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Writings on Mindfulness

With K. Neal Hughes, M.A. LSPE NCC

The buzzword in neuroscience has been “neuroplasticity” for about 40 years. This simply means that the brain is able to change itself. That brain functions can change with new information and practice, especially practice, is no longer simply an interesting idea. Some studies even indicate that the areas of the brain that are targeted with appropriate behaviors may actually increase or decrease in size if only measured in millimeters.

If this is true, then the brain may be very like a muscle or perhaps a collection of muscles working in a complex concert. These functions are intertwined of course, but it is possible to target certain of them in order to influence the rest. And if this is true then that is very good news.

As brain functions go, so go moods, emotions, behaviors and physical health. Mindfulness is often described as an exercise, and the metaphor works.

In order to build a muscle say, a bicep, three things are required:

  • An action
  • Repetition of the action
  • Resistance to the action

One needs to flex the muscle (action), and repeat the action (repetition), while there is a weight in hand (resistance).

In mindfulness there are all three of these variables in play:

  • The Action — the focus of attention
  • Repetition — the re-focusing of attention over an over, every time focus is lost
  • Resistance — the mind does not want to maintain attention for long and will begin searching very quickly providing the needed resistance

For instance, if I choose to focus attention on my breath, it will not take very long for my mind to become distracted. This is normal and since it is normal it should be expected. And if it is expected then its occurrence will not be too frustrating. But the loss of attention will be very frustrating if you have the expectation that you will not be easily distracted. The truth is, you will. The function or “muscle” of attention is not well developed so it is not very strong.

So the mind wanders. Our Buddhist friends call this phenomenon “the monkey mind”. St. Theophan the Recluse, a 19th century Russian Orthodox Christian monk, wrote that when one practices meditation, the activity of the mind resembles flies buzzing around the head. Perhaps the use of “squirrel mind” may be better suited. But whether you prefer mammals or insects the phenomenon is the same. The mind wanders.

The good news is that with practice, the ability to hold attention can expand.

The other good news is that since resistance is necessary for an exercise to be done at all, every distraction that occurs, every time your brain wanders off, is resistance, and we NEED resistance. There is no growth without it.

K. Neal Hughes is a psychotherapist at Thriveworks Knoxville.