April 21, 2020
The Healthful Nature of Mindfulness
By: Valerie Driscoll, Apollo Health’s Lead Coach and Coaching Program Developer
“When you are not being driven by old habits, a world of possibility opens up.” — mindfulness teacher, Sharon Salzberg
The Apollo Health Coaching team is just finishing up Beta 1 of the 6-month ReVERSE+ Program. For those not familiar with the program, it is a 6-month deep dive into resources and strategies that help incorporate the Bredesen Protocol into your life. We consider it to be a “habit-change accountability support program.” During our last session, we asked for program feedback; interestingly, the benefits of mindfulness for the participants was a frequent response. Co-developer Chris Coward and I were thrilled, as we dedicated two sessions of our 14-session program to mindfulness topics. We both know how powerful incorporating mindfulness is in moving toward consistent and sustainable change. However, we also realize the skepticism of the practice, especially among Type A “doers,” which accounts for a good percentage of our participants.
So why Mindfulness?
Mindfulness has become a trendy topic right now, and for a good reason: an increasingly robust amount of research indicates the healthful effects mindfulness has on many mental and physical health conditions, from depression to blood pressure regulation.
For most non-practitioners, mindfulness is synonymous with stress management. Whenever I teach a mindfulness class to beginners, feedback after leading an initial meditation is generally comments like, “relaxed,” “calm,” “peaceful.” I know, some of these students are giving me the answers they think I want to hear. I did the same thing during my first class, despite my true inner experience sounding more like, “I am not doing this right! This won’t work! How much longer? When is lunch?”
More accurate synonyms for mindfulness are “awareness” or
“noticing.” This is what mindfulness cultivates in the practitioner: another
way of noticing and being aware in the present moment. Added to this (and this
is a big add), is doing it without judgment and with equanimity. As we teach in
our ReVERSE+ program, when you cultivate awareness through noticing what is
going on in your mind, at this particular moment, and you
become curious about those goings-on instead of judging them, all kinds of
interesting things happen.
Many of these interesting things will be extremely beneficial to anyone trying to create a significant lifestyle change. To reap the full benefits of mindfulness, however, we must expand our definition and understanding beyond that of stress management.
Let’s focus on four key areas where mindfulness practice can help you in your Bredesen Protocol Journey.
1. Mindfulness allows us to be an observer of our thoughts, rather than being caught up in them.
A great metaphor from author Tim Ferris describes his pre-mindful brain as similar to being stuck in a front-loading washer, tumbled around, disoriented, and unable to get any perspective, caught up in all the dirty laundry. His post-mindfulness training brain, however, allows him to get out of the washer, shut the door, and look in. It does not mean that the dirty laundry is gone or still isn’t tossing around, but he can now observe it and relate to it all in a different way. As observers, we can have a different relationship to our thoughts. We are perhaps deciding which thoughts are beneficial to pay attention to in this moment, and which maybe not so much. When we practice looking at our thoughts from the outside-in, with equanimity, it can completely shift our perspective.
2. Mindfulness teaches us to be responsive rather than reactive.
The practice literally rewires the brain to take time; rather than to engage in a knee-jerk reaction. It creates space between a trigger and how we choose to respond to that trigger. Creating this mental space gives us the ability to create thoughtful action, and who among us does not need a little more of that? This extra time allows us to make better choices. With practice, this creation of space becomes the new norm.
3. Mindfulness allows us to sit with discomfort without acting on it.
Is your image of meditation monks sitting cross-legged for hours through all kinds of physical discomfort? Thankfully, mindfulness meditation does not require this much knee pain to be effective. Even sitting for five to ten minutes will create plenty of physical and mental discomfort: “I don’t have time for this! I cannot sit still for this long. I need to start dinner! My nose itches! I want to call my son! I want to get up!” When you choose, on purpose, to notice this discomfort and sit through it anyway, you are training your mind to recognize the discomfort of old habits that want to be acted upon, acknowledge them, and purposefully choose the new behavior you are trying to instill.
4. Mindfulness cultivates curiosity rather than judgment.
Our brains are wired for judgment. It was a requirement for survival (and still is), yet it does not always serve us well. As we learn through practice to treat our thoughts as neither good nor bad, we begin to cultivate curiosity around them: “Where are they coming from? How has this way of thinking served me in the past? How has it not? What are the other options?” Being curious in this way allows us to create a mindset of growth in which we can thrive as we adopt the Bredesen Protocol.
So now that you have had a quick theoretical overview, here is a real-life example of how adopting mindfulness as a resource in the Bredesen Protocol might show up in real life: imagine a server placing a basket of fresh, warm, fragrant bread on the table in front of you.
You immediately notice the feeling of wanting the bread. Maybe it is a tightening in the belly, but because you now know how to sit with that feeling a little bit, you may notice that it isn’t really as big or nagging a feeling as it seemed to be 20 seconds ago. You also hear some familiar thoughts coming up: “I love bread! I can’t even have bread anymore! Why is this happening to me?” But now, you view these thoughts with a sense of equanimity. They are neither good or bad, nor are you good or bad for having them. Instead, they are just the usual dirty laundry. You can step back from them and perhaps become curious as to how you might be able to respond to these thoughts in a new way. Through the practice, you have also created space, which gives you time to remember why you want to stay in ketosis for your brain health more than you want the bread. Result of all of this? No bread.
Is this process always perfect? No. This is why we call it a practice. But it does work, and the more you do it, the more you create stronger neural pathways that support this new way of being. These new habits become increasingly quick, painless, and automatic.
Our ReVERSE+ Program teaches mindfulness, among other resources, as a way to replace grit and willpower with habit -change skills. The result is a more exciting and sustainable path toward Bredesen Protocol success. Questions about the ReVERSE+ Program? Send an email to Chris Coward at firstname.lastname@example.org.