As an overthinker and perfectionist, sometimes I get into what I think is a productive flow: I’m getting a billion things done, and quickly. I’m multitasking the crap out of everything. Even when I’m stuck with having to focus my actions on one task, at least my mind is multitasking; I’m creating more to-do items that will successfully lead me to Having It All Together. I’m pushing my mind to think faster. I’m pushing my movements to go faster. I’m quicker to slap myself on the wrist when I do something inefficiently. Even when I’m getting a lot done, I’m frequently telling myself, Do better! You know, for motivation…
But then, like, OUT OF NOWHERE, I reach a point when I’m just plain irritable. I’m fatigued. I’m accusing other people of not being more helpful, or making things harder on me. I’m pessimistic. I have no idea how or when I got to this point. Just when I could’ve sworn Having It All Together was right around the corner.
Okay, first of all, Having It All Together is another Atlantis. It’s all myth. But plenty people swear it exists somewhere, it’s just that we aren’t looking in the right places yet, but just trust and believe, it’s pure utopia! Even people who say, No, it’s a myth! have had moments when they’ve thought, But maybe….
But that’s another blog post.
Secondly, I know there are people out there whose productive flow looks like this, and they don’t suddenly burn out. They have their own functional strategies to make sure they maintain a sense of balance.
What I do when I’m in this “productive flow” is this: I’m bulldozing through my tasks without being mindful at all.
What does it mean to be mindful anyway?
If you go online and search, “what is mindfulness”, you’ll see a lot of definitions that basically say “awareness of the present moment.”
But excuse me, aren’t I super focused when I’m in my productive flow? I would get nothing done if I wasn’t pay attention to what I was doing, right?
Mindfulness is a different kind of awareness of the present moment. It’s a deeper kind of focus. Let me borrow some language from Buddhism and look at it from the perspective of having two different types of minds: The ‘Thinking Mind’ and the ‘Observing Mind.’
The Thinking Mind is what we commonly think of when we think about thinking… It’s our default, and it’s just a jumble of inner commentary on everything with no filter. It’s filled with judgments, should’s, interpretations, comments on things from the past, present, future, hypothetical, whatever. It flutters from one topic to another. Also, it doesn’t shut up, ever.
The Observing Mind, however, can take a step back as if to watch what the Thinking Mind is up to. It observes what and how you think. It keeps track of what’s happening in that exact moment (not past, future, or hypothetical). It can look within you (thoughts and feelings in the moment) and outside of you (whatever your five senses can pick up) with a neutral attitude. It’s comments are just the facts, no judgments, no instructions, no distractions from the here-and-now.
Another way you can tell the difference is you can’t argue with the Observing Mind, but you can argue with the Thinking Mind.
For example, your Observing Mind could say, Taylor Swift is a singer. Your Thinking Mind could say, Taylor Swift is a good singer.
When you’re eating a meal, your Observing Mind could say, I’m experiencing feelings of disappointment and frustration, and an urge to look for something else to eat. Your Thinking Mind, while eating the same meal, could say, Damn, this meal sucks, they should fire the chef. I better get out of here and find a taco truck.”
The Thinking Mind can sometimes emotionally amp you up and limit your perspective. Which takes me back to my bulldozing ‘productive flow’. When I do that, I’m relying solely on my Thinking Mind, and giving no room to my Observing Mind. I’m doing no meaningful self reflection that might point me in the direction of a sorely needed break, or at least a slower, more self compassionate way of doing things. I’m not being mindful.
In short, my definition of mindfulness here is harnessing the power of the Observing Mind.
What exactly do you get out of harnessing the Observing Mind? What good does mindfulness do?
A lot. Simply observing the here-and-now does a huge amount of good and not just in the context of reminding you that you might need to slow down or take a break. When I first heard about mindfulness, I felt like I was watching some cheesy infomercial for Happy Pills.
It may not be a physical pill, but there is a strong connection between mindfulness and our capacity to be happy.
Mindfulness Opens the Door for Happiness (*but doesn’t create it)
Think of the top three happiest moments of your life. Let yourself swim in the memories of what it was like for a bit. Remember what that happiness felt like.
In ANY of those memories, do you remember being distracted or somehow NOT in the moment? Like, One of my happiest moments was the first time I held my son and I was thinking, Why can’t the Kings make it to another playoff final?… Anything like that?
