Mindfulness seems to be the hottest topic in psychotherapy these days, with near-daily articles about its effectiveness in national papers, and with just as many studies published alongside trying to debunk its claimed effectiveness. Some folks say mindfulness is a miracle cure for everything from stress to autoimmune disorders, others say it’s little more than a hoax. Regardless of your stance on mindfulness, you have to acknowledge it’s a conversation going on with enough frequency that it affects you whether you like it or not. From presidential recognition of its health benefits to corporate coaching to a yoga room at your local airport, mindfulness is coming down the pipe, so it’ll probably pay to have a better understanding of what it is.
For my part, I’ve been studying mindfulness, not just its effects but simply what it is, for about 14 years now. My take on things is that there seem to be two main camps on the question of what mindfulness is: those who believe it is a a very still, very special, essentially indescribable state of non-judgmental awareness; and those who believe mindfulness means paying attention. Needless to say, this is quite the disparity in opinions - the gap between these two views is enormous. And like most things, I find that the truth of mindfulness lies solidly within the gap.
My experience shows that mindfulness is a mental state that is naturally arising in we humans, which most of us have lost the knack for tapping in to. The Buddha talked about Mindfulness fairly often, though he usually noted that explaining it was impossible. He usually pointed to the example of his own journey into enlightenment, when he was meditating under the bodhi tree. He claimed that during this time he was tempted by Mara, a demon of illusion, who offered him incredible earthly delights if he would simply abandon his meditation. While the expectation here is that he fought against Mara, or that he resisted temptation, the Buddha claimed that he simply noticed her, saying over and over again throughout the night, “I see you, Mara.”
The point of this story is to show that, through meditation, the Buddha was able to reach a state of mindfulness capable of being fully aware of his experience without acting on it. This is a rare sort of thing, to be able to know what’s happening without allowing it to affect your behavior. Because of how our brains are wired - basically a lizard stapled to a dog stapled to a human - we often find ourselves with competing impulses. The oldest part of our brains, the limbic cortex, is basically set to self-preservation above all else. And because it’s the oldest, most deeply integrated part, this impulse often goes unnoticed; we are naturally fearful. The newest part of our brains, the pre-frontal cortex, is responsible for running quality control on our behavioral impulses. And because it’s the newest part of our brains, this impulse often takes a little work to get going; we’re naturally brave, but sometimes that process needs a little kickstart.
This is why mindfulness practice can be so crucial - being able to dip into a state of non-judgmental awareness allows us both the time and clarity to make intelligent decisions about how we live our lives. Who can say they’ve never acted rashly? The natural tendency towards fearfulness can be a very disruptive thing in our lives, even though it’s often based on nothing. The standard Buddhist example for this phenomena of baseless fear is mistaking a piece of rope or a twig for a snake, getting startled and flinching before realizing you’re leaping at illusions. Essentially: a thing is seen, its interpretation within the mind is influenced first by fear, actions are taken, and then the interpretation gets corrected.
Which, uh, makes perfect sense, but it does lack teeth. Life these days has mostly solved the issue of dying to a snakebite, freeing us up to contend with significantly more complex issues. Swap out the stick for a conversation with your partner or child, swap out the fear of getting bitten for a fear of being controlled or being wrong or even just doing something you don’t want to do, et voila! You have the perfect recipe for an awful and meaningless fight with a loved one. And as awful as such situations may be, the good news here is that they are actually completely avoidable if we can just learn to pay attention.
The trick here is learning to wake up and work out your Pre-Frontal Cortex. As I wrote above, the Pre-Frontal Cortex is the brain’s natural quality control department, and it’s also not totally integrated for most of us - it needs some conscious effort to learn how to do its job. Which sounds complex - how does one help their own brain along? - but is actually remarkably simple. The Pre-Frontal Cortex workout regimen is to plan on going slow and examining your own experience. To make a commitment to yourself that you will not talk and act before you know what you want to say or do and why.
This takes some getting used to. When someone else is upsetting us, our attention is very naturally focused on them - we feel threatened, and we move our attention to our environment to scan for threats. And while we may consciously know that being told to get our homework done or to smoke less weed is not actually a threat, that words cannot harm us, in our unconscious brains feeling upset and feeling scared for our lives tend to get swirled up together. Pulling our attention back inside can take an incredible effort in these moments.
This is where mindfulness steps in: when you can engage non-judgmentally with the world, then attention doesn’t get so locked in to worry. So start by asking yourself a simple question: is this harming me? If you can answer honestly that it is not, you can start to calm down. And once you can calm down a little, you can look inside. And once you can look inside, your Pre-Frontal Cortex can get to work on what it finds in there. And once that starts happening, you can make some high-quality decisions about how to engage with your world.