You don’t need to understand science in order to understand mindfulness, it may even be a hindrance in some cases, but it can still be useful for studying and/or explaining many fascinating aspects of the mindful state. One of the most important examples is the way science can help us better understand how challenging it can be to actually stay present.
The past and future keep us from being our genuine selves. The past is over, gone, kaput, but complicates things indefinitely because we get fixated on it, especially if it is accompanied by a negative sensation. The future is unpredictable as a whole (nice try Miss Cleo) no matter how much we attempt to plan things. While it is totally healthy to plan in moderation, we often fool ourselves into thinking that predictions are real, and eventually that all possible futures need to be worried about. Worries become fixations and hold us back from being in the present.
It turns out that neuroscientists have provided tons of evidence showing how strongly these things affect the way we experience the world. A big contribution comes from a theory of something called “implicit bias” (see source below for more information). It tells us that the memories and other results of learning that fill our brains also change how we interpret new information. This might seem like an obvious statement, of course the things we’ve learned and experienced are going to have an impact on how we essentially “feel” about new things, but there is much more at work than most of us realize.
When we do something or learn something, the neurons in the brain create and store associations that link the parts of the experience together. This basic connectivity is the fundamental component of learning, and therefore is the basis for just about everything we’re capable of doing. It’s an elegant and efficient setup for the most part, but we run into a problem that’s unavoidable in this system. Whenever we think, we strengthen associations. It’s a natural side effect of the way our mind works on a physical level, and is the main mechanism responsible for the achievement of learning. The brain responds virtually the same when we experience something as when we think about experiencing something similar – this is why repetition is such a great practice method.
You might be ahead of me at this point and if so, good for you. Yes, the more we think about bad memories the stronger they become, meaning they are more likely to be triggered and can be even more impactful over time. These associations also impact how we are going to interpret the experiences that follow. Again, this might seem like a given, but the severity of the bias can be far greater than many could imagine. In some cases, it has even been demonstrated that decisions can be “made” as far as the brain is concerned before someone is even aware of having a choice (see source). This is a creepy thought, but not too hard to wrap your head around when we consider that there are a ton of automatic decisions made by the brain every second, or else we wouldn’t be alive. It also brings up a lot of uncomfortable philosophical questions about free will that have yet to be resolved among professional theorists, but don’t panic because there’s plenty of evidence that we can override those processes with enough practice. Actually, that’s the key to dealing with this whole vicious cycle and overcoming the imperfections of the brain to achieve mindfulness.
How do we deal with the unconscious influence of implicit biases? By being in the now of course. When we place our full attention on our present moment it is possible to step outside of the trap that is a sense-of-self anchored in the past and/or unpredictable future. Failure to recognize the influence of memory and learning can turn a person into a slave to their own neurological programming. It is all too easy to rely entirely on actions and interpretations that are determined by subconscious processes, rather than active contemplation. A common example of this condition is the sensation of being personally insulted or offended. People can feel slighted by any number of things. Some are more obvious, like perceived attacks on values or blatant disregard of one’s existence, but it is practically impossible to predict the specific topics or actions that may cause offense from one individual to another (sports, politics, board games, anything really). I’m willing to bet that many of us would be embarrassed and probably confused if we stopped to think about the specific things that have caused us to emotionally react as if we have been insulted. The truth is that those feelings are not based on the present reality, but on all of the information that has been stuffed into our brains in the past.
People have an innate tendency to put their decision making processes on autopilot. Sure, we will usually weigh the options if a big choice is pending, like quitting a job or moving, but day to day activities and interactions are rarely given such consideration. The result is that most of our lives becomes governed by biases that keep us from living in the moment and achieving true mindfulness. But all is not lost. What we may also fail to realize is that we always have a choice when it comes to interpretation.
Someone can call me a jerk and my instinct will be to feel offended, but nothing will necessarily have happened that deserves such a response. My feelings in this case would have been driven by several pre-existing associations that have been learned and stored in my brain. Past experiences have taught my automatic decision-making system that the sounds the person made contained a pattern that has caused these negative feelings from the past, and that’s really all it takes for me to feel insulted in the present. The original experience that made me interpret the words as being negative may have happened when I was extremely young, making it even less applicable to the present situation.
Instead of letting my reactions happen without any active input, I can choose to decipher someone calling me a jerk in any number of ways. An easy choice is to interpret the experience as a person simply stating an opinion, or taking it a step further, I can choose not to react at all. Sure, I may still “feel” insulted, but my brain would be introduced to a new association, one that contradicts the old, and it would be less likely that I continue to respond negatively over time (as long as I keep actively choosing how to respond). This example describes how a person can take an average situation and turn it into an opportunity to become mindful. It is indeed possible to choose how you interpret information, as long as you are willing to be active in the present moment, instead of yielding to the automatic brain processes that rely on the past. This is a method in the practice of mindfulness that anyone can use, and it is heavily based in the science of learning.