Authors: Gill Hasson
Remember, any thought or action creates a neural pathway in the brain. When you develop a habit of a particular way of thinking, it becomes your default setting. So, the more often you have a specific thought or way of thinking, the more you tread that path, the more likely it is to happen again.
The good news is that by using the same process of repetition, you can let go of mindless ways of thinking and establish helpful, mindful ways of thinking.
At some point, you established a way of thinking and behaving and that way of thinking and behaving became automatic. It's a natural consequence of the way your brain works. You can make the most of this process to recreate and establish new ways of thinking and behaving in whatever way you choose.
Leopards may not change their spots, but you're not a leopard and you can change. You can learn to think in a more open, flexible way. Your mind is up for the challenge!
Your mind is amazing! Your mind is made up of all your conscious and unconscious mental processes and activities. It can rationalize, reason, think and understand. It perceives, analyzes and judges. It can empathize and sympathize. It is responsible for your willpower, intentions, choices and decisions. Your mind can plan, fantasize, dream and anticipate. It can deceive, worry, remember and forget.
Research has shown that mindfulness can alter the physical structure of our brains. Brain scans revealed that those who practise mindfulness regularly showed increased thickness in parts of the brain that deal with attention and processing sensory input.
In one area of grey matter, the thickening turns out to be more pronounced in older than in younger people. “Our data suggest that meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being,” says Sara Lazar, leader of the study and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. “The structure of an adult brain can change in response to repeated practice.”
Leaving aside degenerative brain disease, your brain never loses the ability to learn and change because it's effectively plastic and constantly rewiring itself. The “magic” of mindfulness is that it rearranges neural networks. And the exciting news is that this ability comes from you; you can direct your mind to use your brain to create itself!
Your brain is made up of three main parts â the reptilian brain, the limbic brain and the neo-cortex â which have developed at different stages of our evolution. Each has an important role.
Your reptilian and limbic brains react to the world around you instinctively without rational thought or reasoning. In fact limbic responses are hard-wired into your system, which makes them difficult to hide. (Just try suppressing a startled response when something makes you jump.) Limbic responses reflect your feelings, attitudes and intentions. Emotions such as fear, guilt, anger and excitement can overwhelm your mind.
The neo-cortex â the new brain â is responsible for your cognitive abilities; thinking, remembering and reasoning, Focus and attention are primarily activities of the neo-cortex. With mindfulness, focused attention stills unrelated neural activity from the limbic brain. Your mind becomes quieter.
We have already seen that by being more aware of events in your day and of associated (or dissociated) thoughts and feelings, you can begin to identify the thinking traps that get in the way of being mindful.
There are other techniques for training your brain to think differently and helping you on the path to changing your mindset. Changing the things you
can change the way you
. By changing or breaking even small routines, your brain will be exposed to new stimuli and will create new neural pathways to accommodate changes.
Try the following experiment: Move the clock to a different place in the room. Or move the teabags, jam or cereal to a different cupboard in the kitchen. See how often you automatically look for these items in the place they used to be.
Confusing? Frustrating? Yes. But you can adjust. If you stick with it, after only a couple of weeks you will have adjusted to behaving in a new, different way.
Choosing to break a routine way of doing things on a regular basis can be an effective way to kick-start new more helpful ways of thinking. Even small changes can help.
You have to decide to do things differently to experience different results. Write changes on self-sticking notes and place them on the wall above your desk or on the fridge to remind you to do things differently.
Pushing yourself to embrace new activities and experiences that force you to step outside your comfort zone is a good way to train your brain to think in new ways; to be open to new possibilities. In fact, when you think and behave in new, different ways you are embracing another aspect of mindfulness; beginner's mind.
Rather than respond to events in the same old ways â ways from the past â beginner's mind can help you to do things differently and see things in a new light.
For example â supposing you have to spend time with a person you have always found difficult to get on with. Imagine meeting them as if for the first time. You know nothing about them so you have no preconceived ideas and no expectations. Next time you're with someone you know well, whether you like them or not, try and see something new about them.
Beginner's mind simply requires you to put aside the beliefs you already have; past impressions, the judgements and conclusions you came to on previous occasions.
Develop the habit of being open to new possibilities and noticing new things in familiar situations. Noticing something new puts you in the here and now because you have a heightened awareness of what's happening right now.
Choose a favourite piece of music. With a beginner's mind you can listen to that music as if for the first time. Pick out an element that you don't usually listen intoâ the beat, the melody, the lyrics or a particular instrument. Now listen to and follow the music, focusing on the new element you have chosen.
Driving in my car today, I listened to “Abraham Martin and John” sung by Marvin Gaye. Instead of singing along as I usually do, I listened instead to the xylophone. (Listen to this song â you'll easily see what I mean.) The next song on the radio was “Lady Madonna” by the Beatles. Again, instead of singing along to the words, I turned up the base line, listened to and followed that. Despite being so familiar with both these songs, when I listened with a beginner's mind, it was as if I was experiencing the songs for the first time.
Typically, you become mindless because once you think you know something, you stop paying attention to it. You miss so much when you experience things and people in the same old familiar ways. Beginner's mind allows you to take a fresh approach.
Responding to familiar situations, experiences or events in familiar, established ways keeps you out of the present, and living in the past. It doesn't allow you to be aware of any new insights.
Can the same thing be different every time? Yes. Just look at the many paintings of sunflowers that Van Gogh painted.
Or, take a look at Mark Hirsch's photos. In 2011, photographer Mark Hirsch drove by the huge oak tree in southwest Wisconsin for 19 years and never photographed it. Driving with a friend past the tree one day, Hirsch's friend suggested Hirsch try out the camera on his new iPhone 4S.
