In her presentation, Colleen talked about topics from what it means to be present to complex concepts such as neuroplasticity.
It’s refreshing to hear about brain science outside of the chronic pain context.
I have written a follow-up post detailing the neuroscience behind the effects of mindfulness practice for chronic pain. If you are interested in the hard science, check out mindfulness for chronic pain.
What is mindfulness?
There are many definitions to what mindfulness actually is. Colleen was succinct in her definition:
Mindfulness is awareness of the present moment, without judgement and interpretation.
That’s it. It’s as simple as that. It’s about paying attention to our “right now”.
One of the things that Colleen highlighted (which we should all be mindful of) is that mindfulness is not about being 100% focused all the time in our everyday life.
That is, it’s okay for humans to be distracted.
The Narrative Circuit
There were also discussions about the narrative circuit. This is a concept that was new to me.
The narrative circuit is about how your mind operates when not much is happening. Say for example as you are sitting on the toilet or when you are waiting for a bus.
It’s called the narrative circuits because they are narratives – not facts – based on the past or the future. If you think about, most of your thoughts when you are not actively thinking of something are based on the past or the future.
You may be thinking of how annoying your friends were to you at dinner yesterday. You may be thinking about what will happen to you if you lose your job tomorrow.
These are stories that you have made up by yourself based on your past or the future. What happened yesterday was your (subjective) perception or experience of reality. It is not actually what happened.
While you remembered your friends annoying you, they may remember themselves as being funny. Perception is not reality.
We tend to be negative to ourselves
According to Colleen (which I am inclined to agree), the narratives we play by default in our mind tend to be negative.
Past-based negative stories:
- Why am I so stupid?
- Why didn’t I just …
- I should have …
As for future-based stories:
- I am going to lose my job
- My partner is going to leave me
You’d have probably also heard of people saying “I am probably going to fall sick” when what they are trying to say was that the room is cold.
These thoughts and feelings encourage stress and anxiety.
To a large extent, I think it’s fair to say that there is no reality. Whatever we consider to be real is our perception of what happened.
Our thoughts of the past are perceptions of what happened rather than an accurate recollection of what happened.
Thinking of the future is also not real because it hasn’t happened. It’s imaginary. They are just illusions!
In summary, our narratives are not real.
Understanding feedback loops
Here is the thing: The more you think of something, the more you will continue to think about that something.
Regardless of whether you want to or not. (Assuming you do nothing to break out of it.)
In suicidal ideation, patients think of dying over and over again. They may go as far as to plan for their own deaths.
Even if the person had no desires to follow through, the brain still continues to think of such thoughts.
This is because the person may have thought of suicide so often that the brain got used to those thoughts.
Now the brain is stuck in a feedback loop. These thoughts and emotions keep coming even if the person has no interest to engage them anymore.
Feedback loops in chronic pain
Our client DY shares about her recovery and how she managed to get her lower back pain/knot to go away. Hint hint: it’s not with massage.
I see a lot of clients with chronic pain who are stuck in feedback loops. These clients often live in pain because they expect their pain to hurt.
“Do you feel any pain as you are seated there?”
A couple of minutes later, when we encourage the client to be in the present moment and to engage in the direct experience of “right now”, their pain may disappear.
In these cases, it’s common to hear the clients sharing that they lived in pain for so long that they didn’t realise they are no longer in pain.
You can change neurochemistry with your thoughts
Some chronic pain patients consider mindfulness to be fluffy and intangible because they think it suggests their pain is not real.
I must clarify that this is a misconception. The pain you are experiencing is very real. We are not trying to discount your pain experience here.
What we are saying is that your brain is powerful and perhaps we can hijack into your mind to help you find freedom from pain.
We see the hard science when we look into how our thoughts influence neurochemistry.
You probably can’t increase your heart rate by commanding it to beat faster. But if you were to imagine yourself in a high stress, scary situation, you can increase your heart rate.
Similarly your heart rate increases when you watch a horror ghost movie. This happens even though you KNOW that you are in fact in a cinema!
Your thoughts matters.
Just thinking negatively or positively shifts the entire neurochemistry of our brain.
Can we live in our direct experience?
Direct experience – the opposite of narrative circuits – is what happens when we are connected in the present moment.
We can use meditation, intentionality, and consciousness to help us focus on our “right now”.
