What is Mindfulness How it Impacts Your Health and
How to Get Off the Default Setting
Mindfulness: An Intro
To best explain mindfulness let’s start with an example of a day a lot of people can relate to.
Morning time. Alarm goes off. The alarm is jarring as you reach for your phone. Half-awake you scroll through your email and messages and look at what fires you need to stomp out today. You see you have a lunch meeting with a co-worker who wants advice and that is probably not going to be productive, but you already agreed to it. You know you won’t have time to catch up on work in the middle of the day. You think you need to get in and get going and don’t have time to eat and go to the gym, so you skip the gym this morning and hit Starbucks on the way in. After driving through the rain (ugh) and having more trouble getting a parking space than usual, the line for coffee seems infinitely long. You get frustrated because despite everyone in front of you doing something on their phones, not one of them is getting any form of payment ready or pulling up the app on the phone to pay. You grab a coffee and get tempted by the muffin that you have been good this month at saying no to, so you buy it. After eating and drinking in your car on your way to work, you get in and crank through your morning and hit your lunch meeting. Your co-worker is rambling on and you realize that this is taking longer than you thought and you are going to be late for your 1:00. You scramble out at 12:50 and again, there is a line at the valet! The valet finally pulls up the car for the person in front of you and you see he doesn’t tip at all and drives off – What a jerk! Your car is pulled up and you grab your wallet only to find your smallest bill is a $20. With no time to wait for change you say keep it and pull off. Immediately you regret paying $20 to have some park your car 100 feet from a restaurant. Beating yourself up for it, you instinctively reach for a sip of the 5-hour old coffee sitting in your cup holder. Two stop lights away from your office you get cut off by an SUV and you not only don’t make the light but have to slam on your brakes, spilling some coffee on your shirt/blouse. Light turns green and you speed up and catch up to the SUV – a man and his wife talking to each other and not paying attention to you or anyone else on the road. You glare as they attempt to roll down a window. You pull into your office at 1:15, late for your appointment, coffee on your shirt – This is going to be a great afternoon!
Mind on Overload….
Stress and Shortening Healthspan
Anyone been there? This person is stressed, frustrated and undergoing an experience that is not only impacting their happiness but their health.
Stress has been definitely shown to play a causative or worsening role in all of the following diseases:
Skin Diseases: Psoriasis, Eczema
Gut Diseases: Irritable Bowel, Inflammatory Bowel disease, Ulcers, Reflux
Brain: Cognitive/memory decline, depression, anxiety, strokes
Cardiovascular: Heart attacks, High Blood Pressure
Are any of these on your list to prevent? When I wrote in my first blog about the goal of wellness is to prolong healthspan – not necessarily the number of years on the planet but the number of years we feel great and our active – clearly every disease on that list is affecting healthspan. And every one of these is worsened by stress.
As an avid admirer for the beautiful design of the human body and mind– what could possibly be the reason that stress and stress response is in our body/mind in the first place?
Default Mode and Survival Instinct
Our brains/body were not created for the modern world that we currently live in. Our systems were optimized over thousands of years to be hunter gatherers for survival. We would be hungry, go out and hunt and observe not only for prey but for a predator who seeks US as prey. If we found ourselves in a situation where while tracking game, we spot a bear in the trees ahead, an appropriate stress response occurs. Our brains release cortisol to release sugar from our liver and make us more alert as well as sensitive to the flood of adrenaline about to hit us. Epinephrine (adrenaline) is then released by our adrenal glands, increasing our heart rate and pushing more blood and nutrients and that sugar to our muscles and brain to be able to use them acutely. Our pupils narrow, our attention focuses and blood flow in our brain is shifted to an area that plays out threat scenarios and we make a judgement to stand and fight or to flee and survive for another day. We escape and within minutes these hormones are cleared from our system. We realize we are hungry, so we return to our hunt and don’t give another thought to the previous experience.
Our mind and brain were built for this survival instinct in a world that lacked abundance and was filled with life or death threats. The age of abundance is only a few hundred years old. Our bodies and brain have not had the thousands of years to adapt so we are stuck with survival instinct as our default mode.
