Why Mindfulness Works (Even for Sceptics Like Us)
Before we start, let’s clarify that by sceptics we don’t mean cynics! We don’t think everyone else’s motives are a lie but rather question anything that is proposed as ‘fact’ or ‘truth’. Neither we question everything all the time of course, that would make our lives (and of those around us) a nightmare. We always keep an open mind to other people’s thoughts, in constant search for any new knowledge that could support or refute our own ideas. However, just like many of you have experienced, in these times of fake news and post truth where it’s impossible to keep up with so much crap at a global scale, one can easily fall into despair and cynicism. Since we started hearing about mindfulness and throughout our learning and practising afterwards, we have heard many puzzling claims, but also we have had deep insightful moments. Often we cannot help feeling disdain towards the “I can make you happy” guru who assumes we all live and will keep living in misery unless we buy their book, attend their course to get certified on enlightenment or do the ultimate reconnect-with-your-gut retreat living in mud huts for a week. But at the same time we have witnessed repeatedly the actual, palpable benefits that we and many other people experience thanks to the practice of mindfulness and insight meditation.
Agreed, there is so much noise out there, that it can be difficult to know whether mindfulness works or is just another new age trend. The right (as in “morally right”) answer to this is not one that any publicist would recommend using for advertising mindfulness: it really depends on what you, the person, actually does. Just like losing weight or quitting smoking: merely reading a book or popping hydroxicuts is not going to solve the problem, you need to make the effort yourself.
“But can it change my life?” we get asked often. Sure it can. Thanks to mindfulness we quit our jobs, sold our house and went travelling around the world! (sometimes we are a bit radical). In all seriousness, don’t expect mindfulness to change your life in a miraculous I-was-blind-and-now-I-see kind of way, the change happens slowly but if you keep at it, it pays off, big time. In the same way that if you go regularly to the gym for a few years, you get really fit. All it needs is some commitment and a bit of common sense, just like it wouldn’t make sense going to the gym simply to justify eating junk.
“But what does practicing mindfulness do to you exactly?” This is another common question we get. To answer it we will deliberately avoid going into a long list of benefits that mindfulness can provide, but rather explain it from what neuroscience shows us. In brief, our brain is a habit machine, it LOVES habits. So much that for any neuronal process (be it a movement or a thought) that gets repeated over and over and over, the brain makes it super-easy for it to happen again, and it does so by covering and solidifying those paths with a superconductor known as white matter, which effectively creates speed highways in the brain. We notice this process when doing something new and difficult, for example juggling: it is really hard at the beginning but with loads of practice it becomes not only very easy, but pretty much automatic. This happens with everything that goes on in our brains, including our thought patterns, positive or not so positive. So when those patterns of self-doubt, anxiety or fear are triggered, it is very difficult to stop them or to change them because they’re physically solidified in the brain. Good news is that thanks to neuroplasticity, we have the ability to change this, and mindfulness is specially useful to do so, allowing us to recognise those patterns when they happen, stop those that are not beneficial and ultimately change them so we spend less time scared, worried or anxious. Or what’s the same: more time calm, happy and content. Would you not invest on that?
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