Imagine having a constant companion that is with you every waking moment. This companion may be nice enough and certainly well-intentioned but has the habit of whispering a continuous commentary in your ear.
A monologue of random observations, comparisons, fears and hopes about the future, a rehashing of past events, a variety of malicious judgments about you and the world around you.
It might sound something like this: “Oh god you overslept again…what time is it? You’re such a loser. You said you were going to start getting up one hour early every morning and exercising. You’re so fat! That’s probably why your co-worker doesn’t like you. Well who cares…he’s ugly and those shoes he wears- OMG! And you may as well forget about getting that raise. Sally has a master’s degree and is so much better than you in meetings. You didn’t say one word yesterday! You really need to speak up!”
Would you tolerate a friend that spoke to you this way? Does this sound very motivating? It’s easy to see why you might feel anxious or depressed from listening to this all day, not to mention the tension you’ve noticed creeping up into your shoulders.
We not only tolerate this constant chatter, we are seduced and enthralled by it. We buy into it and believe that it accurately reflects how our lives and the world really are.
There is a way to step out of this continuous thought stream. A way to notice thoughts as just thoughts and to be “be here now”.
Through mindfulness practice you can start to notice patterns of mind that you often fall into. Whether it’s thinking of the next thing on your to-do list, berating yourself over something you said to your co-workers or obsessively comparing how well your business is doing to your competitors.
In mindfulness, rather than getting caught up in the thoughts, you are observing thoughts, letting them pass by and choosing to guide your attention gently back to the present moment.
Here are 3 other benefits you may notice when you practice mindfulness.
You’ll be happier.
A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Research out of Harvard University (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010) published in the journal Science, says that we spend a lot of our time (roughly 50%!) thinking about something other than what we’re doing.
According to the researchers, this mind wandering makes us unhappy and appears to be the human brains Default Mode Network (DMN) of operation. Through their research they were able to discover that mind wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of the participant’s unhappiness.
You might be painfully aware that you spend too much time lost in thoughts, distracted by checking email or constantly picking up your cell phone, but what’s the solution?
Just start noticing. Notice, without judgment and with as much kindness as possible, what your mind is doing. Then, choose to guide your attention back to what’s happening in the here and now.
You’ll be less depressed and anxious.
When we are on autopilot or living mindlessly, it’s easy to develop patterns of thought and behavior that take us away from our present experience – into rumination, worry, fear – which can lead to depression, anxiety and stress.
There is research to support the benefits of mindfulness interventions in decreasing anxiety and depressive symptoms (S.G. Hofmann et al., 2010). Scientists believe there is a connection between anxiety, depression and ruminative thinking. (You know the incessant monologue that we talked about earlier.)
But you don’t have to be depressed or anxious to fall into this type of thinking.
We often over identify with our thoughts and may believe our thoughts are facts. For example, someone with depression may have the thought, “I am worthless” and believe it.
Mindfulness meditation helps by allowing you to observe your thoughts without judgement and to let go of them. Mindfulness also helps by allowing you to see thoughts for what they are, mental events happening in the moment – which can help to not take them so personally.
You’ll be calmer and healthier.
Dwelling on the past or future is very stressful. It activates the sympathetic nervous system – the driving force behind the body’s fight or flight response, taxing the mind and body.
This rumination also makes you more susceptible to illness because it lowers your immune system through the release of cortisol, a hormone that is associated with the stress response.
Research has proven that mindfulness can have a beneficial impact on the immune system. A study (R.J. Davidson, 2003) showed that there was a higher antibody response to the flu vaccine by participants who had participated in an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Class than those who had not taken the course. The meditation group also showed a higher activation in the area of the brain associated with positive mood – the left anterior frontal lobe. They researchers further found a connection between left anterior activation and immune response.
When you train your attention to be in the present it also creates a more healthful state for your body. Being right where you are unleashes the “rest and digest” function in the body related to the parasympathetic nervous system.
So right now, as you are read this try following your breath for 3 breath cycles. As you do notice where you feel the breath in your body and let your attention settle there.
The mind is a wonderful servant but a horrible master. As you practice mindfulness the mind will become more pliable and more easily directed to be where you want it to be. This will allow you to notice and step out of the incessant commentary that contributes to stress and unhappiness. As you practice being right where you are you will be happier, healthier and calmer.
Interested in learning more about mindfulness and how it can help you be more engaged in your life? Contact me through my website or at 303.229.2804. Or join me for the Free Orientation for my upcoming Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Class in March.
Dawn King, MA, LPC, CACIII is a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in anxiety, addiction and mindfulness. She teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction classes and received her training through the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. She has been practicing Vipassana meditation since 2004.