operating unconsciously and before we know it, we have consumed an entire bag of potato chips, the carton of ice cream, or binged two seasons of a Netflix program. When we have slipped into auto-pilot, our brains are naturally going to default to the negativity bias if that’s our “go to” familiar place. See the connection?

When we numb pain, we numb joy. We aren’t able to see the good things right in front of us, because we are back in the negativity loop and we don’t even realize it. When the numbness wears off and we “awaken” to our consciousness, we look around but still have blind spots to the good stuff. It’s incredibly hard to sustain joy and happiness when our focus and awareness are lopsided due to the negativity bias.

The correlation I was making from all of this inter-connecting research is that mindfulness is an incredible tool because it anchors us in “awareness”. Mindfulness keeps us present so we can take in the good and stops us from slipping into unconscious auto pilot. Meditation is an interactive tool to help us break the cycle that feeds the negativity bias. Meditation helps us to avoid getting “stuck” by our thoughts and pulled into old negative cycles.

Putting the pieces of this puzzle together became the foundation for my own self-discovery and personal growth plan. While I was an upbeat person, wired much like my brother, I was having some difficulty breaking free from rumination. I realized that this was holding me back from the life I really wanted to be living. I wanted to “flourish” – feeling good and functioning well.

At the onset of both my mindfulness and meditation practices, the best I could do was small doses of each. I committed to doing the best I could and to doing it every single day. When I would find myself “living in the past” rather than being fully present in the moment, I would make a note of it — “ruminating” or “thinking”. This is a basic tool I learned from my Headspace mindfulness app. A little trick that can be used throughout the day. I also used another trick of “substitution”. If I would find myself thinking about a person or event that caused me discomfort, I would substitute a person or event that brought me joy. I recall Dr. Hanson offering a mindfulness practice of “flipping it”– which was basically the same premise that Dr. Seligman introduced — “look for the good, not the bad.”

I will readily admit that meditating was so incredibly hard in the beginning. I had these unrealistic expectations that I would sit for 5 or 10 minutes and be blissfully thought-free. Just the opposite happened — hundreds of thoughts streamed into my mind the moment I sat down and closed my eyes. After I embraced the idea that meditation was more about letting thoughts come and go, I bought into the theory that I was “breaking the cycle” of getting attached to my thoughts. My meditation practice become more productive and honestly I came to enjoy it. Maybe not in the moment if I am being honest, but when I realized that I was able to tap into these tools throughout my day, I knew I was making real progress.

Mindfulness and meditation became the foundation for my processing, my healing and personal growth. I was able to end a long cycle of rumination and curate greater self-awareness. I often wonder if my keen interest in resilience, optimism and emotional regulation was really a springboard for what I myself needed. Would I have been so drawn to neuroscience, mindfulness, mediation and Brene Brown if not for this curiosity?

I will share with you what prompted me to reflect on all of this and to make the connections I may have missed five or six years ago. It was a dynamic and insightful Dare to Lead podcast that Brene Brown recently had with neuroscientist, Dr. Amishi Jha. It is entitled Finding Focus and Owning Your Attention.

Here’s the introduction for this episode: “a game changing conversation about attention, focus, concentration and mindfulness- specifically how mindfulness can literally change our levels of attention “……Brene Brown

Naturally I was captivated the moment I read both the title and the introduction for this episode. A huge smile came across my face as Brene Brown shared Dr. Jha’s credentials before the conversation — She is the Director of contemplative neuroscience for the Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative. Wow — contemplative neuroscience is a real thing!

This podcast episode will illuminate all the ways that mindfulness can have a profound impact on your quality of life. Yes, I chose that word illuminate on purpose because Dr. Jha is witty, light-hearted and possesses a gift for metaphors. Her flashlight metaphor will totally illuminate things you never knew about your brain and your attention.

Dr. Amishi Jha is the author of Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day and she has a Ted Talk entitled “How to Tame Your Wandering Mind”. I highly recommend both if your interest has been piqued. Imagine what a small investment like 12 minutes a day might just do to amp up how you are “flourishing” in life.

I am so grateful that neuroscience, mindfulness and meditation are becoming mainstream, relatable and user-friendly. Those of us in the everyday world who are practicing both and reaping the benefits can be so helpful and encouraging to others.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

To contend with the stress of our current world, we need to properly equip ourselves to cope. Neuroscientist Dr. Amishi Jha teaches you how to use mindfulness to train your brain to pay attention differently and provides scientifically sound alternative to panic: presence

TEDxCoconut Grove – Dr. Amishi Jha on How To Tame Your Wandering Mind

https://www.ted.com/talks/amishi_jha_how_to_tame_your_wandering_mind