First, mindfulness is learning a specific way to pay attention. It’s learning to cultivate attention in a friendly, loving, non-judgmental, compassionate and impartial manner. By learning to hold the present moment in this way we’re able to see how much of our suffering is made by our minds reaction towards what is happening. We are able to differentiate between our stories of what we think is going on and the reality of what’s actually happening in the present moment.
An example of this is when you stub your toe, there is the physical pain of the stubbed toe and additionally layered on top, there may be negative self-talk for feeling stupid or clumsy for stubbing your toe in the first place. That mental pain can be bigger and actually cause more suffering then the initial pain of the physical stubbing. Mindfulness training teaches you see the difference between the two.
Mindfulness also allows you to see your habitual habits and patterns. You need to know what you’re doing before you can change it. This sounds obvious but our habits are rooted deeply in our brains. A stimulus occurs, neurons fire, and we act. When our neurons fire they create grooves in our brains. Without awareness we default to our habitual behaviors as a result. Often we find that just watching your behavior changes it. If you put something new into an equation the sum is different. The “new” in this case is the friendly observing. That awareness changes your experience.
How is mindfulness taught?
Mindfulness is mostly taught in group settings. The reason for group teaching is that it allows people to experience our common humanity. In our day-to-day lives, we often feel like what we going through is only happening to us. We become very identified with different roles and identities we take on and as a result we become the central focus of our world. Mindfulness training teaches you to zoom out and see a bigger picture. It’s our nature to get caught up in how we think things should be or how we think we should be acting or what we think we should be doing. We can believe that everyone else is doing whatever, better then we are, or we can judge and believe whatever we’re doing is better then how others are doing it. Either way, we’re creating separation from others. We begin to see how interconnected and interdependent we are and the illusion of self becomes less solid. We’re also training ourselves to notice how things appear and pass away on their own without us having to do anything. It can be as simple as the awareness of how our breath rises and falls on its own The result allows us to hold whatever is happening, good, bad or neutral, in a lighter, less personal way. Mindfulness also helps you to realize that you’re not your thoughts and you don’t have to believe them.
What mindfulness is not?
There are a lot of misconceptions around meditation and mindfulness. Meditation is not stopping your thoughts or your emotions. Mindfulness is not a relaxation technique. It’s not an experience enhancer. It’s not a tool to get rid of what you don’t like in your life. It’s not a religion. It’s not an escape mechanism. It doesn’t result in disassociating from your life.
What is meditation?
Meditation consists of both a formal and informal practice. First of all you don’t have to sit crossed-legged on a cushion, you don’t have to chant or burn incense. Any body posture is fine, you want to be comfortable and alert. In our crazy busy world, there is something grounding and centering about just paying attention to something simple that is happening in this moment, like your bottom on the chair or your feet on the floor or just feeling one breath. We know from experience that meditation works and we’re getting a lot of support from scientific research around not only mood changes and quality of life but also around actual measureable changes in brain circuits.
Everything grows with repetition and the same is true for your brain. In neuroscience, there is a lot of talk about neuroplasticity, which says that our neural pathways and synapses have the ability to change. Just like your muscles when you go to the gym, you actually have to workout, lift weights, do cardio and eat the right food in order to change your body. The same is true for meditation. The act of meditation changes your brain circuits and changes your emotional patterns. These changes don’t happen by intellectually understanding how meditation works but by actually doing it. It’s experiential. Its something you have to do in order to benefit from.
Can mindfulness change behaviors and mental patterns?
When we’re looking at changing behavioral and mental patterns, mindfulness can bring in the space that allows you to see your choices so you’re able change your patterns. The observation is an additional action, which automatically changes the way your neurons fire even if you choose the default behavior. Neurologist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Mark Koberg teaches mindfulness in the Los Angeles area through InsightLA and the University of Southern California. He's completed the MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) teacher training practicum through InsightLA and the University of Massachussets Center for Mindfulness. He's also part of the InsightLA teacher development group and is currently participating in InsightLA’s facilitator training program. Mark has a dedicated daily practice, attends retreats at Spirit Rock, has blogged for The Huffington Post, and has appeared on national television talking about his experience with mindfulness. Mark has also produced a series of mindfulness training videos for InsightLA and the Greater LA VA that are being used nationally to train clinicians and veterans.
In addition, Mark is an adjunct lecturer at USC in the School of Cinematic Arts, Media Arts + Practice division where he teaches digital media and mindfulness. He's an Emmy nominated television producer. His twenty year TV career spans producing, developing, and launching national shows and digital content for Telepictures, King World, Tribune, ABC Daytime, 20th Television (FOX), Debmar Mercury, ITV, Harpo Productions and Lifetime TV. Most recently, Mark created, sold and will be c0-executive producing a docu-reality series for Oxygen that will be premiering late 2016. Click here for a list of Mark's credits.