On Stories That No Longer Serve Us
This week was the penultimate class for one of my 8-week courses. As per the standard curriculum for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and my other classes, we talk about endings.
When you close your eyes and settle yourself for 20 seconds and ponder the word endings what comes to mind? Try it! I'll wait . . .
Are you happy? Cringing? What sensations occur in your body?
What came up for one class member was that they were "bad with endings." A tiny bit of inquiry later, they said something like, "Maybe it's time to rethink that story."
It's delightful when, as a teacher, you don't need to do much because the students are practicing and feeling the fruits of their work. I didn't need to do much because this person's practice did their work for them. They realized being "bad with endings" is just a story—it's just a thought. It's not real, and it can be replaced with "I used to be bad with endings" and . . . poof . . . being bad, in the present, doesn't exist. It can be jettisoned into the great trash can of your mental hard drive (and don't forget to empty the trash!).
But is it really that easy?
Your thoughts—all of them—aren't real and you don't have to believe them. Many of them are not only unhelpful, but they're harmful to your well-being.
In mindfulness, one thing we don't do is get into your stories and where they came from. We don't ask why you feel what you feel. That doesn't matter for our purposes, plus we know the answer (you feel that way because you've felt that way before). If you have thoughts that aren't working for you, thinking further about them isn't necessary. What you need to do is thank them for their service, and move forward without them.
Remember Your Brain is a Predictive Engine
One of the nuances of what we know about how the brain works (and there's so, so much to be learned) that seems to get bypassed is that it's a predictive engine. What this means is the narrative of reacting versus responding should probably be retired/revised because it doesn't fit the current model. Ditto for "amygdala hijack" and other catchy phrases. If your brain predicts what you will do, you're not reacting—your brain's predicting what you will do. In order to do something different, therefore, you need to change the programming that has led your brain to predict you will do the thing.
All of your habits of mind and "reaction" are neural pathways you've created by doing and saying things for your entire life. If you want your brain to predict something else should happen, you need to create the neural pathways for that something else. You need to start doing things differently for your brain to predict that you do things differently.
Read that last line as many times as it takes.
Start small. Choose one practice from here. Or from anywhere! Just do it! And do it every single day for a week. Next week, I'll remind you to check in with me about how it's going.
Despite the fact that I wrote a book on mindfulness, I'm the first person to say that the only—I repeat only—way mindfulness works is by you practicing.
For more on the predictive nature of the brain, check out How Emotions Are Made: The secret life of the brain, by Lisa Feldman Barrett, Livewired: The inside story of the ever-changing brain, by David Eagleman, or A Thousand Brains: A new theory of intelligence, by Jeff Hawkins.
May ease find you.