Chances are, your answer is no.
The word ‘happiness’ has roots that mean ‘by accident’. By happenstance. We think we can seek, pursue, achieve, buy, and produce happiness, but happiness is immune to your efforts. We feel happy when it stumbles upon us. And our only chance of truly experiencing it is to be able to switch gears from mind-wandering to mindfulness.
We have to use our Observing Mind to be in the here and now, without judging (I don’t deserve this happiness), without instructing (Don’t do anything to f*** this moment up). Without letting the Thinking Mind take over the experience with whatever it’s chattering about.
But wait, there’s more! Opening the door for happiness isn’t the only thing mindfulness can do for us.
As a science nerd, I like to pull back the curtain and see what makes things possible, especially things that seem too good to be true. Like mindfulness. So here’s why it’s so good from a nerdy science point of view.
Mindfulness changes your brain
Well, actually, lots of things change your brain.
Your brain is a little body builder. Whenever you practice or repeat something, all the spaces in your brain that are involved in that ‘something’ literally bulk up. The neural pathways are thicker, stronger, easier to flex when you feel like activating those mental ‘muscles’.
Avid chess player? The parts of your brain that deal with strategy, and other chess-things, are pumped up Arnold style.
Those times you completely autopilot your drive home from work? The part of your brain that maps out that route is super ripped, bro.
This is called neuroplasticity. It can go the opposite way, too. If you stop working out a mental muscle, it gets thinner, weaker, and requires more effort to flex, like the body builders that keep skipping leg day.
When you practice mindfulness, you’re bulking up a part of your brain called the middle prefrontal cortex. That means you’re strengthening these nine things that your middle prefrontal cortex is responsible for, according to Daniel Siegel, MD in his book, “The Mindful Brain”:
This area regulates things like heart rate, breathing, digestion, and your immune system. Practicing mindfulness can strengthen your ability to calm down and return to your regular self after dealing with some kind of chaos. It might be helpful if your stress levels give you tummy aches, make you sick a lot, hyperventilate, etc.
Instead of doing things like spending your conversations waiting for your turn to say what you’re itching to say, practicing mindfulness helps you open the door to feel more connected with others. Specifically, you’ll be better able to feel the other person’s feelings.
You can feel the highs without getting so high it’s not cool. You can feel the lows without getting so low it’s deadening. And similar to Body Regulation, you can emotionally get back to your regular self a bit easier after dealing with some kind of chaos.
Feel like you live by knee-jerk reactions? Or like emotions constantly overpower and control you? Strengthening response flexibility through mindfulness makes you feel like you’re the in the driver’s seat, not your emotions. Your responses are flexible, not at the mercy of what your emotions feel like doing.
Practicing mindfulness helps you have a greater capacity to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see things from their perspective. Your capacity to have compassion for others increases. Even for people that tick you off.
AKA “self-knowing awareness.” Mindfulness helps improve your brain’s ability to link together all your experiences, memories, and emotions into a more cohesive and realistic understanding of who you are. It helps you better filter out hurtful nonsense that your inner critic is spewing out, so you can look at yourself with more truth and compassion.
Struggle with anxiety or panic? You can thank your amygdala for that. Good news is, the middle prefrontal cortex has a direct line attached to that amygdala and can inhibit it. Strengthening this through mindfulness is like giving your brain the keys and authority to push the abort button on unhelpful crap your amygdala’s trying to do. Why, yes, I’d like that button pushed. *boop*
That’s the ‘gut feeling.’ It can be strengthened with mindfulness practice, too. Give it a higher quality microphone to talk into. And a blow horn, maybe.
Strengthening this can help you more naturally consider what would benefit the greater good. Not to say you’re a selfish jerk to begin with. But honestly, we all have things we would do if nobody was looking. Like, I’ve seen those statistics on hand-washers and non-hand-washers in public restrooms. Practice mindfulness and wash your hands!!!
Fortunately, mindfulness is getting more and more ‘mainstream’ and information about it is very accessible. Here’s one of my favorite videos that breaks down what mindfulness is, and a couple ideas on how to practice it: The Power of Mindfulness: What You Practice Grows Stronger by Shauna Shapiro
Keep your eye out for my next article that dives into tons of different ways you can practice mindfulness, even with a busy schedule.