For a while, it was the story that wasn’t a story: Occupy Wall Street, where many people of different backgrounds took action to bring attention to the need for change in our political and economic systems. I found myself elated that large groups of people across the country had organized a way to “do something” about situations that often seem intractable to me. I agree that many of our governing assumptions are skewed, and I see this way of functioning reflected in the microcosm in the autocratic ways of thinking that our brains often slip into.
In his books, The Mindful Brain, and The Mindful Therapist, Dan Siegel refers to “top down processing”, where our brains are looking for ways to fit things into recognizable categories. Once we have figured out where to put a certain experience, we then react in recognizable and patterned ways that are familiar to us.
Often, our patterns of thinking and behavior are familiar in the most literal sense, and we behave in similar ways to our caregivers, friends, and family. In the world around us, most systems operate in this boxed in, “top down” way as well, which makes change seem out of our reach. How am I going to change an economic or political system? As the title of one of Pema Chodron’s books states: “Start Where You Are”.
While many of our top-down processes efficiently streamline and organize a world of millions of data points and opportunities for choice, they also serve as blinders inhibiting our ability to perceive much of what is here and now.
In counterpoint to top-down processes, Mindfulness Practice and Mindfulness Based Counseling are like a grassroots movement for our mind. When we pay attention to the minute details of what arises for us in a practice (sensations, emotions, thoughts, etc.), we are allowing new neural pathways to form in our brain. By tuning into the observing capacity of our minds in our practice, or a counseling session, we are able to recognize familiar patterns, label them, and return our focus to our open and accepting mind. We don’t really need to go into the whole story of why we have these assumptions, or how we got wired this way in the first place; we can begin making new choices and creating new neural pathways in the present.
Often during a practice, when we notice some tendency we have, our first reaction is to judge it good or bad. Even having a thought (“I’m not supposed to think while I’m meditating!”) can be judged as bad and snowball into a negative story that we carry about ourselves. It can be minutes or hours before we realize that our thought has turned into a judgment, an emotion of shame, sadness, fear, or anger, and finally a story of negative identity such as “I am bad”, “I am stupid”, etc. However long it has been, the seminal act of mindfulness practice is to bring our minds back, noticing the old pattern, perhaps giving it a label so that we can recognize it more easily when it arises again. This is a very powerful thing that arises from our practice and awareness of ourselves: Whatever happens- we bring our focus back to the present. What are we going to do about it now?
This has been another fun thing to see in the “occupy” phenomenon; people decided to get together and the organization and direction largely came later. We don’t need to know where things are going, or what the answer is, before we act. Often stepping into this place of not knowing is a familiar part of the journey of healing, where old patterns disorganize before they come back together in a pattern that is healthier than the one we used to rely on.
This simple, and challenging, act of being present has wonderful consequences. We are able to see our habits, where they have brought us, and decide in the moment to take another route. Rewiring our neural circuitry doesn’t happen instantly, just as movements for social change take perseverance and integrated effort. If we are able to put in a portion of our time every day, practicing and deepening our awareness, we develop compassion for ourselves, and this soft attention allows us to change. It is hard to believe that we can change our brains from something as simple as counseling and mindfulness practice, but research shows that it does happen, and experience deepens our understanding that, if anything, we do feel better with just a small shift of attention.
I am excited and hopeful that as we move forward with research into mindfulness, relationships, and creating new economic and political systems, we will continue to discover wonderful new possibilities. While the degree of change and instability can be anxiety and fear inducing, I hope that we all allow ourselves a little bit of time to check in with what grounds us and sustains us: breath, body, community, earth, and presence. I propose that if we begin to move away from outdated top-down processing in our own brains by practicing presence, we will notice a resonant shift in the larger systems around us as well.
P.S. If you would like to get started with your own “occupy here” movement this week, send me an email for a free MP3 of a recently recorded 15-minute mindfulness practice.
© Copyright 2011 by By Justus D'Addario, MA, LMHC, therapist in Seattle, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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