As a mindfulness based therapist, people often ask me how mindfulness works. Allow me to try and explain one of the ways that mindfulness works - and no, REM doesn’t really have anything to do with it.
Have you ever had the experience of being in the car when nothing good is on the radio? This may be a little dated, now that everyone has their ipods plugged in and whatnot - but maybe there was a day you forgot yours at home, and you were at the mercy of the radio gods. Maybe you rotated through each preset button on your radio, glancing down from traffic every few moments to see which station was playing what. Nope, this doesn’t sound good. Try button 2. Ugh, this song again? Try button 3. Commercials. This lady’s voice drives me crazy. Button 4. Nope, don’t like this song. Push button 5. Who even programmed this station? I never like this music. Back to station 1 . . . and on and on it goes. Cycling through the preset stations looking for something that we want to hear. Maybe you are getting more irritated here, not finding something that you want.
Or maybe you remember that there are more radio stations on the air than the presets on your car, and that by reaching past the buttons to the round knob, you can actually scan through a wide spectrum of radio frequencies. Your choices are not limited to the few you have previously chosen.
This is one of the ways that mindfulness works. Our brains work a little bit like a car radio - except that instead of choosing a preset button, our neurobiology creates it’s own presets based on what gets chosen the most. Evolutionarily, this has been really helpful. Good job, brain! What this also means, though, is that the rest of the entire spectrum of experience usually falls outside of our awareness. Right now, what do your feet feel like? Close your eyes for a few moments, what sounds do you hear? Practicing mindfulness gives us the ability to direct our attention, and remember that what we may be experiencing in this moment isn’t the whole story. So when we are stuck in thoughts that aren’t helping - worried about the future, for example - we can remind ourselves that there are other stations we can tune in to. We can pay attention to what the breath feels like at the tip of our nose. We can look at the sky and really take in the clouds or the blue. We can stare at a tree and watch it be still or move in the breeze. We can scan our bodies and find out what sensations exist there right now. And with practice, we can start to change the presets in our brain - or at least add some more.
What do you think? What are your preset stations? What helps you remember to scan your awareness? I’d love to hear your experience of using mindfulness in the comments below!
I'm a mindfulness based psychotherapist in Seattle.