We probably do not need reminding that we live in a fast-paced world compared to our ancestors’, in which we experience more stress and mental health issues than ever before. Modern Western culture bombards us with information and places the onus on doing more in less time. Advances in digital technology mean that communication with others (even those who live on the other side of the world) is instant, and consequently, we can feel as though we are “on-call” twenty-four-hours-a-day, whether we are actually at work or not.
BECOMING THE “WITNESS”
In a culture in which life has become so fast, it is hardly a surprise that anxiety-related disorders are now so common. It becomes difficult to slow down our thoughts and quieten our minds, and it is easy to slip into anxious and reactive thought patterns. In their extreme form, such thought patterns are known as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which is characterised by unwanted and intrusive thoughts which trigger disabling ritualistic behaviours. While most of us, fortunately, do not suffer from this, most of us can identify with having unhelpful, negative thought processes that have a habit of taking over at times. They can cause us to sabotage ourselves in some way, for example, by becoming angry and then saying or doing things that we later regret. However, it is possible to break free from these reactive thought patterns: the first step is to become aware of when we are in their grip and to not engage with these thoughts. This idea that we are not our thoughts and that we can, if we choose, merely observe them is what Buddhist philosophy calls being the “witness”.
REWIRING THE BRAIN THROUGH MEDITATION
There has been a huge increase in the practice of meditation in the Western world over the last fifty years, and recently, interest in its psychological and neurocognitive effects has grown. A multitude of scientific studies have demonstrated its numerous health benefits: evidence strongly suggests that it reduces anxiety and depression, enhances emotional self-regulation abilities, and induces positive mood. A study by Horan (2009) has linked meditation to increased creativity and problem-solving capabilities. Horan suggests that amongst other reasons, meditation helps to erode habitual thought patterns by allowing the brain to enter into a deep state of “delta silence”, which can otherwise only be attained through the deepest stages of sleep. During this state of rest, the brain cells reorganise themselves and create new neuronal connections (known as “neuroplasticity”) which are vital to the insight and incubation phases of creativity. It is during these phases that new ideas and inspirations are able to surface.
Even if the idea of a formal meditation practise does not appeal, simply incorporating some mindfulness exercises into our day can allow the brain to experience a more relaxed state in which new insights and solutions to problems come to mind more readily. The benefits of mindfulness are often referred to as though they are a kind of panacea for the ailments of twenty-first-century living, and while this may be overstating its effects, by subtly changing habitual thoughts by becoming more mindful, we may experience some noticeable positive effects.
BREATHE SLOWLY AND MORE DEEPLY
Nowadays, many of us have forgotten how to breathe “properly”. Despite this being one of the simplest adjustments that we can make, we may find that this is surprisingly difficult at first. Reminding ourselves to breathe slowly and more deeply and from our diaphragms instead of from our chests is likely to have a more profound effect on slowing down our thoughts than any other technique.
DROP THE WAITING
If we stop to reflect on how many minutes of our days, weeks, and months of our lives we spend waiting in queues, traffic jams or in anticipation of news of various kinds, we may gradually conclude that it is worth changing the way we think about this “waiting” time. Our culture has conditioned us to believe that any kind of delay or obstruction between ourselves and the things we want is undesirable and wastes our time. However, feeling resistant to what is happening in the present creates unnecessary stress: Buddhist philosophy suggests that while we are “waiting”, we experience “the pain of expectation”. This familiar pain can be eased by subtly altering our mindsets by concentrating instead on the present moment; for example, by focusing on the things we can see and hear around us.
DISCONNECT FROM TECHNOLOGY
For at least a portion of each day, disconnecting from technology can help us to cultivate a calmer and clearer state of mind. By resisting the urge to check our text messages and emails the moment we wake up and by giving ourselves some space, we are more likely to be focused and effective in our activities. By turning our phones off, leaving them at home from time-to-time, or even by deliberately taking holidays in places where there is little phone signal or internet connection, we are likely to improve our mental wellbeing. Disconnecting in this way can effectively press the “pause” button and prevent us from feeling “on-call” all of the time. While we may experience some guilt for withdrawing from digital communication and the rest of the world even for brief periods, we should remind ourselves that we are not, in fact, all that important: less than twenty years ago this was the way everyone lived.
DO THINGS IN A SLOWER, MORE FOCUSED WAY
Aiming to become more focused rather than rushing our activities can make us more productive, and paying attention to the way in which we do things is likely to make us more effective. Whether we actively choose to learn to slow down our thoughts by beginning a meditation practise or just by incorporating a few specific mindfulness techniques into our day, after a while, we will find that we naturally begin to do things in a slower yet more focused way. Unhelpful and reactive thought patterns will begin to lose their grip and will be replaced with more flexible, creative, and healthier thought patterns which can have life-enhancing effects.
MindOwl Founder – My own struggles in life have led me to this path of understanding the human condition. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London. I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT (Acceptance and commitment therapy).
I’ve spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.