- Roughly 2000 words
- Mindfulness is the start to making changes with success, health, and happiness.
- Stop relating actions to “good vs. bad” it is more productive to ask “does this serve me in my attempts to achieve my goals or not?”
- To be mindful requires deliberate practice.
- It may be in your best interest to keep a journal or record of the progress you make to be a little bit better than before.
- Mindfulness practice has a tangible effect on brain health including, but not limited to improved memory, learning, emotional regulation, and better responses to stress.
I think most of us tend to live in a reactionary state. We tend to do things in a way that conveys our impulse rather than our conscious thought. Being aware of our reactionary way of behaving and being mindful of our thoughts, emotions, and physical body is a practice in control and discipline.
To be mindful is to be an observer. Someone that does not pass judgement, but simply seeks to gain an understanding of how things are. It is important to understand this perspective. Our behaviors are not “bad” or “good”, there are only actions that serve us and those that do not. This is an important distinction. Once we give our actions moral license, we feel virtuous for acting on behaviors we deem “good”, which then gives us justification to be a little bit “bad”.
An example of this would be for someone trying to lose weight to say “I did a hard 5 mile run today; I deserve to indulge in pizza and beer tonight.” The problem with this statement is not the fact that they want to have pizza and beer, it’s because they chose to give “a hard 5 mile run” and “eating pizza and beer” a position on their moral compass. If “the run” and the “indulgence on pizza and beer” were separate experiences not reliant on the outcome of one another, no moral justification would be needed, they are simply acts of preference. When we assign virtue to certain behaviors and vice to others we become moral accountants constantly trying to balance our behaviors between “good” and “bad”.
To reaffirm the idea that our actions or behaviors are neither “good” or “bad”, and that a more productive approach would be to view our behaviors as “do they serve me in what I am trying to accomplish or not”, let’s take a look at a study that expresses how this idea of moral accounting can affect the decisions we make.
The Moral Accountant in Us
I think the act of giving to charity is seen as virtuous act in most of our eyes. Given the opportunity, and the financial resources, I believe that most of us would make a donation to the charity that resonates with us. The question in the study below is, would the amount of the donation change, if you were feeling “morally good” versus feeling “morally bad”?
In a study conducted out of Northwestern University, researchers took 46 participants and told them that they would be participating in a study that would be analyzing handwriting styles. The participants were then divided into three groups: neutral, positive, and negative. In the neutral group, the participants were asked to copy a list of words and think carefully about what the words meant to them. The list of words were neutral in nature–i.e. book, keys, house. The positive group was asked to do the same, but the list of words were positive in their distinction such as generous, caring, kind, and fair. And finally the negative group receive the same instructions, but given words such as disloyal, greedy, mean, and selfish. After completing the copying task, the participants were then asked to write a brief story about themselves that included the words that they had just copied. They also received a bit of advice that their story may be less daunting to write if they visualized how each word was relevant to their lives.
After giving the participants a break, in the form of a filler task, the researchers then asked the participants if they would like to make a small donation (up to $10.00), to the charity of their choosing, in an effort to increase social awareness. Would the positive and negative stories about themselves make a difference?? They most certainly did!
On average the positive group (feeling morally righteous) donated LESS THAN HALF as much as the neutral (control) group; and the negative group (feeling morally bad) donated almost TWICE as much. So when we are feeling “good” about our moral identity we are less likely to act saintly due the fact that we have, in a sense, “done our good deed for the day”. And when we feel that our moral identity is threatened we will attempt compensate, to make up for it. You can see how this concept of moral accounting can be a slippery slope.
I make this distinction between “good” and “bad” because when it comes to being mindful in an effort to change something in your life, acting in alignment with your core values and beliefs removes wrong and right, good vs. bad, and leaves us with…progress.
Awareness: A Practice in Being Mindful
The most common practice of being mindful is meditation. The word meditation conjures up visions of buddhist monks, martial arts masters, and asian guys with long white beards, but being mindful does not require that you “meditate” in what many may consider the traditional form. Being mindful, is simply resisting impulse without defining the purpose for doing so. It is a brief pause to be present with your thoughts–to gain insight on how they affect you as well as the actions take part in. This is the beginning of awareness, this is where change finds its origins, because to change anything you must first be aware of your current status quo.
It is a common occurrence for those just starting out with the practice of being aware to “suck” at it. I am here to tell you that, that is a good thing. Your inefficiency, and your ability to encourage your struggling mind is akin to using weights to build your muscles. The paradox about control and discipline is in order to strengthen it, you must also HAVE it. Your efforts to practice being mindful from moment to moment allows you to build the cognitive “muscle” necessary for willpower, control, and discipline.
