Mindfulness Neuroscience

Is mindfulness a waste of time, a selfish act or a selfless practice?

Mindfulness

Note from Magda: I am happy to say that this is the fourth guest post by The NeuroMindfulness Institute on my blog. It analyses different takes to mindfulness practices. Their other three post can be found here:

If you follow my blog, you’ll know that I have taken the NeuroMindfulness Online Coach Certification Course (NMCC) developed by Veronica and Arnaud from The NeuroMindfulness Institute. I really loved it: the breadth of content (covering areas such as Stress and Well-being, Cognitive Performance, Trust and Human Connection, as well as a very comprehensive set of Mindfulness Practices) was really appealing to the neuroscience geek in me :). I’m an now waiting for their advanced practitioner course to start in March.

And… because I honestly enjoyed this course so much, we have come to an agreement and formed a partnership: my readers can access their course (usually priced at EUR695+VAT) with a 15% discount (EUR104 discount).

If you are interested in the course, just have a look HERE to see more about its content and use the discount code mt15 at check-out. I hope you will find it as useful as I did! And now…. let’s get back now to our subject of today 🙂 – meaning, their guest article on my blog, about mindfulness.

I hope you will enjoy it and find it useful!


Is mindfulness a waste of time, a selfish act or a selfless practice?

Mindfulness and well-being are becoming the new hype for the last few years. Countless magazines are talking about it, and there is a plethora of apps, and devices intended to help you “get in the zone”. This trend, which is also fueling a multimillion-dollar industry is likely to intensify after the global lockdown due to COVID-19 pandemic. This period has a deep impact on many people’s mental health, and this impact will certainly leave traces and last for months or years after the pandemic is contained.

Most of us have busy lives, and making time for daily mindfulness or well-being practice is not easy. Some articles are even almost building some social pressure on us to meditate daily in order to better master our emotions, our stress and be more focused. 

We all juggle between various priorities such as family, work, social media presence, household tasks, and this was amplified for many of us during the lockdown period, in particular for those of us who had to take care of small children all day long, while working from home. In that context, how can we find the time to take care of ourselves? Some might think that it is actually selfish, since the objective is to take care of our own well-being, while we could use this time to take care of our children, our family, or being productive for our employer. Some might argue that they do not have time and they are way too busy for that. There is a famous Buddhist joke saying that if you have time to meditate, meditate 30 min per day, but if you do not have time, meditate 1h per day. 

We will see here that there is actually some truth in that joke. Those who have the busiest days are often lacking prioritization skills, and since we spend around half of our days mind-wandering or being very inefficient, if a bit of time spent practicing can reduce these inefficiencies, it can actually be considered as an investment that will for sure have a positive return on investment through increased productivity. 

Mindfulness as an investment: the selfish meditator

What is the first thing you do in the morning after waking up? A lot of us will answer to that question by checking social media newsfeed. If this is your answer to that question, you cannot argue that you do not have time to take care of your mental well-being. You will probably argue that this is your way to relax, and there is nothing wrong with that, but it is important to realize that what you fuel your mind in the first moments of the day will have a great influence on how your mind will behave during your whole day. Social media is designed to train your mind to zap through information. In other words, it is the archenemy of focus. Our brains spend around half of the awake time mind-wandering, due to the activity of a neural network called the Default Mode Network, that activates when we do not do anything. Mindfulness trains the mind to master the Default Mode Network and keep it under control. If the first thing you do in the morning is a short mindfulness practice, you will train your mind to be focused for the rest of the day, and you will gain in efficiency.

Those of you who are night owls might think: “Does that mean I have to wake up earlier to practice? I will be more tired during the day.” We all know that sleeping enough is key to mental health, but indeed, we are not talking about meditating 1h every morning. 10 to 20 minutes of any mindfulness practice (breathing exercises, Yoga, Meditation) can be enough to change your day. Waking up 10 to 20 min earlier will not greatly affect how much sleep you get, if this is the way for you to find some quiet time, for example before the kids wake up. If you feel that you lack sleep, maybe you can skip that last episode on Netflix in the evening and go to sleep 30 min earlier.

That seems easy to say, but we all know that bringing it to practice is much harder because our minds are very good at making up all sorts of excuses. The key to overriding those excuses is daily routine. If you aim at doing it every other day, you will enter in endless debates with your own mind and the lazy you will probably end up winning over the determined you. If you do not give a choice to your mind by sticking to it for at least 1 month, and aiming small initially (10 min of practice), it will ultimately feel natural and you will feel the benefits of this “me time”. With time, you will feel that you really need this time for your mental balance, and you might want to extend your daily practice.

One of the many benefits is that even if you wake up a bit earlier, you will feel less tired and you will have more energy. Not the agitated energy you get from drinking your third coffee in order to try to put back your neurons in the right order after a night of semi-efficient sleep, but the focused and healthy type of energy that will make you look positively at your day of work. It is well known that experienced meditators require less sleep that non-meditators. This is because when they meditate, their brains are doing a lot of the household cleaning that is usually being done during sleep, but more efficiently.

