As a positive psychology coach, I help people build flourishing lives by teaching and training the skills of wellbeing. Happiness is not easy because the human brain is hardwired to look for signs of potential threat, a process called the “negativity bias.” Left to its own devices, the untrained mind succumbs to worry, looking for everything that is wrong with ourselves, with our circumstances, and with what could go wrong in the future. Be assured, these negative thoughts are absolutely normal, the result of an evolved neurological imbalance we all must learn to work with!
One of the most effective ways to interrupt the negativity bias of the brain is to practice mindfulness. Regular mindfulness meditation appears to lead to deep structural changes within the brain that enhance cognitive, emotional, and physical wellbeing.
In the most basic terms, mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness. It is a mental mode in which you attend to the ever-changing experience of the present without reacting, resisting, clinging, or trying to change what is happening.
With new scientific research celebrating the benefits of mindfulness, which range from stress-reduction to enhanced immune function, many people start a mindfulness practice with the goal of “fixing” what they don’t like about themselves or their situation. People new to the practice often hold the belief that “I can meditate away my stress,” or “if I get good enough at meditating, then all of my problems will go away.”
While the research shows that people who practice mindfulness regularly often experience less anxiety, enhanced mood, and improved health, these are “side effects,” not the goal of the practice. The goal of mindfulness is to cultivate greater awareness and acceptance of what is happening, right here, in the present moment. Simone Weil, a French writer and mystic, says that we obtain what is most precious not by going out and aggressively searching for it, but by waiting with attentiveness. This is precisely to the attitude we take in mindfulness practice — to wait on ourselves with patience and curiosity.
Mindfulness offers a radical shift in how we relate to the stress and pain in our lives. Instead of trying to get somewhere, achieve a goal or fix something, we learn to be present and open. As we observe the arising and passing of an emotion, physical sensation, thought, or mental image, we loosen our identification with it. Instead of being consumed by a thought or feeling and reacting out of it, we are free to respond from a place of wisdom. In mindfulness, we can find freedom from the habitual reactions that limit our self-understanding, and thereby increase our potential for happiness.