One morning last week, I was driving to my old school to lead two workshops for teenagers on mindfulness and wellness, and I turned on NPR. They were playing an interview by Shankar Vedantam of psychologist Jer Clifton, from an episode of their program The Hidden Brain. The subject was How Your Beliefs Shape Reality, and how we can use this knowledge to live a happier and more harmonious life.
But it can be very difficult to change our core beliefs. For example, we might believe that if we’re depressed, the depression causes us to see the world as a dismal place, or as dull, frightening, and lacking in meaning. But as Aaron Beck, a founder of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and others discovered, it’s the other way around. Believing the world is dangerous, dull, or mechanical can cause us to feel depressed. If we believe the world is frightening, we carry around inside us a frightening world.
For example, two people listen to a forecast of rainy weather. Depending on how much rain there’s been lately, and if they think the world a scary place or a safe one, one will take the information positively, think about how the rain helps the trees or feeds flowers and the reservoir; the other will think about how dark the sky will become, or that there might be flooding. How we respond to the news will be greatly influenced by our core beliefs.
At one point in his life, Jer realized he believed that life was dull. So, he developed an exercise to shift this mindset. It involved going to a park or forest, finding an oak or other tree full of leaves, and examining one leaf from that tree. Each was so complex, highly patterned, and beautiful.
And then he got another leaf and examined it. There might be thousands, maybe 250,000 leaves in one oak tree. And every year, even more leaves. There have been oak trees though thousands of years of history. But just like the two they examined, they are all beautiful, and different. The stories they tell are engaging and unique. Each of these leaves, Jer said, was a work of art, yet we walk on them because they’re so ubiquitous. Then he began to journal and record beautiful things in his life.
In my school in the past, we used pinecones instead of leaves. Pinecones are amazing. Their bottoms are like a mandala, or could inspire one. Mandala means ‘circle.’ They are intricate, geometrically patterned, concentration or meditation aids and works of art.
Jer’s program was so synchronistic, as it provided a new dimension to my already planned mindfulness workshop. It gave me another story to tell and another exercise to share with students about how to let go of thoughts or beliefs that plague us. To look for beauty can replace the expectation of ugliness, depression, and pain. Students liked this new perspective.
Mindfulness can be defined in many ways, including one by Jon Kabat Zinn, founding director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, as an awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally. Or it can be a practice of simply breathing; and remembering to notice, with a kindly intent, feelings, thoughts, sensations, and inclinations to act. Hopefully, after the workshop, students can also think of it as a way to open to beauty.
Jer found that just knowing about the role played by core beliefs in how we feel can be significant and helpful; even if it’s difficult to fully change a belief, we can possibly loosen its hold on us. We can realize that if we had the beliefs others have, we might better understand and know how to respond to them. We’d be more patient with others and ourselves.
The program was also synchronistic for me because it picked up on a theme I had developed in a recent blog about having trouble staying asleep at night. I talked about how looking out the window to study the world etched against the sky by a streetlight or moonlight, changed my response to sleeplessness. Searching for beauty in the night can lead to a readiness to perceive more of it throughout the day.
Jer’s reasoning and research, I think, is consistent with both neuroscience and Buddhist teaching of mindfulness, of how our emotions and perceptions of the world are constructed in stages. Child psychologist Daniel Siegel, in his wonderful book, The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are, gives us one version of these stages.
The first is an initial orientating response; a shift in our body occurs and energy level increases or decreases. We might become alert as we feel something important is happening and we pay attention now. Or we turn away or become disinterested as we determine there is nothing requiring attention. This is without words or conscious awareness.
Then, we move to an elaborative appraisal⎼ is the stimulus good or bad? Positive, negative, or neutral? Is there danger? Should we approach or avoid? Then, do we like or dislike this? We assign tone and value. Memories enter the picture. We begin to construct narratives as we move into the third stage of differentiation or channeling of energy, and the construction of fully formed emotion and perception.
Our core beliefs arise as the possibly conscious component of that orienting response and elaborative appraisal. And if we can feel the initial rise of energy, feel the sensations of negative or positive appraisal ⎼ feel the energy or jitters in our belly, the tightening or loosening in our shoulders and our jaws, the clenching of our fists or our hands reaching out to hold ⎼ then we can do something about it. We can possibly counter the physical response, and question or assist the appraisal. We’re more in control than controlled.
In a safe place, we can stop what we’ve been doing: close our eyes partly or fully or rest them on something neutral or beautiful. We can breathe in and out and feel the air passing over our upper lip. Feel how our face responds to the moving of air as we breathe. Feel our shoulders rise or fall; loosen, or tense. Feel our throat, belly, or hands. Our feet on the floor. We let go of any judgmental responses and simply feel breathing in, a pause, and breathing out. And then a break as we start the next inhalation. Are we balanced on our feet, or swaying, our toes gripping the ground or relaxed? We notice what we feel, where we feel it, and how intensely. We give awareness to our body. And then we pause, notice what’s there, and go on our way.
This is what mindfulness can be. It can embody us in an awareness of our physical and emotional responses instead of an ignorance of ourselves. And then, so many possibilities can open to us. I learned a great deal that morning; I hope the students did, too.
This Post is republished on Medium.
Photo credit: iStock