Meditation can be referred to as a process of bringing our attention to moment-to-moment experiences.
While often have religious connotations, it doesn’t need to be. Sam Harris, an atheist, neuroscientist, and philosopher, wrote about how vipassana – a meditation practice with Buddhism roots – can be practised entirely in secular ways.
In clinical practice, secular meditation techniques have been referred to as mindfulness practice. The Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction program (MBSR) is an example of secular mindfulness practice. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor at University of Massachusetts Medical School, developed the program to reduce stress and anxiety, and have been effective used for management of pain management to eating disorders.
In non-clinical setting, guided meditation techniques such as loving-kindness meditation (also with Buddhist roots) are also commonly practised in secular environments. These style of meditations are appropriate for daily life usage.
p.s. Mindfulness practice for 10 mins can drop cortisol levels up to 50%!
An attendee of the lecture, Matthew, pointed out that his mindfulness moment is when he runs.
Yes, you can create your own mindfulness practice to suit your personal beliefs!
N.B. It’s okay if you mind-wander. That’s what our mind does. What we are trying to do here is to cultivate mindful awareness of your present moment – mind-wandering inclusive.
Intentionality & Consciousness
This is when we can take action to rise above our circuit narratives.
Intentionality refers to the purposeful focus of thinking, emotion, action.
Consciousness is about living in the present moment, without attachment to an ego identity
Our thinking is a manifestation of the collective conditioning that we are exposed to culture, religion, language, parenting, education, etc All comes together to create a story about ourselves.
They are just a stories to help us make sense of our world.
Unfortunately, these stories are often negative:
- You are not good enough
- Women cannot be powerful
- Men cannot show emotions
With consciousness, we choose to live in the present moment. That is a direct experience. This mean we breakaway from the circuit narratives and change how we view ourselves in our world based on “right now”. Not the mistakes of our past and the regrets of the future.
We can intentionally reframe our thoughts to break out of our feedback loop.
Mindfulness is a proactive internal process with observable outcomes?
Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychology professor, wanted to know if animals could tell when humans are being mindful.
In a swim-with-dolphins experiment, Ellen tested tourists on their mindfulness levels then timed how long the dolphins would spend interacting with each tourist. The study found that dolphins spent the shortest time with tourists who were tested to be least mindful.
Taking a step further, Ellen worked with dolphin trainers to either exhibit mindful or mindless behaviour. When working with mindful trainers, dolphins swam faster and stayed longer!
While being mindful may be sound like it’s all “in-the-mind”, research seem to suggest otherwise.
Source: On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity by Ellen Langer
Mindfulness Training in Singapore
If you are sold on the importance of being mindful, there are mindfulness workshops available in Singapore for you to attend.
Brahm Centre offers 4-session mindfulness foundation courses at $160 as well as the full 8-week MBSR course (SkillsFuture Credit-eligible). They also have free audio-guided meditation covering mindfulness techniques from body scan to mindful breathing, to help practise mindfulness.
For one-on-one sessions, you may want to consider Jacqueline Leong Yu. Jacqueline holds a Masters in Counselling and a certified mindfulness coach. She is experienced with working with clients with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
I wrote about meditation apps previously and Waking Up is my preferred app. The first five sessions are free.
Applying mindfulness practice to achieve health outcomes
Colleen shared that she once worked with a client who wanted to exercise more. But this client hated exercise.
As part of the reframing process, Colleen encouraged the client to see sweeping the floor as exercise and walking to the car as exercise.
The end result? The client became more receptive to the idea of exercise. Her motivation to exercise increased and she now has overcome her “hatred” towards exercise.
Exercise is an important health behaviour. Current health guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes or moderate-intensity exercise OR 75 minutes or vigorous-intensity exercise PLUS two days of strength-focused training. Yet many people struggle with keeping active.
If you found yourself in a similar I-hate-exercise situation, perhaps being mindful of your circuit narratives and applying a intentionality and consciousness re-framing may just help you get into regular physical activity.
For those of you stuck in a perpetual “my-back-hurts” experience, book in for an appointment with us. I am looking to introduce mindfulness training into my clinical practice. I have written quite extensively about how practising being mindful is an effective pain management strategy.
Book in for a session with us and discover the difference the right care can make. Let me help you find freedom from pain.