Mindfulness can be a confusing idea with many interpretations. With world mindfulness day upon us, it is timely to consider best practice for this most unique of human capacities.
Neurobiology shows clearly that humans can train their minds. Specific practices train the mind effectively. The benefit is measured by structural change in the brain, functional adaptation, test performance, wellbeing, and plain old joy.
This morning I did a relaxed attention practice with an EEG headset to track my actual brain waves. My goal was to quiet my mind and focus on the flow of my breath. The software (Muse) provides feedback – quiet birdsong when calm and noisy wind when agitated. There is no sitting around mindlessly. You know exactly when you are focused –or not.
These devices take us into a new era of brain training. You can learn to switch between pinpoint focus and quiet relaxation. With patience you learn how to recognise and adjust beta, alpha, theta, delta and gamma waves. Expert performance is built upon specific brain patterns that can be learned. Success used to require thousands of hours, now we can accelerate the learning curve.
Humans are equipped with the reactive responses to challenge, pleasure and uncertainty. Freeze, flight and fight on the defensive side combine with the drives for food, water, connection and sex. They need no thought at all. Yet our mind loves to think. We worry, fret, hope, ruminate, scheme and complain. Thousands of thoughts are wasted every hour.
Defensive thoughts make us afraid, anxious, angry and sad. Offensive thoughts lead to cravings. Much of this thinking is repetitive, outright wrong and leads to suffering. In fact the epidemics of anxiety, depression and frustration can be fully described as repetitive, disordered thought.
We have lost control of our minds, our emotions and our physiology.
If we can calm our physiology, step back and reflect, thoughts and emotions lose their power. Skillful responses become possible. We have trained ourselves to be mindful – the mind is aware, alert and flexible.
- Master Calm
The first step is to rise above reactivity. Pause, exhale, relax the body, and soften the face. Simply drop your mind into the feeling of breathing. Watch the rise and fall of your belly. Complete the exhalation fully and seek the quiet moment.
- Train Attention
We learn from calm that the mind darts about. Thoughts, sounds, chores and feelings intrude. Attention training is learning to direct your attention like a sharp, focused and steady beam of torchlight. Be the force that controls the torch.
- Develop Presence
This is wide-angle awareness. The mind is alert and aware of all sensory stimulus, feelings and thoughts. The challenge is to resist attachment. If you get hooked your mind will drift into the past or future. Simply observe – relaxed, expansive and curious.
- Activate Altruism
This begins by focusing on someone dearly loved. Visualise clearly this person and direct a sincere desire that they be healthy, happy and successful. Once established, the practice is to extend this kindness to family, friends, colleague and your community. With time you will learn to feel as if you are radiating goodness and love.