What is mindfulness?
Thich Nhat Hanh is a pioneering teacher of mindfulness, Zen master, spiritual leader, and peace activist, who describes mindfulness in the following way:
“Mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply in every moment of daily life. To be mindful is to be truly alive, present, and at one with those around you and with what you are doing.”
- Non-Judging: Assume the stance of an impartial witness to your own experience. To do this, you need to become aware of the constant stream of judging and reacting to experiences and step back from it.
- Patience: A form of wisdom that involves understanding and accepting that sometimes things must unfold in their own time.
- Beginner’s Mind: Having an open, beginner’s mind allows you to be receptive to new possibilities and prevents you from getting stuck in the rut of your own expertise.
- Trust: Develop a sense of trust in yourself and your feelings. Rather than looking to the outside for guidance, look inside yourself and focus on being true to who you are.
- Non-Striving: Pay attention to what is happening without striving towards a goal. The only goal of meditation and mindfulness is for you to be yourself.
- Acceptance: See things as they actually are in the present. Instead of denying and resisting facts or experiences that are out of our control, come to terms with things as they are, and accept them.
- Letting Go: There are many thoughts, feelings, and experiences that the mind wants to hold on to (ex. pleasant experiences) or get rid of (ex. unpleasant experiences). Letting go, or non-attachment, involves letting things be, without grasping or pushing away.
What is the Triune Brain?
- The Reptilian Brain: Inherited from reptiles, the reptilian brain is the most primitive region of the brain that includes the brain stem and cerebellum, which are responsible for regulating basic bodily functions such as heart rate, breathing, sleeping, and eating. The Reptilian brain is concerned with survival.
- The Limbic System (Paleomammalian brain): Inherited from early mammals, the limbic system is the middle part of the brain that is responsible for emotions and instinct, arousal, reactions, fighting, flighting, and fleeing. Feelings such as fear, worry, rage, pleasure, joy, pain, and excitement arise from this region of the brain.
- The Neocortex (Neomammalian brain): Evolved from primate mammals, the neocortex, more commonly known as the cerebrum or cerebral hemispheres, is responsible for higher cognitive functions such as language, logic and reasoning, spatial awareness, abstract thought, and problem-solving.
The two earlier brain regions (the brainstem and limbic system) may be collectively referred to as the lizard brain because the limbic system is about all a lizard has for brain function.
What does the triune brain have to do with mindfulness?
The lizard brain reacts to situations without much conscious thought. Historically, the lizard brain responded to threats to survival, like running from a hungry lion and, unfortunately, this part of the brain is not so effective at distinguishing between threats. This means that the lizard brain treats the threat of public speaking or writing an exam, similar to the threat of a hungry lion – as a threat to your survival. Alternatively, the neocortex is the “smart” part of the brain that helps you control your reptilian urges to fight, flee, or freeze. When the lizard brain “protests”, the neocortex uses logic and reasoning to consciously attend to situations, respond thoughtfully, and put things into perspective.
At this point, you might be asking yourself the following question: If humans are able to prevent themselves from acting on these primitive urges, then why is it that so many people continue to struggle with addictions, make irrational decisions, lash out, or run from seemingly unreasonable fears? Ultimately, it’s a matter of choice and awareness. To gain control of your thoughts and actions, you must first be aware of when your amygdala has been hijacked by the lizard brain, and then actively choose to engage the logical and reasoning part of your brain (the neocortex). Mindfulness helps create this awareness of thoughts and enables you to respond more rationally to a situation by creating a cognitive distance between you and your thoughts. In other words, mindfulness is a prerequisite for engaging the neocortex. Choosing mindfulness is choosing to take responsibility for your life.
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
Where can I learn more?
What will students learn?
By the end of this lesson, students will be able to…
- Describe the three evolutionary layers of the human brain (i.e. triune brain theory)
- Clearly articulate what each brain layer is responsible for
- Define mindfulness and understand the benefits of mindfulness
- Understand how mindfulness relates to the triune brain
- Recognize a wide range of mindfulness practices and express a willingness to practice various techniques
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