Shining Moment: How Mindfulness Sets the Stage for High Performance

Twenty-something adult holds coffee cup in cafe and smiles thoughtfully while looking into the distanceIf our political parties can agree on one thing, it is how wedded each is to their respective platforms as the representation of what is “best” for the American people. Such is an illustration of how binding one’s valued identity too closely or tightly to anyone or anything can blind us to enriching opportunities beyond the limits of these domains. We may get hamstrung by what Stanford research psychologist and author Dr. Carol Dweck coined a “fixed mind-set.” However, it is a “growth mind-set” that is the province of the spacious, mindful perspective. Mindfulness is the power to understand that the whole is much greater than the sum of the fractionalized and sometimes polarized parts.

Mindfulness is the nucleus of a self-organizing quality of awareness whose physiological correlate is ripe for the generation of new integrative circuits that lend themselves to increasingly higher levels of complex problem-solving. It is the linchpin of my formula for optimal growth and development, a program of mental fitness that permits the fittest to go way beyond survival to realms of “thrival.” (Okay, I made up the word to satisfy my delight for rhymes.)

It’s not often a titan in the food industry gets a plug for assisting a mental health professional with defining the quality of mindfulness. Thank you, Kellogg! This multinational cereal manufacturer launched an ad campaign in 1988 for its longtime standard bearer for breakfast foods, Corn Flakes. The slogan, a banner testimonial to the incentive to be mindful, was: “Taste them again for the first time.” In other words, consumers were exhorted to bring their sensory focus to the ordinary moment to taste the extraordinary novelty of bringing a mind open to the serendipity of the present moment. This ad slogan, like a great Lennon-McCartney hook (okay, I’m dating myself), elegantly captures, in just a few words, timeless advice on how to attain the wisdom required to achieve greater mastery of life’s dynamic challenges.

Whether or not you are a fan or detractor of Kellogg’s efforts to marry form (the size, color, texture, density, and solubility of the corn flake) with function (to earn profits by selling corn flakes as nutritious and delicious), my point is mindfulness is the ultimate matchmaker of form and function. Such arranged marriages are high-octane duos.

If we are mindfully able to captain our ships to exercise benevolent authority over our crew—the many sides of ourselves in need of executive oversight—we are primed to be drivers of high performance. It all begins with a willingness and developed ability to drop our sensory anchors in the present moment.

Mindfulness is a fluid duality of being. It is one part luxuriating in sensory receptiveness to the information and energy contained in a “playful, stress-free, sandbox moment,” and an observational and reflective relationship to the sensory data to promote optimal translation and meaningful interpretation of the data. You might say, as cogently coined by a former supervisor of mine, mindfulness exhibits the admirable qualities of the pilgrim and the scientist.

To be mindful means to form a secure attachment to one’s self. A secure attachment is a loving, disciplined, curious, and accepting orientation to soaking in the moment. If you never considered secure attachments as crucibles of transformation, consider the following: Have you ever heard an acceptance speech at the Academy Awards or other awards gala where the winner thanked their support team for throwing down the gauntlet and obstructing their creative endeavors?

Remember, when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change, and you in turn are forever changed by your mindful experience. Hope springs eternal for potential answers to life’s most perplexing problems when we mindfully anchor ourselves in the moment.

The high-water marks of life’s stresses and strains on our psyches work at cross purposes with mindful integration and coordination. They mastermind states of disconnection and disintegration. We have all at one time or another reached our breaking points, alternately described as “falling apart,” “coming to pieces,” or “losing our minds.” Such conditions are consistent with a nervous system that is either stuck in a state of over- or under-arousal, which, if untreated, may over the long run become synonymous with states of abnormal development or developmental arrest. You might say mindfulness is the route to transforming insecure and disorganized attachment styles to a secure, growth-, and health-promoting attachment style. How many of us grew up securely attached to our caregivers? How big a difference do you believe that made to your successes in life?

Mindfulness is a master instructor in the art and science of identifying and finding states of arousal consistent with the optimal performance of a task. We mobilize very differently to play a soccer match as opposed to painting a picture and must develop a felt and cognitive understanding of such finely tailored, optimal states of arousal.

Resistance to being focused on thinking about our feeling states is as natural as a gag reflex. The most benign sources of our resistance to a practice of mindful being are fears that our internal arbiter of cultural norms and mores—family, religious group, ethnic group—will criticize and judge us for bucking their value system. This violation can be as fundamentally innocuous as “being” versus “doing,” a cardinal virtue for those who worship the Protestant work ethic. To defend against such anxious threats, our minds may behave like puppies off their leashes. They will move here, there, and everywhere to escape the threat of rebuke. We have no awareness that 5 or maybe 10 minutes have disappeared on us while lost in our reveries. Sound familiar?

If we are not present in the moment, we may not commit to memory any trace of what happened, a missed opportunity lost forever. A more malignant threat posed by a mindfulness practice conducted alone is that an individual with a history of panic or posttraumatic stress could, by lifting the lid on the forgotten, harken the return of the dissociated and leave themselves reliving past terrors of emotional quicksand.

