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The Courage of Mindfulness

The path away from pain and fear

There are a thousand reasons to be afraid today.  Korea might decide to follow through on its threats after the latest poke by a president whose narcissism cannot be stopped on Twitter.  Racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamaphobia are all on the rise as they have found a voice in the new world leadership.  Commercials tell us constantly how our lives are falling short because we are not good enough, smart enough, slim enough, cute enough….and on….and on…and on.  In many ways, the world is becoming an uglier, more frightening place.  But in many ways, it is more beautiful than ever.  So why do we see mostly the threats?  How is it that fear grabs hold so quickly?

In short, our brain is primed to pay attention to what might kill us.  If I assume that the rustling in the bushes is a tiger and turn around only to find it’s a fluffy bunny, no harm done.  If I assume it’s a fluffy bunny and do not turn around it could cost my life.  So the brain is primed to see the potential threat in all things in order to keep me ahead of the things that could harm me.  This is a well-known fact and a detail that both political parties, news outlets, and marketers use every day.

We suffer from a constant barrage of politicians telling us we must be afraid of immigrants or people taking our money, news that leads with what might be killing our children, and the commercials telling us why our lives are not enough and how to buy our way there.  These things push the part of the brain developed to respond to fear.  Known as the limbic region and driven by the small amygdala this part of the brain gives the order to begin secreting adrenaline and cortisol, two stress-inducing hormones that raise the heart rate, create shallow, rapid breathing and prepare the muscles and tendons to respond.  In addition, the amygdala signals the shut down of the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain responsible for rational thinking.  You can read more about how this relates to political decisions in my article, “Fear, Politics and the Limbic Brain” on the Huffington Post.

If I am selling you a product I sell more if I can turn off your rational brain and simply get you to act.  If I want you to follow me, you are more likely to follow if I trigger your fear and then tell you I can keep you safe.  If I want you to watch the commercials that pay me a great deal of money, I trigger your fear and get you to sit quietly waiting for the promise of safety.  Fear is an automatic response, a prime motivator and, often, a lie.  

Fear is generally a response to the threat of pain.  Increasingly we are a society that sees pain as the enemy when, in fact, it is not.  The enemy is the avoidance of pain.  We numb out with alcohol, drugs, sex, food, gambling…all in an attempt to distract ourselves from or avoid the pain that life will bring.  When we do this, we create suffering.  

Life will bring us pain.  It is a teacher that directs us to more fruitful paths and corrects our mistakes.  When we give our children participation trophies or save them from the pain of bad choices we only prevent them from learning that winning is not a guarantee, that they can survive mistakes and losses.  We rob them of the growth of those painful moments and create a cycle of suffering.  When we are raised to avoid pain, we are raised seeking suffering because:

Pain is a guarantee.  Suffering is a choice.

In my work with patients as a mental health practitioner, I encourage my patients from day one to begin mindfulness practice.  I do so because there is an abundance of research indicating that it can actually change our thinking and grow new neural pathways in the brain.  It leads to better decision making by keeping the top part of the brain engaged and releasing the panicked hold of the amygdala and limbic brain.  My patients quickly find that doing something as simple as paying attention to their breath can result in a release of tension, clearer thinking and easier, more rational, decision making.

The body and brain are intimately connected, but fear drives us to disconnect from what is going on with the body and focus on the fight, flight or freeze response.  By simply watching our breath we can begin to release the hold of the limbic brain and allow ourselves to reconnect with the body.  Facing pain rather than retreating from it is an actual act.  It is an act of courage.  Mindfulness can help us slow enough that in a few short breaths we find that courageous action.  We decide to move towards, rather than away from an emotional situation.

Beginning the practice of mindfulness really is as simple as paying attention to our breath and I have seen what seem like miraculous results in patients after just a few weeks of regular practice.  Some apps that really seem to work are the Insight Timer App, and the Chill App.  Both are free.  You can also simply go to you tube and find an exercise that is right for you or you can download what I call mindful vacations that I have created for reducing stress levels free here.

Starting your own practice can help you find the ability to choose how you respond in situations instead of allowing them to determine your response for you.  Mindfulness can and does help us live more fully and courageously in the world.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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