Skills vs Pills: Mindfulness, Trauma and Willpower
... or how your lack of attention created your uncomfortable (and painful) state of being
First of all, let’s make this clear: mindfulness in NOT some kind of religion, sect or cult. To be honest, it makes me laugh when I hear it.
The act of focusing attention is actually a very important biological process designed to cultivate a healthy and balanced way of living our lives – both internally and externally.
Introspection, mindfulness and focused attention are the key elements that make neuroplasticity possible. Paying attention not only ensures we don’t walk into traffic on a busy street, but it also promotes the growth of new connections in our brains among existing neurons and even the growth of new neurons, which is called neurogenesis.
But, you may ask, why is it so difficult to pay attention? The answer lies in the modern society, which has been described by some authors as the “deficit attention society”. Our attention wanders without knowing where to focus: social media, news, ads… our attention is constantly moving from one place to the other without having any conscious control. We incrementally are losing our capacity to pay attention, and with it we are losing our will – our ability to make the best choices.
Attention and Will? What have attention and will to do with the other, you may ask again? Well, paying attention is a volitional act. Volition is really nothing other than voluntary attention. The Will acts through directed attention, that magnifies, stabilizes, clarifies and gives prominence to a thought upon many other thoughts. According to functional magnetic resonance imaging, neurons that respond to an objective that attracts our attention are more strongly activated that those activated in response to distraction. The act of paying attention physically counteracts the suppressive influences from nearby distractions, and the Will is the virtue that enables this transformation.
Volitional effort is the effort of attention… the effort of attention is, therefore, the essential phenomenon of will.William James
When we make use of our will to focus our attention to an object and keep it clear and strong in the mind, we let everything dissolve as stars that fade before the blinding sunlight. You can imagine now why mindfulness is so important in this tremendous shift that mainstream clinical psychology is experimenting: we are starting to realize that we must help the patient develop skills of focusing attention and managing reaction to what arises in their internal experience in each moment.
If you think of it, every trauma is basically a mental fixation, and therapists will try to treat it by helping the patient moving and/or shifting the state of attention. Unfortunately, many therapists don’t know how to do it properly and the patient ends up swallowing pills instead of learning new skills.
When the attention is fixed on something that happened, every time a stimulus appears, our brain relates it to the remembered traumatic experience. We have focused our attention in the past event for such a long time that the brain understands that this is actually what we want, and in order to make it easier for us, it tends to move our attention there over and over again. As we said, “paying attention promotes the growth of new connections among existing neurons and even the growth of new neurons”. When you pay attention to all these meaningless thoughts and you lose your ability to manage your attention, you are basically commanding your brain to build the undesirable circuitry that will keep you fixated on those thoughts. Where attention goes, neurons instantly respond. So, I will say it again: you lose control over your attention, you lose your will and your ability to choose how you occur in each moment.
Attention is everything. Every time we pay attention, we are sculpting our brains. This is what is called self-directed neuroplasticity. The brain responds to the state and the focus of our attention. Are you wondering why you can’t “escape” from all those overwhelming thoughts that hit you over and over again, without you having any control over it? The answer, according to neuroscience, is categorical: you created this situation by losing your capacity to control you attention. Maybe it’s time to take your power back, and mindfulness is the answer you are looking for.
We humans have the capacity to learn how to focus our attention and manage our reaction to our experiences and skillfully shape our lives and our brains. This is what we teach in our mindfulness programs, with a strong focus on modern neuroscience. You want a better quality of life? Let’s start with the basics. Let’s start with your attention and your will.
About the author
Jorge Benito is co-author of the book “Healing Education: Science and Consciousness of the New Educational Paradigm”. His wide experience in the field of artistic creation, including theatre, writing, illustration and design, led him to become Development Director of Escuela Caracol, an intercultural Waldorf school located in San Marcos La Laguna, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
An experienced meditator, neuroscience student (HarvardX – Harvard online training), facilitator of diverse mindfulness programs, writer and independent scientific researcher, Jorge is a team member of Mindfulness Exercises and the creator and director of the Mindful Education Program (MEP).
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