So Hirsch stopped his truck on the country road they were driving down, and tramped 500 yards through the snow to take his first photo of the tree. Impressed by the image quality, Hirsch decided to make it a project; he took a new photo of the tree every day for almost a year. Look him up on the internet.
Photographer Kelvin Atkins photographs of the same view from the South Downs also shows how the same thing can be different every time:
What would it mean if you were able to approach more situations with a beginner's mind? Are there objects, places, people, activities or situations that you tend to experience and respond to in tired old ways?
Recently, I was working with a community organization that was looking at ways to secure more funding in order to continue delivering adult education classes for local people. Emily, one of the staff members made a suggestion. “How about we imagine that our organization has never existed before? Let's put behind us everything we've ever done and the ways we've done it. Instead, let's approach the situation as if it's the first time. Instead of thinking what has and hasn't worked before, let's start from scratch.” By taking up Emily's suggestion to think in novel, creative ways, the team were able to come up with a number of new, imaginative ways to find new funding streams.
What new challenges could you create?
Start today: Get used to (to use a well-worn clichÃ©) “thinking outside the box”. Approach things from a new perspective.
Looking to notice something new in every situation puts the past behind you and brings you into the present. When you walk into your home, office, a shop, dentists, doctors surgery etc. what do you notice â what do you see? How bright is the room? What can you smell?
Is the journey to work the same in every way to the journey yesterday? What's different? If you see the world with fresh eyes, you'll see that almost everything is different each time; the weather, the pattern of light on the buildings, the faces of the people.
The more new aspects you notice, the more in the moment you are.
Use waiting time â at the traffic lights, in the doctor's waiting room â to notice something new. You will find that you are calmer and more composed with such mindful interludes.
Beginner's mind can help you to slow down, to experience life in the present moment.
Each time you let go of the thoughts of how life should be and enjoy it just as it is, you strengthen important connections in your brain. Each time you look at this moment with curiosity and interest you create new neural pathways. Beginner's mind can transform the way you experience life. It makes life exciting and fresh, it keeps you young and eager to learn.
Actively seeking out new, fresh ways to do things is putting mindful, intentional living into practice.
Doing things differently helps you to think differently. And because it's new, you pay more attention, which means that (and this is important to know) these new activities are intrinsically mindful.
“If you really want to do something, you'll find a way. If you don't, you'll find an excuse.”
All sounds great, doesn't it? Trying out new ways to work, for example, meeting new people and listening to music in new ways. However, it can be harder to do than you think â people often give up and revert back to old ways of thinking and behaving. Why is this?
Think of this tendency to fall back into old, mindless ways of thinking as your thoughts choosing the fast lane on the motorway rather than the more interesting but more difficult to negotiate country roads. Your brain has to build new networks of neurons â memory pathways. Until they are well established, it's tempting to switch to the fast comfortable way of thinking and behaving.
So how do you maintain any changes long enough for a new, more helpful mindset to become an automatic process instead of constant hard work? It might be helpful to understand that research
has shown that there are seven stages involved in changing and establishing behaviour. This process is the same for any behaviour change, whether it is, for example, quitting smoking, taking up running or being mindful.
In the preparation stage, you intend to make some changes, but first you may be thinking about and looking for signs to confirm that you really do, in fact, need to change your behaviour.
If you understand what you need to do and if you can foresee a possible outcome, you are more likely to move onto the next stage and take action. Also, if you feel that making a change matches your needs, abilities and values, you are more likely to go for a change in behaviour.
At this stage you will need to identify what specific aspects of your life/situation you want to address.
Recognizing, for example, that you want to be more mindful is all very well, but you will need to be more precise. Therefore, one of your goals might be to “I want to be free from worrying about things I have no control over” or “I want to be able to focus on one things at a time â to single task rather than multi-task.”
The action stage requires time and effort, but with good preparation it can also be an exciting time that results in new ways of thinking and behaving. Depending on the goals and plans you made in the preparation stage, the action stage can occur in small, gradual steps, or it can be a complete life change.
A successful change in thinking or behaviour usually involves moving from one of these seven stages to the next. Each stage is preparation for the next one, so hurrying through or skipping a stage may not be as effective as progressing from one stage to the next.
Do not let a relapse make you give up! Instead, try and identify why it happened. What can you learn from that? What will you do differently from now on?
If you do relapse back to your old ways of behaving and thinking, it is unlikely that you will completely fall back to where you began. Typically, you will take two steps forward and one step backward: making progress and losing ground, learning from mistakes and using what you have learnt to move forward. This is where the concept of beginner's mind is helpful; you open yourself to new possibilities at every twist and turn.
It's entirely possible that you will go through the cycle a number of times before the new way of thinking and behaving becomes established.
Patience and trust are part of the process of being mindful. Know that things develop in their own time. Be patient and kind to yourself; don't think of difficulties as failure, instead think of setbacks as part of the process of change â opportunities to learn, do better next time and build your confidence.
That's why mindfulness is often referred to as a “practice”. You get the chance to do it over and over â to create little shifts and changes that evolve into helpful habits.
In this chapter, we've focused on being more aware of how and what you think. The emphasis has been on being open to new ideas and ways of doing things; to let go of unhelpful ways of thinking and establish more helpful, mindful ways of thinking.
we turn the focus from thinking to feelings. You will see that thoughts and feelings are inextricably linked â that being mindful of your thoughts leads to being mindful of your emotions. You will also learn that it works both ways â when you approach your emotions in a mindful way, you are more mindful of your thoughts.