Built for our ancestral world this system protected our species and is the reason why we are not extinct. In the modern world, it is literally making us unhappy and pre-maturely affecting our health/lifespan – ultimately leading to our individual extinction.
If I offered each of you the latest iPhone for free in exchange for your old one but it came with one condition: You cannot change it from the default mode it comes from the factory with. You cannot add contacts and save them. You can log in to the default browser but can’t save your email login, so you have to reenter it every time. You cannot download an app. Your phone is locked in on default mode. Would you stick with your current optimized phone or take my deal for the default mode locked new one?
Every time you perseverate on that inner conversation in your head with yourself. Every time you worry about the future or think about a regret from the past you are locked into a default mode. We need to get off the default setting and upgrade our minds. The process to do this equivalent to downloading a new app to make our “iPhone mind” work better for our times. That “app” is called mindfulness.
A lot of future posts on this topic will look at different “apps” to keep us off default mode. A short list of these apps includes: Meditation, Prayer, Human interaction/connectedness, Forgiveness and Exercise. They all however have a central tweak to our operating system that is needed to get them to run right. That is understanding and accepting what the mind is.
It is often said the mind is a terrible master but wonderful servant. Our mind has thoughts that float by. As we operate on our default setting our mind chooses to focus on a particular thought. It then not only runs a threat assessment, but often overlays previous thoughts and experiences and ELEVATES the threat. It tells our brain to start the hormone cascade just as if we see a bear in the woods approaching. It begins to forecast (and cause worry) and we lose all sense of physically where we are as a human at that moment.
Realizing that our thoughts are just thoughts. We can’t control them but like clouds floating by when you are sitting peacefully on a beautiful day, we can notice them and let them drift by and focus on the blue sky just beyond.
This level of presence is key to getting these apps to run right and keeping our phone(mind) upgraded for the modern world.
A Day in the Upgraded Life
Hue’s Secret Formula
Morning time. Alarm goes off. Instead of checking your email and messages which will still be there in a few minutes you hit the meditation app on your phone for a few minutes. Feeling peaceful you check your schedule for the day. You see you have a lunch meeting with a co-worker who wants advice and think about how great it is that people seek you out for advice. You think you need to get in and get going and don’t have time to eat and go to the gym, so you try that intermittent fasting thing and skip the Starbucks and hit the gym. Feeling great about yourself for hitting the gym on the way to work you crank through your morning and hit your lunch meeting. Your co-worker is really in bind and it was good that you were there for him/her although lunch took longer than you thought it might and you are going to be late for your 1:00. You scramble out at 12:50 and again and there is a line at the valet. The valet finally pulls up the car for the person in front of you and you see he doesn’t tip at all and drives off – Hmmm…Wonder if that guy is in a bad financial bind and he really needed his $5, you think to yourself. Your car is pulled up and you grab your wallet only to find your smallest bill is a $20. With no time to wait for change you say keep it and pull off. You pause one second in the moment and see the smile and the thanks on the face of the valet and realize you just made his day. While driving you instinctively reach for a sip of the 5-hour old coffee however it isn’t there since you didn’t hit Starbucks. You grab your phone and call your one o’clock and say you’re going to be 15 minutes late – She says that’s actually great; she has had a crazy morning and could use the quiet time to catch up on emails. Two stop lights away from your office you get cut off by an SUV. Light turns green and you speed up and catch up to the SUV – wife rolls down the window and says, “so sorry we are rushing to the hospital, I’m having a baby!”. Happy for them you pull into your office at 1:15, your 1pm is there looking caught up and relaxed with the ability to focus unhurried on what y’all will be discussing – This is going to be a great afternoon!
Last blog we talked about living like HUE. HUE does not operate on the default mode. His mind will go there but he works every day to upgrade himself by using the mindfulness apps to improve his healthspan. Be Like HUE.
P.S. Last post I recommended a deeper dive on this in Mo Gawdat’s “Solve for Happy”. Still highly recommend. If you want a shorter quicker intro to the space I recommend hitting YouTube and listening to one of my favorite author (David Foster Wallace) commencement address in 2005 to Kenyon College. His speech entitled “This is Water” is an epiphany in just 20 minutes.