We understand that the ROI of mindfulness practice in the morning is positive in terms of productivity. However, productivity at work is not anymore what makes us create value in our work in the era of digitalization and artificial intelligence. Creativity is. We rarely come up with great innovative ideas during an intense period of focused work. Usually, it comes after we have done some focused work to understand the problem to solve, and then detaching from it. For example, while taking a walk, a shower, or even during meditation. For creative thoughts to arise, the mind needs to switch efficiently between focused states and controlled mind-wandering. This is a skill that mindfulness trains very well, and experienced meditators have reinforced connections between the brain networks responsible for mind-wandering (Default Mode Network) and the ones responsible for focus (Central Executive Network) and for noticing interesting ideas (Salience Network). This explains why meditation has been proven to favor creative thinking. Mindfulness is not about suppressing mind-wandering, but about noticing it with kindness and refocusing the mind. When we can better control the switch between those networks, we vastly improve divergent and convergent thinking, which helps to come up with insights. 

Mindfulness as a duty: the selfless meditator

Going back to the question asked in the title, we understood that mindfulness improves performance and creative thinking, and these aspects can be seen as a ROI of your practice. This helps you contribute to the success of your company, but it can still be considered as selfish because you will reap the benefits of being a better contributor. So how can mindfulness be considered as a selfless practice?

Probably the most well-known effect of mindfulness and well-being practices is on your mood and your ability to master your emotions. This could again be considered as a selfish pursuit if emotions were not contagious. We know that they are highly contagious. Going back in evolution, emotional contagion was a way for social animals to stay safe. If you observe a herd of horses and you see one starting to run because he perceived a threat, the other horses are going to start running right away even if they have not seen or heard the threat, because of fear contagion. This mechanism still exists in us, and has evolved to share more complex emotions, positive or negative. This is an unconscious mechanism, and it starts with 3 senses:

  • The most important is vision: we absorb other people’s emotions by seeing their facial expression and body language. Some mirror neuron networks actually replicate the emotion that they perceive on other people’s facial expressions, and this happens in less than 0,1 second. 
  • The second one is hearing: we absorb a lot of emotions through the tone of voice. When we only hear someone on the phone, we get some of this emotional contagion, but we are missing the visual aspect of it, which is why is usually does not feel the same as seeing someone physically or through video in terms of human connection.
  • The third one is smell: pheromones, which are volatile hormones are used extensively in animal communication. In humans, we know that they can vehicle fears. When people smell the sweat of first-time skydivers, it triggers a fear reaction. Little is known yet on their importance in communicating other emotions, but scientists think they might have a broader role. Of course this cannot happen while communicating through any type of technology platform.

After the emotional signals are perceived, they are processed in the brain by empathy networks that are also responsible for the awareness of our own emotions, and they replicate the emotion of the other person in our brain. 

The takeaway is that if you take care of our mood and emotions, you are actually taking care of the mood of everybody around you, family and colleagues. This is particularly true if you are a leader, since all eyes are naturally on you. If a leader comes in a meeting room in a bad mood, his mood will unconsciously contaminate his team members. Moreover, if they consciously perceive his bad mood, they might wonder why and feel threatened if they take it personally, even if his bad mood has nothing to do with them. Indeed, our minds are very good as imagining the worse when we lack some information, because of our natural negativity bias.

In contrast, if he demonstrates caring and trust toward his team members, they will also experience trust towards him and toward their fellow teammates. Many studies have shown that trust is the most important predictor of company and team performance. 

This illustrates how important it is for leaders to choose what emotions they want to contaminate their teams with.

If you wish to support other people in need, being family members or colleagues, it is almost impossible to do so if you do not master your moods. Have you ever tried to coach someone while being in an angry mood? 

Let me share a personal story related to this: my dad had some mental health issues, and we were living in the apartment next door while my mum was his main caretaker. During this time, we did not know what happened during the night. Sometimes he had compulsive buying behaviors, sometimes he has suicidal ideas. When waking up in the morning, I was feeling an urge to go check on them, but I resisted that urge, and took time to ground myself through mindfulness practice. I noticed that the days when I did this, I was in a position to support my parents with compassion and care. When I went to see them in the morning without any practice, I was immediately caught into their negative emotional maelstrom, and as a consequence could not offer any support.

Taking time of your well-being is far from being a selfish act, but it actually contributes a lot to other people’s well-being, either by contaminating them with positive instead of negative emotions, or through your own ability to support them when they need it. 

Another Buddhist joke says that when you are meditating you are working on saving the world. Again, there is some truth here as well in the sense that the first step to having a positive contribution to the world is to take care of yourself. When you integrate that small investment in your daily schedule, you will most probably notice a change in our own mental well-being and level of energy, but also in your relationships, and your ability to make a positive difference in your world. 

I hope you are now convinced that mindfulness is far from being a waste of time, and can indeed be a selfless practice.

To conclude, I would like to cite the Dalai Lama who declared that “if every 8 years old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world in one generation”. 


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