If you’ve read some articles on this blog, you’ve undoubtedly come across the name Thich Nhat Hanh. He is one of the world’s most renowned Buddhist leaders who advocates using mindfulness to find fulfilment in life.
For many people going through tough times, they often wonder if mindfulness can help them. I came across this interview with one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s senior advisers. He brilliantly describes how mindfulness can help us in tough times.
He said the first step is that mindfulness can help you become aware of negative emotions:
We see the mind like a house, so if your house is on fire, you need to take care of the fire, not to go look for the person that made the fire. Take care of those emotions first; it’s the priority. Because anything that comes from a place of fear and anxiety and anger will only make the fire worse. Come back and find a place of calm and peace to cool the flame of emotion down.
As a collective energy, fear and anger can be very destructive. We make the wrong decisions if we base it on fear, anger, and wrong perception. Those emotions cloud our mind. So the first thing in the practice that we learn from the Buddhist tradition is to come back and take care of our emotion. We use the mindfulness to recognize it.
He then recommends daily meditation to bring clarity to your thinking:
Our minds and hearts need food. And meditation is a kind of food. So we feed ourselves like that. You need to eat, and your peace, kindness, clarity need to eat as well. Meditation is not just praying; no, you’re cultivating this so you can offer it to others.
When you sit with someone who’s calm, you can become calm. If you sit with someone who’s agitated and hateful, you can become agitated and hateful.
Meditation is not an esoteric practice; it’s not something you do only in a meditation hall or Buddhist retreat center. It can happen right in whatever activity you’re doing — while walking, in the office. It means you are there, present with calm and peace.
With a breath, you can bring calm, clarity and rest your thinking.
By focusing on our breathe and accepting our emotions, we are able to calm our thinking and reduce our stress.
The neuroscience of mindfulness backs this up too.
A 2007 study called “Mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference” by Norman Farb at the University of Toronto, broke new ground in our understanding of mindfulness from a neuroscience perspective.
They found that people have two different sets of networks in their brain for dealing with the world. One network for experiencing your experience is what’s called “the default network”. This network is activated when not much is happening and you begin thinking about yourself.
The other network is called the direct experience network. This is a whole other way of experiencing experience. When this network is activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or future, other people, or even yourself. Rather, you are experiencing information coming into your senses.
For example, if you are in the shower, you can focus on the warmth of the water hitting your body.
This interesting thing is that both these networks are inversely correlated. If you have an upcoming meeting while washing dishes, you are less likely to notice a cut on your hand, because the network involved in direct experience is less active. You don’t feel your senses as much.
Fortunately, this works both ways. When you intentionally focus your attention on incoming sensory data, such as the feeling of the water on your hands while you wash, it reduces activation of the narrative circuitry.
This is why meditation breathing exercises can work when you’re stressed, because you focus your attention on the sensory experience of your breathe. Your senses become more alive at that moment.
Mindfulness isn’t difficult, but by simply activating your direct experience network by focusing on your senses with a non-judgmental attitude, it can help you engage in the present moment and reduce your stress.
The key is to remember to do it.