Today in my work as a therapist I find myself increasingly using mindful awareness to help my clients learn how to ride the emotional ups and downs that are an inevitable part of being human. Dr. Daniel Siegel, leading neurobiologist and brain researcher, describes mindfulness as a path toward building a healthy relationship with oneself: it’s about becoming your own best friend. Have you ever pondered how harsh and critical we can be with ourselves? We often call ourselves names like ‘idiot’ or ‘stupid’ without batting an eye. But would we ever call our close friends such names? Hopefully not, and if we are it’s unlikely that they will be our friends for long.
Mindful awareness helps us cultivate the ability to observe our thoughts, feelings and behaviours with an attitude of compassion and curiosity. Siegel likens mindfulness to a form of brain hygiene. “Just as brushing our teeth keeps our mouths healthy, being mindful on a daily basis keeps the circuits of compassion, both for self and other, alive” explains Siegel.
In his book Mindsight. Siegel uses the same ocean metaphor as the Dalai Lama to introduce the concept of mindfulness to his patients:
The mind is like the ocean. And deep in the ocean, beneath the surface, it’s calm and clear. And no matter what the surface conditions are like, whether it’s smooth or choppy or even a full-strength gale up there, deep in the ocean it’s tranquil and serene. From the depth of the ocean you can look toward the surface and simply notice the activity there, just as from the depth of the mind you can look upward to the waves, the brainwaves at the surface of your mind, all that activity of mind - the thoughts, feelings, sensations and memories.
It is possible to observe this activity of the mind with some distance and perspective: rather than being caught up in the feeling or thought, we are noticing ourselves having a feeling or thought. This distinction may seem trivial but is pivotal in helping ourselves access this calm observer that exists as a resource in all of us.
Authors and researchers have many different names for, and ways of explaining, this observing part of us. Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, neuropsychiatrist and author of You Are Not Your Brain, calls this part The Wise Advocate. Schwartz sees mindfulness as more of an activity than a state of mind or way of being. He explains that unlike feeling excited, tired or worried, it is impossible to be mindful without trying to be. Being mindful involves effort; it doesn’t just happen. And like most activities, the more you practice it, the better you get at doing it.
Schwartz describes mindfulness as a “training ground for your mind – a mental gym where you strengthen your powers of observation and awareness so that you become more proficient at seeing what is happening in each moment of your life.”
Interestingly, once we start to observe our mind we may notice an increase in our negative thoughts; it might appear as though our mental health is actually getting worse. I liken this experience to noticing certain types of cars on the road. If we are partial to a type of car or have just purchased a certain model of car, it is likely that we will become more aware of similar cars on the road. It will appear as though there are suddenly more of those cars but this is clearly not the case. Likewise, rather than being aware of new thoughts, we are only becoming increasingly aware of old messages that were always there but went unnoticed.
Without an awareness of what our mind is creating we end up living on autopilot, reacting as if we have little choice in the direction we take. Through the practice of mindful awareness we learn how to take ourselves off of autopilot so that we can start living a more conscious and intentional life, one filled with meaning and connection to what is most important to us.