Today is Mental Health Day. I honor all those who struggle with their mental health and have taken steps to better understand and befriend this intricate and tricky brain and mind of ours. For some, it is too much to ask to befriend. I realize that. For many of us, it is a bit easier.
Our brain is complex and I admit what I write here is simplifying reality. We inherited it from a million years of evolution. And there is a mismatch between how our brain is designed and the world we live in: everything is faster, there is much, much more of just about everything, and the levels of possibilities, uncertainties and ambiguities have increased. Our parents and generations before them lived and worked in a different context. When they grow up, our children will live in yet another reality. The mismatch results in us relating to challenges and treats in sometimes supportive and sometimes utterly non-supportive ways and it is hard to get out of those unhelpful habits, though not impossible.
The oldest part of our brain allows us to react instinctively and emotionally. Useful when we are in real danger, even life and death situations, and when anger, mourning or ecstasy serve a healing purpose. The new part of our brain allows us to think more rationally and creatively for example. So important in order to help us sustain and increase our flexibility.
When we are under stress, a little or a lot, the new brain shuts down and the older parts of our brain kick into action. Not so handy if you are not an antelope in the Savannah whose sole survival depends on its instinctual ability to detect danger and get out of harm’s way as quickly as possible in whatever way possible: fight, run away, play dead (Freeze) or appease for example. Some of us who are anxious feel like making that presentation is a life and death situation. The same instincts roll in. But of course, that antelope would have a good laugh. We are in no real danger. But it really does feel real. And our impulses are quite the same: we would prefer run out the door than give that talk. Some of us might go blank (freeze) and some of us are going to fight against anxiety, resist it, hoping it might go away.
I am able to be more compassionate with my unhelpful thoughts or emotions and monkey mind because I have studied the workings of the brain and the mind a bit better and thanks to insight meditation, have grown to understand the workings of my mind a bit better. The same anxieties about upcoming trainings, the same anger about events (mostly with men!) in my past, the excitement and fantasies as I get dressed for a first date.
You could say the brain is both a gift and a curse. We are able to face challenges with amazing creativity and with utter destructiveness. We have the ability to be compassionate and ruthless. This has a profound effect on our health, the health of our relationships at home and at work and the health of communities and the world at large.
Let’s remind ourselves that we can’t always help how we react because of this tricky brain we are born with that does not always function in a harmonious way with the situations we face. We need to learn to live with it. We can either be pissed off with it or indifferent or choose to relate to with wisdom and compassion. This does not leave us off the hook. We need to take responsibility for our actions especially when they are hurtful to ourselves or others.
So what is there do with this brain and mind of ours? Mindfulness meditation helps us become aware of how our body, mid and emotions respond to situations that are challenging or threatening. It teaches us to observe and not associate ourselves with the thoughts and emotions because most of them come and eventually go, like events in our lives. And most of the time, they are not congruent with the reality of the situation. On the meditation cushion, we practice letting them go. We train our mind to be more flexible and to be a little less victim of the evolutionary mismatch.
We also need to face it. We are not designed for our times, no matter how much we might like it to be different. We need to consider making some changes about not only how we relate to situations in our lives, our mindset, but also how we live our lives. Our minds are a reflection of our lives. If we want a calmer mind, we are going to have to make clear choices to integrate more calm into our lives.
Intrigued, join my 5 week mindfulness-based stress reduction course starting on November 7 2019 in The Hague. See this page for more information: http://graceandgrit.nl/mindfulness/8-week-mindfulness-stress-reduction-training/