The human brain is complicated. It can lead to irrational behavior such as yelling at small children about the importance of kindness or creating unnecessary stress by putting off simple tasks.
A lot of our complex, and sometimes confusing, behavior comes from the fact that we have two different systems for perceiving the world and making decisions. We can think of these systems as survival and growth.
The survival system produces strong feelings such as anger and fear that orient our attention when something we value is at risk. It is also where habits are stored. This system associates past behavior with survival. The unconscious control of routine behavior is a huge time and energy saver. This system can make it challenging to change behavior that isn’t working for us.
The growth system evaluates the world according to things we value. It helps us prioritize commitments, goals and relationships. Conscious decision-making allows us to override impulses, but it also requires more time and energy. To make every decision consciously would be exhausting.
We need both of these systems. We know that practicing mindfulness builds the networks that connect these systems in the brain. This allows the two systems to work together — an important foundation for a good life.
Mindfulness is often confused with relaxation or happiness (this is great marketing, but not helpful for learning the skill). In fact, mindfulness is the practice of consciously observing your experience with acceptance. This means that we can be mindful of uncomfortable emotions rather than compulsively trying to avoid them or replace them with more comfortable ones.
Mindfulness is a key component to self-regulation — the ability to align behavior with values. We get important information in the form of emotions and sensations. Mindful self-regulation allows us to observe emotional information without automatically suppressing or indulging it. Then we can compare this information to what we think is most important and choose behavior accordingly.
Having the skill to feel feelings without being controlled by them leads to a lot of clarity and freedom in life. We cannot change the fact that our brains are complicated, but we can build the kinds of connections that allow us to work with it more peacefully and powerfully.
Dave is the CEO of Applied Attention Coach and Consulting and the author of Good Life Practice: A Quick Start Guide to Mindful Self-Regulation. View his TedTalk here.