Mindfulness has many definitions. Dr. John Yates describes it as “the optimal interaction between attention and peripheral awareness.” In order to fully comprehend mindfulness, it is pivotal to first understand the unique functions of attention and peripheral awareness.
“Attention translates our raw experience of the world into terms we can more easily understand, which we then organize into a picture of reality,” Yates says. It is the part of our brain that helps us to decipher different objects or concepts–for example, a bush from a lion. On the other hand, “peripheral awareness is more concerned with the relationships of objects to each other, and to the whole.” I like to think of mindfulness as a spotlight that brings focused attention and understanding to the present moment.
Since our brains developed primarily as organs for survival, we are skilled at recalling trauma and disappointment. Our minds are like magnets for bad experiences, and teflon for good ones. Anything bad that happens in our lives sticks, while the good tends to fade away. Think about it like this: You meet with your coworker for a review and hear about 10 things that you’re doing great, but only one area of insufficiency. What is going to keep you up at night? Not the 10 positive things. Although this mentality is useful when we are experiencing an actual threat, it can cause a lot of unnecessary suffering in day-to-day life.
Think about how often we wish for more time to spend with family, or for less time stuck in traffic. Yet when faced with our current situation, it is so much easier to focus on all of the negatives. It is only natural that a new tendency of anxiety and depression may arise in the current zeitgeist. However, the ability to notice when we are ruminating on something that we cannot change and then let it go is something that can truly benefit our autonomic nervous system (ANS) and overall well being.
The ANS regulates our visceral system (the guts) and all basic functions of the body–it is the center of survival responses. It is composed of the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches and operates automatically, without our control. But, this does not mean that we can’t have influence over its function.
Given that our brains developed with the goal of survival rather than happiness, it is crucial for us to implement a daily practice of mindfulness. When we are able to calm the mind, we are able to see life from a place of clarity. We can then observe ourselves going through life and respond with intention, rather than react from fear.
Both clinical research and neurobiologists have observed that many mindfulness techniques are extremely useful with respect to emotional difficulties, chronic pain and behavioral disorders. Mindfulness allows us to manage everyday physiological stress by reminding us to be aware and pay attention to the moment. When we stress about the future or ruminate about the past, our bodies do not know the difference–we release the same stress hormones as if we were literally being chased by a lion on the tundra, causing an increase in grey matter in the amygdala (fight or flight part of our brain).
Since our sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system can be ignited simply by thought alone, it is imperative that we learn to let things go that we cannot control. On a scientific level, we see the effects of chronic stress manifest as lower heart rate variability (HRV), higher amounts of cortisol levels and frantic high beta brain waves.
A lot of my clients struggle with maintaining a consistent practice because they create an unrealistic expectation for how much time they can commit to. Maybe it’s just one minute each day to start. Try that for 30 days and then move on to two minutes. That’s not to say that you cannot practice for longer, it’s just a way for you to succeed in forming the habit. I also suggest choosing a specific time to practice every day. Almost like brushing your teeth, you will begin to automatically crave this dedicated time. Eventually you’ll be able to use other techniques throughout your day to cultivate the skill of mindfulness.
In the beginning, your time seated can often turn into daydreaming, problem solving, planning, or entertaining a variety of other mental distractions rather than remaining consistently engaged with the mindfulness technique. It is important to let go of all to-do lists and problems so that you can fully immerse yourself into the moment. Challenges and distractions are inevitable, but in committing to the practice you will begin to see them as opportunities for growth rather than obstacles to your success.
Although setting goals and dedicating time is crucial in developing your practice, it is important to avoid expectations of where you think you should be. There is really no such thing as a bad meditation. Simply getting yourself to practice is, in and of itself, an accomplishment.
Find a seat that is both comfortable and supported. This will help to avoid drowsiness.
Practice by closing your eyes and noticing the sounds that surround you. Try to not get wrapped up by one individual sound, just move from sound to sound without labeling or conceptualizing. Work on simply becoming entirely aware of sound as a sensation. Realize that sounds come and go on their own and no effort is required to hear them. They just simply arise, like waves, washing over your ear drums. Notice if you hop on the bandwagon of one particular sound. It may capture you, and before you know it it takes you on a ride with its story.
Immediately upon understanding that you’ve become lost in a particular sound, come back to this moment and then gently move on to the next sound. Eventually all of these sounds begin to create a symphony of mindfulness, tuning us deeply and intimately into this moment, by way of our ears.
One of the reasons why I really love WHOOP is because it incentivizes mindful choices. You can, for example, meditate before bed and then see a tangible difference in your HRV (and WHOOP recovery) the next day. The benefits of small positive changes are reinforced by WHOOP data and feedback, which in turn further promote mindful activities and more positive choices. You can also log meditations as an activity and track other behaviors (like mindful breathing) in the WHOOP Journal in order to better understand how they impact your body.