Not because we’re incapable, ignorant, powerless or time poor; We literally just aren’t taught how. I have a theory and it goes like this:
It’s easier than you think to not screw up your life and become calm, confident and connected in this very busy world. What I’m about to say is key to understanding the beauty of mindfulness in relation to neuroscience. Most of all, how to use the element most available to us (the breath) to consciously shift our biochemistry and mindset, empower ourselves mentally and emotionally and transform our lives for the better.
I was recently interviewed about mindfulness, specifically in relation to CEO leadership, and was asked what the greatest challenge is for leaders these days. Simply put, leaders in big corporations deal with the uniquely challenging demand of being responsible for other humans, that mindfulness can be a powerful option for helping to create a deeper sense of calm when it is most needed.
Our ability to change our lives is directly proportionate to our ability to exercise self control, and our ability to exercise self control is directly proportionate to our ability to focus our attention. I get it, how the heck do we focus our attention in a world that is buying and selling it every moment of every day? Well, we take personal responsibility and realise that if we don’t want to go in busy circles of stress chasing one happy moment and grasping for the next, we can begin to appreciate that when used well, the mind is our greatest asset.
I’m going to oversimplify some nerdy stuff so you can appreciate that you, my friend, have the ability to shift your neurochemistry, biochemistry, emotional state, and thus turn into a confident feeling, calm being, empowered kinda human in just moments.
So there is life/people/events/food/stimulants, etc. (external stimulation), the thinking mind (internal stimulation), emotions (more internal stimulation) and our brain. Information comes in, the brain processes it and a world of neurochemistry fire off, changing our biochemistry, influencing our emotions and our emotions drive behaviours, and our behaviours, well, they add up to this thing we call, life.
We have about 11 million bits of information per second coming in but our brain can only process about 50 of them. That means we literally only experience 0.0000045% of our life. Our brains have to use information from the past, or (very oversimplified) make up the gap by distorting, generalising or dismissing the 11 million bits coming in. What does this mean? Well, most of what you perceive each second is made up, and to think, most of our stress is about what we think about the 0.000,0045%. Let me put this into perspective. Our suffering stems from our “mental opinion” about what may or may not have happened. That an, well, depending on which part of the brain is in charge (old lizard brain, always on alert and usually irrational or young prefrontal cortex, looking to view things logically and usually quite steady) will determine if you lose your cool or respond in a calm, carefree, light-hearted manner.
So the real kicker is, which one is in charge of your life and? Can we influence it?
Let’s work backwards.
The very old brain is in charge of searching for a potential threat (perceived and ‘real’ alike, including emotional discomfort). The Amygdala, which I often call “Amy” when teaching kids about the brain, is on the look out, quite afraid and has the emotional regulation of an angry two-year-old (basically, none).
It’s reactive and afraid, as opposed to reflective, non-judgmental or responsive. If the old lizard brain one is in charge, you’ll likely be stressed, reactive, feeling overwhelmed, more likely to experience depression or anxiety, and if you are a parent – indulge in a little too much wine, not enough sleep and maybe a parent in a way you would prefer not to. The worst bit, you might not even realise you’re reacting from this space because that part of the mind is quite defensive of its own reality and behaviour. A blind spot so to speak.
The youngest brain (prefrontal cortex) is what allows us to step back and look at the situation through a practical and a non-judgmental lens and respond (not react). In other words, you’re chill and it’s effortlessly to be so.
Now, please read this next part carefully.
When the mind is not purposefully directed/trained/still (e.g meditation or mindfulness increasing a natural calmness of the mind), most of the information we take in will default across this amygdala network first (it might not even make it to the rational mind before we flip out). You’ll feel more easily triggered, short-tempered, irritational, frustrated, highly emotional, reactive, insecure, anxious, stressed and all that fun stuff. Kind of like not having a snickers bar in time
This might be hard to hear, but, you are your best hope at changing your life in each moment and it truly depends on what you do with your mind. If you do not train your mind, learn how to focus your attention (using mindfulness, meditation, breath, body awareness, etc.) you will continue to wonder why you do what you do, even when you know better. The key to getting whatever it is we want in life begins with our self control.
When we have self control, we can consciously choose to move past fear rather than pull back, breathe and set firm boundaries but not lash out in anger, sit with and process sadness in minutes rather than push it down and eat/drink/work over it, focus the mind instead of wandering to the depression of the past or anxiety of the future, and direct our attention to what’s right in front of us and approach it without letting the mind want to judge or change it.
Being a mindful human (and leader), requires the constant flexion of our muscle of focus. If we can direct our attention, we can direct our life. It’s that simple.
The most effective, efficient and easy element we can use anytime, anywhere, no matter what we are doing (because we are doing it in every moment anyway) to strengthen our muscle of focus, is breath. The breath is a double bonus tool because not only is it something to build focus in the long run, it can adjust your biochemistry in seconds when used consciously. If you know how to use it, you can change your emotional state, come back to calm and respond from your centre in literally seconds.
I’m going to tell you what you can do RIGHT now in order to shift the blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, to stimulate your vagus (calm down) nerve and centre your attention, bringing yourself to feeling calm, connected and confident.
Sit or stand up straight (you can be moving but better to practice when still), and relax your shoulders, jaw, face and if you can, close your eyes. Relax your belly, alllllll the way out (no insta model poses here, guys) and inhale, imagining you’re drawing your breath to the bottom of your belly (In Calm Mind Co. workshops, we call this Big Belly Breathing). Counting in for three and exhaling out the nose for three. This is called, coherent or, mindful breathing. These breaths must be even and relaxed. If you manage the three easily for a few, take it to four. Do this mindfully for thirty seconds and then, often as you’d like to feel calm.