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Mindful Awareness: Your Wise Advocate Within

Jeffrey M. Schwartz

How mindfulness rewires our brain

Research Psychiatrist, UCLA School of Medicine
October 9, 2013

Think for a moment about your inner monologue. What is the quality or character of your thoughts? If you introspect for a while, you start to realize that many of the interior attachments you experience are not really you. But as soon as you recognize that the anxieties and thoughts of compulsion, self-condemnation, or false shame you might be experiencing are foreign intruders, their control over your life begins to fall away. This is the power of mindfulness. The goal is to ensure that your true values are in the driver’s seat of your life.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is readily describable as a clear-minded third-person perspective on your inner experience. It is a way of focusing attention on your inner experience that accentuates your capacity to recognize whether your current state of mind is wholesome or unwholesome. This kind of attention brings into focus an important question: Are the thoughts I am experiencing in-sync with my true values?

Mindful awareness is experienced as direct contact with reality, in effect, as standing face to face with what’s really there. One important aspect of real mindfulness is that it bridges the gap between judgmental and non-judgmental self-awareness. You need the non-judgmental aspect to access the content of your interior life. If you’re trying to filter or judge what comes in, you won’t be able to get the data on what’s happening with your interior awareness. This means that you won’t be able to find out what’s going on inside of you, and the foreign intruders will actually go unchecked. To ignore or minimize the presence of these emotions will lead you to fall back into the same unhealthy responses that have become locked into your brain as habit loops.

Look Inward, Observe Your Thoughts

The power of mindfulness allows us to break the grip of these habits. When you observe intrusive thoughts, you have to be in an assertively judgmental frame. It is very important to note that we are using the term judgmental here positively, in the sense of making a clear-minded, discerning assessment of the contents of your mental life. The key is to ask yourself whether these thoughts are in line with my true values, or whether they are deceptive brain messages taking me away from my real goals?

For example, when you’re feeling agitated, mindfulness trains you to place a label on that thought. Placing a label on the thought is what it means to take a third-person vantage point on your own thoughts: you’re looking from the outside to see what’s going on inside. When you give the thought a label, you give yourself a chance to discern whether it is wholesome or unwholesome. If the agitation is arising from a selfish motive, you can step back and reassess whether this thought is in line with your true values.

This kind of assessment is judgmental in the good sense of the word because it involves both recognition and discernment. You often have little to no direct control over the impulses, sensations, or desires you experience. These kinds of experiences are largely just the result of how your brain has been wired earlier in your life. But you do have control over how you respond to theses mental states. This is when you start to realize that these thoughts and feelings are not who you really are, and you don’t have to let them take over!

Case Study: Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder

Having spent decades successfully using methods like this with people with obsessive–compulsive disorder, I am a strong supporter of the power of mindfulness. OCD is a fertile field for using this practice, because the thoughts are so intrusive. OCD sufferers don’t know where their thoughts are coming from, and there is a tendency to identify one’s self with the intrusive thoughts. This propensity is quite maladaptive and often causes great suffering. In reality, these thoughts are foreign invaders caused by faulty brain wiring and intrude without permission. When you relabel the thoughts as false brain messages, you begin to break their control over you. This is a powerful way of using mindful awareness therapeutically.

“Mindfulness sharpens the capacity to inhibit pre-programmed habitual responses.”

At bottom, mindfulness is clear-minded awareness of what is happening inside of you, and this kind of practice is readily attainable by anyone. It’s especially important when you experience intrusive thoughts and unhealthy impulses. Everyone has the capacity to look inside themselves and see what’s going on. The goal is to assess the situation and make rational decisions based on your true values.

Your Wise Advocate, the Holy Spirit

Remember that as Christians, we aren’t in this alone. In the words of our Savior: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26). In the context of mindfulness, we think of the Holy Spirit as our Wise Advocate, our loving friend within who wants what is best for us. Your Wise Advocate is your helper, comforter, advocate, counselor, encourager, strengthener, and friend. When confronted with unwholesome impulses, your Wise Advocate helps you in the process of making sound judgments. The Wise Advocate does not sympathize with harmful behavior, but constantly asks this question: Are these thoughts in line with what God created me to be? Is this behavior in line with my true goals? In this way, mindfulness is always good!

Change Your Brain

How does this affect the brain? Mindfulness rewires your brain! Mindfulness sharpens the capacity to inhibit pre-programmed habitual responses. The more you connect with your Wise Advocate, the stronger your awareness of the connection becomes. You will begin to reflexively recognize and dismiss unhealthy thoughts, and control your habits to use them more effectively. Your brain becomes your ally instead of your foe.

On top of this, mindfulness training helps modulate emotional function of the brain. It doesn’t eliminate emotional activity; rather, it enhances your ability to direct and control emotional expression. People who practice this form of awareness exhibit a higher connectedness in areas of brain related to executive and emotional regulation. And thanks to brain imaging technology, we can actually see how this kind of training affects the brain. The practice of mindfulness enhances a person’s capacity to use the uniquely human prefrontal cortex in the brain. This is the part of the brain that serves executive function, which allows us to make clear-minded decisions quickly and under pressure. Mindfulness helps to form and strengthen these connections. This kind of effect is called self-directed neuroplasticity: using your mind, to modify your own behavior, to change your brain.

The end result is increased life functionality. You can plan more clearly, remember things better, your decisions are more clear-cut, and you’re aware of where you’re placing your attention. Mindfulness amplifies these high-level capacities and helps you gain control of your life. You are not your brain. You can change your brain. And with mindfulness practices, you can change your life.

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