I suggest you proceed with extreme caution—and if you are in treatment, please consult your mental health professional before you proceed. It is no accident that writing my memoir took over a decade. The process of revisiting and struggling with traumatic flashbacks while hopeful of learning to bear them and integrate them into my narrative history often left me blank, fighting with myself, or cutting short these writing exercises to end suffering beyond my conscious control.

Mindfulness can be a formal practice, as in meditation (please see the sample meditation below), or rehearsed informally, as any activity can be practiced mindfully—even mowing the lawn, walking, eating, or washing the dishes. It all begins with the regulating use of controlled breathing.

Remember, when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change, and you in turn are forever changed by your mindful experience. Hope springs eternal for potential answers to life’s most perplexing problems when we mindfully anchor ourselves in the moment.

Sample Meditation

Daily, or as often as possible, sit in a quiet room in a comfortable chair with your legs uncrossed for 10 to 15 minutes. Find a time when you feel most free from the pulls of others’ desires and needs. To help quiet your mind and create an environment of safety, begin to breathe deeply and slowly. Breathe in for five counts and out for six counts. Imagine your diaphragm is a brightly colored balloon. Breathe in all the invigorating and growth-promoting light energy. Breathe out all the waste products of your systems and all the toxic and hurtful messages linked to old, static, and inaccurate labels and story lines.

Imagine yourself as the curious, patient, open, kind, and compassionate observer. Find a focal point to anchor yourself in the here and now. It can be a mantra, such as: “Be here now,” or “Let go, let God,” or “I am loved, I am not alone, I am good enough, I have nothing to fear.” It could be the sound of heat rushing through the air vents, the tick of the clock on the wall, the sounds of silence, or whatever else suits you.

Your mind may act like a kite in the changing winds of a spring day. It may behave like a young child running here, running there, running everywhere. Be kind, be gentle, and be patient. Make a mental note of where it goes, and then gently bring it back to the present moment.

Keep the breathing cadence—five slow breaths in and six out. By modulating your breathing and heart rate, you will modulate your emotional arousal and keep your mindfulness on line.

Your mind may act like a kite in the changing winds of a spring day. It may behave like a young child running here, running there, running everywhere. Be kind, be gentle, and be patient. Make a mental note of where it goes, and then gently bring it back to the present moment. You are teaching yourself to hone your senses and keep your emotional arousal modulated so the different regions of your brain will work in an integrated and coordinated manner to process and make meaning of what is happening in the here and now.

If information or energy rises to the level of consciousness and overwhelms and/or frightens you, disconnect from it and put your focus onto a neutral object until your arousal level decreases and you are able to be with the contents of your experience in a mindful and supportive manner.

Another technique for modulating your arousal level is to take the attention off of the contents of your experience and use your imagination to transport you to a real or imagined locale where you feel safe from all threats to your safety and security.

Enjoy the process and the journey!

Reference:

Dweck, C. (2016). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 6 comments
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  • Reagan

    June 23rd, 2017 at 12:56 PM

    There will always be those people though who have absolutely no idea how to move to a growth mind set. They are so set in the past and in their own ways that learning to let go of the things that are actually holding them back is where their fear lies and they don ‘t know how to do that. For them it became a much more comfortable thing to stick with what they know instead of branching out and trying on a different role or anything new.

  • Mitchell Milch, LCSW

    June 26th, 2017 at 3:50 PM

    Hi Reagan,
    Thanks for taking the time to read my article and respond thoughtfully. I can’t agree with you more. The courage, persistence, focus discipline, drive, and resilience to give birth to a mindful self “if” it is to take place, does so within the bonds of a secure attachment to someone willing and able to recognize the other as subject and help hold this person together during a reorganization process that witnesses a transfer of executive control from one generation to another.

  • Meg

    June 26th, 2017 at 9:13 AM

    So is this kind of our encouragement like if you can dream it you can be it?

  • Mitchell Milch, LCSW

    June 26th, 2017 at 4:05 PM

    Hi Meg,
    Thanks for your interest in my writing. Let’s say that if you can develop your imaginal capacities to make the experience of achievement real for you the circuits that fire together will wire together to generate increased self-confidence and self-worth from such mental rehearsals. If you can feel it see, it taste, it and hear it, you will be more likely to believe in yourself and move forward and/or move in a more focused manner. There are no guarantees that you will reach the finish line or that it will be exactly what you imagined it to be. Still, you have to be in the game to win it and your imagination is where you germinate and culture the seeds you wish to grow.

  • Marnie

    June 27th, 2017 at 1:35 PM

    I sometimes feel so tied to that which I know that it makes me afraid of trying anything which is new or the slightest bit out of my comfort zone.

  • Mitchell Milch

    June 27th, 2017 at 3:50 PM

    Hi Marnie,
    I hope my next blog entry will speak to the heart of your dilemma. So often growing up we learn to not trust ourselves as we internalize messages about our capabilities that may express our caregivers’ confusion between themselves and us. The experiences of not being recognized accurately for who we are undermines trust in ourselves. We idealize these messages and unless we mindfully revisit and reexamine these narratives, we are prone to make them self-fulfilling prophecies for decades. Such is one of the most poignant and hope inspiring messages of my memoir. I lived the first three decades of my life unwilling and unable to step outside my comfort zone. Every time I did I retreated. You may find it an inspiring and empowering read.

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