A Willpower and Happiness Muscle?
Your abilities for control and discipline take up residence in your brain–they inhabit the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is reserved for high order functions and decision making. Your brain is comprised of two types of matter: gray matter and white matter. White matter is responsible for the communication processes between different areas of the brain, and the gray matter (the one we are concerned with) is where our cognitive abilities lie–I.E. memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language and consciousness.
In a study conducted by researcher and neuroscientist Sara Lazar of Harvard University, they found that practitioners of mediation (i.e. mindfulness) showed marked growth in the gray matter tissue in the prefrontal cortex. The study was conducted on 20 participants, all of which were normal, everyday people that have made the practice of meditation a routine part of their lives, they were then paired with their control counterparts, which were matched for age, sex, race, and comparable education. What they found, through MRIs performed on all participants, was that the mediation group had noticeably larger, thicker areas of gray matter–the areas associated with memory, attention, control, willpower, etc.–in relation to their control counterparts.
In a follow up study, in an effort to silence all the critics suggesting that meditation (mindfulness) practice was not the cause the significant brain development, Lazar and her team designed a study in which they would take participates–novices to the practices of mindfulness–through an 8 week training in which they would be taught a technique referred to as mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR). They took brain scans of all participants pre and post training and what they found was enlightening.
In the group that took part in the 8 week training they found significant growth in the regions of the brain associated with learning, cognition, emotional regulation, perspective taking, empathy, and compassion. They also found that the amygdala–the part of the brain associated with stress, anxiety, and fear–showed a marked reduction in size; suggesting that people that practice being mindful respond better to instances of stress and anxiety.
These findings are significant in the fact that the idea of being “mindful” is not as esoteric as we may have once believed. When you hear your yoga teacher, or an eastern philosopher tout the benefits of being “present” with your experience, it’s not a bunch of baloney. There is tangible evidence supporting what mindfulness practitioners have been echoing off of one another for years–mindfulness can, in a sense, bring you closer to peace; and in turn, bring about more experiences of joy and happiness.
Awareness and Coaching
The studies mentioned above are just a couple among the large body of research supporting the efficacy of mindfulness practice in improving the quality of your life, as well as in the treatment of depression, anxiety, ADD, chronic pain, etc. It is for this reason, that learning to be aware and mindful of your experiences is where I start every one of my coaching clients.
I do not ask that people to take part in a “meditation” practice (although, I do say that it might be a good idea), but I do require that each of my clients to take part in a “mindfulness practice” by journaling and/or taking part in Daily Reflections. The purpose for doing so is two fold:
- By documenting your journey you become a witness and an active participant to the progress you make.
- You become more in touch with who you are, who you would like to be, and and you gain an understanding of how that relates to your experience.
Why Don’t you Drive Professionally?
Once we learn how to drive a car most of us remain at the same skill level when getting behind a wheel as when we first started. There may be a small amount of improvement the first few years, but there is a reason why many of my friends (myself included), do not drive in Nascar or any other field that requires highly skilled drivers. You would think that, that would NOT be the case, given the amount of time each of us spend managing the gas and brake pedals. You would THINK that many of us get A LOT of practice, but this is the difference between taking an active role in making progress versus being a lowly bystander to your experience.
Deliberate Practice: Perfect Practice
Taking an active role in making progress, in any endeavor, requires that you practice…deliberately. What this means that you cannot just drive your car, without paying attention or focusing on the development of the skills required to be a professional driver, if this is something you are looking to pursue. Deliberate practice requires focus, attention, reflection, adjustment, and fine tuning–and it is the prerequisite for success in any achievement worth merit.
Journaling and Daily Reflections remind us that our process for discovering who we are and how we can be a little bit better than before, is of the utmost importance. It keeps us grounded in our experience and allows to extract lessons from our missteps and gives us a tool recall our victories.
Being mindful and reflecting on our lives aids us in the process of understanding and mastering the subject that should be the most important to us…ourselves. We develop a deep knowledge of how to cope with failures, live contently, cultivate relationships, be more compassionate, take care of ourselves and our loved ones, etc. We learn to live contently, without being complacent. And from this foundation, we find more happiness and success. All of this starts with being aware and mindful of our day to day experience.
*NOTE: In this article I mentioned a tool I use with all of my coaching clients called Daily Reflections. It is a method for evaluating and reflecting on your everyday experience and how those experiences align with the vision of who you are, and the person you are working towards.