by Linda Graham, MFT
based on the book Bouncing Back by Linda Graham
The practice of mindfulness — training the brain to focus its attention and to strengthen conscious awareness — allows us to see our conditioned patterns of response clearly so that we can get unstuck from them when we need to. Mindfulness trains the brain to become astutely aware of our experiences in the moment and of our responses to those experiences, even of our enduring patterns of response (resilient or not), and entire styles and strategies of coping and their effectiveness.
Years and years ago, I was on a two-week vacation with my friend Sara in the Canadian Rockies; we were hiking, biking, and driving the Icefields Parkway through Banff and Jasper National Parks. One sunny morning, I had neglected to fasten my bike securely on the bike rack of the car; ten miles down the road, it flew off onto the highway. Hitting the road at 60 mph, the front wheel was badly skewed, making the bike un-rideable. I flipped out.
My friend was calm and patient. No one was hurt; the wheel could probably be fixed; it was a beautiful day in a beautiful part of the world. Sara’s steadiness helped me notice, name, and thus manage my own anxiety about the wheel not being fixable and spoiling our trip. I put my hand on my heart; we breathed together deeply, and her steadiness helped bring me back into equanimity. That recovered equanimity helped alleviate my guilt about my carelessness spoiling our day. It also helped me surrender and accept the situation as it was.
The guy at the bike shop wasn’t as empathetic. “This is just a bump on a pickle,” he told me. But he did guarantee he could fix the wheel in four hours. As Sara and I settled ourselves at a nearby lake for a leisurely picnic, I began to reflect on the event more deeply.
Maybe the bike shop guy was right. In the bigger picture, was this really such a big deal? Would I be upset about this, five years from now? Next week? By dinner? Stepping back and reflecting helped me put the whole event into perspective.
Coming to an inner peace and acceptance of what was happening allowed me to re-engage with Sara. The chance to relax and talk for four hours, rather than racing each other up and down hills on our bikes, was a luxury. By the time we picked up my repaired wheel, we realized it was one of the best times of our trip.
Neuroscience research data is just beginning to illuminate what happens in the brain during mindfulness practice:
Even introductory levels of mindfulness practice can increase the cell volume of the anterior cingulate cortex – the brain structure that focuses our attention – and other associated brain structures. This helps us clearly see what’s going on, and then see our choices about what to do about what’s going on. We strengthen the insula and improve its function of interception – awareness of what’s going on in the body. Focusing our awareness on body sensations, impulses, and movements — such as an itch, an ache, a tightness in a muscle — builds our capacity to become similarly and resiliently aware of big surges of rage, grief, terror. We train the brain to notice and be aware before events and our responses get out of hand rather than spiraling into major reactivity.
Being mindful allows us to recognize any feeling as a feeling, any thought as a thought, any cascade of emotions as a cascade, any pattern of thoughts as a pattern. We become aware of entire processes of mind or states of mind as simply that — processes and states of mind. We recognize any beliefs or “truths” as beliefs we believe to be true. We become aware of entire belief systems, views, identities — as no more and no less than belief systems, views, and identities. These may include stories we’ve told ourselves since we were five, or twelve, or since we got married or divorced, or since we became a CPA and wished we had become a welder instead.
We can know that any view, no matter how forcefully compelling or stubbornly held in this moment, is not — does not have to be— true in all moments. We can be aware of changes and inconsistencies in ourselves: sometimes I think this way, sometimes I don’t. I’m thinking or feeling this way now, but I wasn’t ten minutes ago or yesterday. We can appreciate the power of the human brain to generate the complex, comprehensive stories that it does and still realize that what we’re seeing is not the ultimate truth but tracings, or the entrenchment, of patterns of neural firing in the brain.
Exercise: Noticing and Naming Creates Options
- Imagine you’re walking down the sidewalk of a busy street in your neighborhood. You notice a friend walking toward you on the other side. You wave and call out “Hello!” but the friend does not respond. Notice your own split-second reaction to that lack of response: a contraction in your body, a drop in energy. Notice whatever thoughts might begin to cascade in response to your body’s reaction. Maybe you think, “Hmm, that’s unusual. I’d better try again.” Or, “Whew! He has a lot on his mind. I wonder if I should even bother him?” Notice any reactivity to those thoughts. “Gee, he seems a little stuck-up today.” Or “Oh, no! What have I done wrong?” Notice whether your thoughts follow a pattern that you have noticed before, such as feeling bad about yourself or wanting to reach out even more.
- Now imagine that your friend sees you and, on his own, waves and calls out “Hello!” to you. Again, notice your own split-second reaction to his connecting with you: maybe a smile, an uplift of energy. Bring awareness to any shifts in your body, notice any shifts in your thoughts: “He noticed me!” Or “I’m glad we weren’t disconnected after all.” As you reflect on your experience, notice whether your thoughts follow a pattern that you have also noticed before, perhaps of relief or gratitude.
- Take a moment to name the reactions and the patterns you discovered, with compassion for any reactions that may have been triggered by the noticing. With every moment of practice in noticing and naming, you are strengthening the capacity of your prefrontal cortex to create choice points, giving yourself the chance to respond with more flexibility and choose a different response the next time.