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What is Mindfulness and Brain Training?

In recent years, mindfulness has become a popular tool for psychologists. It's relaxing and that in itself makes it useful. That's not the actual purpose of it though – I teach that the purpose of Mindfulness is to find the mind (the 'observational self') and help to distinguish it from the brain (which is the organ that thinks).

'But aren't they just the same thing?' is a common response.

The Human is the only creature that can observe itself – be self-aware, at least in a philosophical sense. Great apes have shown in mirror tests, that they understand it is them in the mirror, but having a sense of 'self' - consciousness, an ability to project into the future and have imagination - seems to exist only is us. We have evolved the capacity to be able to observe ourselves; our thoughts and feelings, and we have a sense of self and self-perception that sets us apart. This is my view (and it's a popular view). That is, that the mind is separate from the brain. There is another view that what we think of as mind and higher thinking is just a reactive function of the brain and an illusion; that we have no free will. Everyone's entitled to their opinion, that doesn't happen to be mine.

So in the school of thought that I subscribe to, the mind observes the brain, the body and the environment. It notices when thoughts and emotions are uncomfortable, when we worry for example. Mindfulness is engaging the observational self for the purposes of meditation, self-development and to help with managing uncomfortable thoughts, emotions and sensations.

It's interesting to trace Mindfulness Practice as it's commonly thought of in psychology today, back to its original roots in meditation and particularly Zen Buddhism. Zen has a concept of freeing ourselves from distraction through 'bare attention' – that is, paying attention to anything that comes into our brain, body or environment – but only for the fraction of a second it takes to notice that it is actually there.

Then we can let it go.

It's important that we notice it – pay attention – for that fraction of a second, because trying to block things out encourages the brain to stamp its foot and demand that we pay attention to that thing.

So the mind is a useful tool to calm and clear the brain – but in what I teach – it's also a useful tool in regulating our thoughts and emotions to be more comfortable and less reactive and again, in the school of thought that I subscribe to – we can train our brain to worry less and create fewer uncomfortable emotions, by practising Mindfulness.

A lecturer once told me three things that profoundly affected my view of the brain (aside from the myriad of books and papers I've read on the subject).

  1. The brain is designed to worry (to be automatically negative).
  2. 'The brain strengthens anything we pay attention to with intensity, regardless of whether it is good for us or not', and;
  3. 'What fires together, wires together' in our brain. Thoughts create physical neural pathways (a 'train of thought' if you like), in our brain and these are constantly being created. We know now that these can be changed or modified – that the brain is plastic and flexible.

When we observe thoughts and emotions in a Mindful way – this becomes a powerful tool for overcoming distressing and negative thoughts, emotions and feelings, as well as creating positive neural pathways to enhance our life and coping skills. So we can use the mind to train the brain into better 'trains of thought'.

Changing dysfunctional brain patterns takes patience and persistence, but its well worth the effort and can make a profound difference.

One simple way to train the brain is an old technique from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy called 'Thought Stopping'. When you become aware of a negative or distressing thought – tell it loudly in your head to "STOP! – Go away – I don't want to deal with you now!" Give it a try.

What notices the thought? I and many others would consider that's the mind – and a powerful force it is too (with apologies to Yoda).