When I experienced my crisis moment and the decisions of the weekend that followed, which I described in my last post, I was brought to a pivotal moment that didn’t happen in a vacuum. The idea of mindfulness wasn’t just a divine revelation that weekend. I had been being prepared for months.
As I mentioned previously, Daniel Siegel’s books played a significant role in shaping my thinking about my mind and what it means to have a healthy mind. For decades, the field of mental health operated not in the pursuit of a healthy mind but in the avoidance of an unhealthy one. And no one even bothered to define what the word “mind” even meant. Ask 100 mental health professionals what the mind was, and you would receive 100 distinct answers, with “we don’t know” being a common theme.
Now, however, attention has been given to the mind itself and to what a healthy mind is like and what it needs to be that way. What I personally took away from reading Siegel’s books most strongly was the idea that a healthy brain is an integrated brain.
Here’s how I understand that idea. Different parts of the brain are in charge of a lot of different things, and sometimes the goals of each part appear to conflict. The amygdala is in charge of revving up the engine to keep you safe from an immediate threat. The prefrontal cortex wants you to take a minute and think things through. The right hemisphere seeks meaning and the big picture. The left brain wants things to stick to a logical sequence. They can’t all get their way 100% in each moment.
Neural integration means that the different parts have been strengthened in a way that allows them to cooperate more effectively.
So, how did thinking about those ideas and having a minor mental breakdown lead to me lying on my back for thirty minutes thinking about my toes?
In Siegel’s books The Whole Brain Child, Brainstorm, and Mindsight, he outlines some basic mindfulness practices. What that means is practices you can do that will help you pay attention to what is actually happening inside your mind and body and in the world around you at a given moment. The other option is to be swept away by emotions, lost in memories or imaginings of the future, and generally oblivious to the only time that actually exists: the present.
The one that caught my attention most was SIFT: paying attention to your Sensations, Images, Feelings, and Thoughts bouncing around your mind and body in any given moment. Awareness of those things gives you power to choose how you respond to them.
As much as I was learning from Siegel’s books and other sources, I struggled to do anything about it. I remember telling my sister at one point that I was getting into mindfulness. Then I stopped and rewound a bit, correcting myself. “Actually, I’m thinking about getting into mindfulness,” I told her. “But I’m thinking about it a lot.”
So, finally, that fateful weekend, I decided to try Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). That was made possible by my discovery of this free, online course. And it was at that point that my learning shifted into high gear. Not only was there one central source of condensed information, I actually began to experience it for myself.
The purpose of the program is to, well…, it makes your brain healthy and gives you more control over your own mind and awareness of your moment-to-moment experience. You have stronger neural integration and can choose how to respond to your thoughts and feelings instead of them pushing and pulling you wherever they want.
How the program works is to set aside 60-90 minutes once a week to read articles and watch videos. That’s where the informational knowledge is gained. But then, you practice it six days a week. There is a formal and informal practice that is assigned that differs from week to week. It is based on neuroscience and the work done by Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
The first week, the formal practice was the body-scan, which took 30 minutes. So, I faithfully followed the instructions, turned on the audio track and lay down on my bed. I followed the prompts, focusing my attention on the sensations present in my toes. Then after several seconds, I shifted my attention to the balls of my feet, then the souls, heals, and ankles. That pattern continued up my body until finally it reached my scalp and then the whole body at once.
It’s a slow process, and my mind wandered (and still wanders) every few seconds. And that’s the point. My mind is out of practice at paying attention to the here and now. So, every time my mind wanders, I have an opportunity to notice that it has wandered, notice where it went, and remind it to go back to thinking about my knees. Every time it wanders, it’s a chance to exercise my mind and practice taking control of it again.
The experience is very relaxing. The first day, at the end of the exercise, I felt a bit like a puddle waking up from a nap. It actually got harder from there. The rest of that week, my mind was more prone to wandering and staying there for longer periods before I noticed and brought it back. But that’s OK. It’s all part of the learning process. I like to compare it to starting a workout routine and having to continue to work out faithfully, even though your muscles are sore.
The best part is that I’ve been doing it for four weeks now. I’ve missed a total of two days, so that means, I have practiced thirty minutes or more of mindfulness 22 times. When I put it like that, it doesn’t sound like very much, but I’m already starting to notice a difference. I’ve spent time doing body-scans, sitting meditation where I focus exclusively on how my breath feels for half an hour, and some mindful yoga.
Some days are easier than others, but the most interesting part is not how many times my mind wanders but the fact that the rest of my life has started to feel the impact. I have an easier time being present with my family and my clients. I notice during the day when I begin to be lost in thought. My overall mood has started to improve in the last two weeks. I have found myself feeling more effective at work by being able to speak up and be more assertive in a non-threatening and engaging way with my clients.
Those are the more tangible benefits. I know my brain is changing too. All the research points to measurable, physical changes taking place in the brain when people begin to meditate regularly. By the end of the eight-week program, it is possible to have as much as a 10% increase in memory capabilities, plus increased presence, improved mood, and increased ability to regulate my emotions. A brain scan would reveal more activity in the prefrontal cortex (reason, morality, empathy, and good decision making) and less activity in the limbic system, including the amygdala (emotional reactions, particularly anger and fear).
While following this program, I have continued to find out more about how the brain works and about how it changes, not just in response to meditation and mindfulness practices, but to all sorts of activities, particularly spiritual pursuits. Some of that information has come from the MBSR course itself, but much has come from other sources I have continued to seek out, like a book called How God Changes Your Brain.
In a word, I have found it all to be fascinating. I have begun developing clearer mental images of how the brain, spiritual disciplines, and mindfulness meditation are all connected and how it fits into my concept of humanity as the image of God and living in a universe created by God. I plan to go more into both what I have been learning and how I am making sense of it all in future posts.
I started MBSR with a goal of managing stress. I first developed an interest in mindfulness with an eye toward being more present in my own life and relationships and increased emotional fortitude. Those concepts started me down the road, and it is a road I am constructing as I travel. As I look up toward the horizon I make out not only mental, emotional, and social health but also spiritual depth and a strengthened connection with God, and I have begun to pave the road in that direction.