Who are you? I mean who are you, really? I think it is easy for all of us to forget sometimes that we are more than the skin-encapsulated egos that we wake up as every morning. Even when we stop and pause to remember that we are more than our minds and egos, it’s far too easy to fall asleep and slip into our frequently unconscious way of living. That’s why the practice of mindfulness holds such promise. In fact, reading the new book The Mindfulness Edge by Matt Tenny and Tim Gard, Ph.D., helped me go beyond merely understanding why heightened awareness is so beneficial, to a deeper edge of the practice itself.
In case you are wondering, I have meditated on and off for nearly twenty years, and now consistently every single day for over ten. I’ve read dozens of books and hundreds of articles about meditation and mindfulness, so the idea isn’t new to me. I’m well aware of the many benefits that meditation offers and the research into how valuable mindfulness can be for all sorts of situations and conditions. When offered the book The Mindfulness Edge for review, I was a bit skeptical. Would it really offer me anything new? The good news is yes.
What is Mindfulness?
In case some of you are new to the concept, mindfulness is simple and slightly different from the practice of meditation. Some of it connects, but there is a difference. Tenny describes the action of being mindful as, “Being nonjudgmentally aware of what is being experienced—including thoughts and emotions—in the present moment.” It is an awareness that includes self-awareness. The thing is, we don’t just decide to be aware. Mindful self-awareness is a skill needing development.
Unfortunately, most of the time, most of us go around living life as our thinking minds and our egos. Some neuroscientists call that unconscious perspective the default mode network (DMN). The DMN filters all of our perceptions based on past experiences, our reoccurring habits, and any beliefs or opinions we have formed throughout our lives—regardless of whether it’s true or not. The problem is, unless we are mindfully aware, we can’t tell the difference between the truth and a huge error in our minds.
Making matters worse, according to the book, 47% of the time our minds are wandering or daydreaming rather than being focused on what is in front of us. Even if we manage to grasp some awareness now and then, we don’t usually hold on to it very long. As Tenny says, “We spend most of our time being that voice inside our heads that is constantly analyzing, judging or just blabbering about nonsense, and which is often accompanied by mental images that capture more of our attention than the outside world.”
Think you are better than most? Tenny offers this, “People who think they are completely free from habitual, conditioned ways of thinking, deciding and acting are often those who are the least free from their programming. The more unaware we are of our conditioning, the more unconscious we become.”
Why is mindfulness is so beneficial?
#1 It helps us make better choices and decisions for others and ourselves.
One of the biggest problems with habitual DMN thinking is that it limits our choices and decisions. Rather than considering whether something is a genuinely good or bad for us, we just act on whatever comes by default. Then the more ingrained the habit becomes, the more we do it again and again without making clear or conscious choices based upon our own best interests. Tenny cites studies in his book where just two weeks of mindfulness training reduced mind wandering and helped with focus. Even better, it allows people to keep their thinking creative, agile, and to make clearer choices regarding money and resources.
In addition, mindfulness training allows our brains to work more efficiently. Studies done using brain scans from mindfulness practitioners show that they experience more efficient executive control. Practitioners also displayed better mental performance when given tests after mindfulness training. An added benefit by Dr. Gard is, “…findings suggest that mindfulness can reduce normal age-related decline in fluid intelligence and integration of functional brain networks.”
#2 It provides a space where we are free from conditioning.
Ever get your buttons pushed? Regrettably most of us go through life reacting to what we see on the news, who said what to whom, and what’s going on moment by moment. Mindfulness gives us both the awareness and space to actually choose how to respond rather than operating out of habit or unconsciousness behavior. As author and neurologist, Viktor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
#3 It allows us to be more emotionally intelligent.
Ever been in a situation when you got angry and then later regretted it? Ever started to cry and really wished you didn’t? Do you startle easily? Studies show that people trained in mindfulness have greater emotional control than the general population. Other research done by the U.S. Military highlights how such training can help reduce stress, chronic pain and even help people recover faster from things like PTSD.
On the flip side, this type of awareness practice helps people become more familiar and comfortable with change, less dependent on what others think of them, and more resilient in the face of any unpleasant emotions. Again, mindfulness creates space around our emotions allowing us to process them in a way that is beneficial rather than automatic.
Mindfulness training not only helps us to be more emotionally mature, it also increases empathy, compassion and altruism. Research shows that only eight weeks of training is enough to increase our ability to empathize with other people significantly, and to take compassionate action.
What does it take to be more mindful?
Practice, practice and more practice. Sorry, there is no pill or simple action to achieve the desired result although the book does offer simple steps to take. What is essential is the need to “stabilize awareness” and that requires ongoing practice. Tenny suggests over and over that, “we are training to be aware of our thinking, instead of being pulled into becoming our thinking.”
This is where meditation can help. Although there are many ways to meditate, the practice of sitting and watching our thoughts in the here and now without judgment or comparison is a good place to start. Sounds simple, right? The problem is that most of the time we aren’t living in the present time, we are worrying about something that’s going to happen or fussing about something that happened in the past. Our thoughts run around like a wild monkey in our brain. Again, mindfulness allows us to put “space” around our thoughts so that we can let go of comparison, judgment, and control of the outcome. Want to let go of your busy and overthinking mind? Create the space, breathe, and let it go.
It’s difficult to say what particular suggestions in this book made the biggest impression on me, but I do know that my appreciation of mindfulness has deepened from where it was before. Of particular interest is the idea of the “space” around my thoughts and emotions. The book also reminds us of our interconnection with everyone and everything. Again, though not a new idea, it reminded me that each one of us is so much more than just our thinking or our egos. I’m not certain whether this book can help others know who they are on the deepest level. But I’m positive that the practice of mindfulness can point us in the right direction. And asking and attempting to answer those questions with awareness is a very SMART thing to do.