The ability of mindfulness meditation to reduce stress is well-documented, and has led to its widespread instruction in the worlds of medicine, psychiatry, and business. But another key benefit of mindfulness is its tendency to promote a more positive outlook on life. We can take advantage of this by reminding ourselves everyday to cultivate awareness in the present moment. And we must, for we are fighting a constant battle against primitive regions of the brain that are hard-wired for negativity.
To Slay the Dragon, One Must First Be Aware of Him….
Well, it’s not quite a dragon that we’re concerned with – more like a lizard. Our evolutionary ancestor has left us an unwelcome gift. As the neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson has explained, our minds are “like Velcro for negative experiences and like Teflon for positive ones.” The most primitive areas of the brain – structures that pre-date later mammals and primates – are concerned above all else with matters of survival and the perception of threats. Any bad experience must be remembered to ensure that there is no repeat; in other words, once bitten, twice shy. The amygdala and hippocampus are primed to assign negative emotions to perceived threats and retain them, so that any future experience resembling them will be labeled the same way and evoke a similar response. And unfortunately, that primitive alarm system is still sounding off in us millions of years after it evolved.
How Mindfulness Meditation Changes Our Brain and Our Emotions
Numerous studies have shown that mindfulness meditation makes practitioners more likely to see neutral experiences in a positive light, and less likely to dwell on the negative. The reason for this change in what psychologists call “positive affect” is a rewiring of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, favoring the left side over the right side. This brings a trend away from depression and anxiety and toward happiness, relaxation, and emotional balance. There is also a discernible improvement in the functioning of the immune system, perhaps because this is one of the systems so adversely affected by stress hormones, which are now better regulated. In other words, meditation allows us to slay that inner dragon!
Toward A More Evolved Awareness
With the deck stacked against us by biology, we must make a determined effort to practice mindfulness, not just during distinct meditation sessions, but throughout the day. Dr. Hanson recommends setting a daily goal to notice beauty in the world, goodness in other people, and times when our everyday needs are being satisfied, such as meals. Ponder the feeling of being loved by family or friends; feel the strength of your body as you walk; be grateful for shelter in the rain. Instead of allowing these oft-ignored positive experiences to flash by, dwell on them for an extended period, and really soak up the positive feelings. Over time, this manner of thinking will become habitual, and will gradually retrain your brain to look for and expect the good. And if you hear a voice telling you that such awareness exercises are silly, tell that little lizard to shut up. There’s a more highly evolved creature in charge now!