When I was young, I was in a few amateur performances: musicals, school plays and orchestral concerts.
We would rehearse our parts over and over again and now, twenty years later, I can still sing many of the songs from beginning to and recite many of my lines from the plays end without any trouble.
Now that I have studied what we know about how the brain works and seen much of the research about how neural pathways are formed, I understand that there are little paths etched into my brain from all those rehearsals — so my mind easily slips into those grooves and recalls the content.
What are you rehearsing at the moment?
Whatever our mind goes to is forming those same neural pathways whether we mean to or not. And as neuroscientist Richard Davidson says: neuroplasticity is neutral – junk in, junk out, good stuff in, good stuff out.
Unfortunately, as we know, our brain evolved to protect us from the threat of extinction, so it has a problem focused, negative bias and left to its own devices, you will most likely be unaware that you are “ rehearsing” whatever your attention rests on — problems and threats. Your mental activity is forming neural circuits that make it more likely you will return to that line of thought
So what are you rehearsing?
I realize, on reflection, that this week I have been rehearsing a particular worry about one of my children. My mind has been drifting more and more easily into the groove of going over and over the details of my concern. This is a wolf in sheep’s clothing because at a casual glance this appears to be something useful like making sense of the situation. In reality it is the near cousin of sense making: worry. One of the most memorable quotes from my interview with Craig Hassed from Monash University for Mindfulness4Mothers program was that:
“worry often masquerades as something useful like planning and preparation”
One of the benefits of mindfulness is that it puts us back into the drivers seat — we can move our attention at will from something unhelpful like worry — to something helpful like what we are doing and who we are with right now at this moment.
So rather than rehearsing unhelpful thinking habits, we are able to rehearse helpful ones: ones that build the foundations of well-being, happiness, focus and creative thought.
Athletes use this deliberate practice to rehearse the moves they want to improve. Musicians do this to master complicated works and almost any profession that has some kind of supervised apprenticeship does the same: choosing which moves to rehearse to develop better performance at that task. They learn from experts and they choose where they place their attention.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t really want to develop superior performance in worrying. But that is actually what I am well on the way to doing if I keep up the rehearsals I have been doing this week. I am far more interested in deliberate practice that will support my well-being instead.
Mindfulness is a profoundly helpful antidote for many unhelpful thinking habits like worry, rumination, self criticism and emotional overwhelm. But we have to rehearse it. If instead we allow our mind to rehearse what it is used to, it will go back to that old familiar rut and nothing will change.
And we are more likely to stick to our rehearsal schedule if we bring qualities like self compassion, acceptance, curiosity and a beginners mind to our rehearsals. If we are impatient, critical of our first attempts or think that we already know what this mindfulness idea can and can’t do for us we will probably find ourselves rehearsing our old familiar tunes rather than the ones that will bring us real change. Real health and happiness.
Having expert teachers like these beautiful people has really helped me. I participate in many online and face to face learning opportunities like retreats and guided practices that help me integrate what I am learning into daily life.
“Once a professional reaches an acceptable skill level, more experience does not, by itself, lead to improvements. For example, tennis players will not improve their backhand volley in tennis by playing more games. However, a tennis coach can provide opportunities for [deliberate practice]”
Sometimes a psychologist or qualified mindfulness teacher might be a good coach for you to make the shift from unhelpful thinking habits to helpful ones like mindfulness and self compassion. Having the support and feedback helps you tell the difference between what will build your well-being and what won’t.
Becoming part of an online community like Everyday Mindfulness is also helpful because you are surrounding yourself with people who are on the same journey as you and can not only refine your knowledge and skillfulness, but also support you with compassion as you find your way. Facebook Groups or pages like this this and this are other great places to ask questions, share struggles, read helpful articles and find out about events and online programs that help. These are both natural way to help keep your energy up and stay on track.
Why bother questioning what you are rehearsing? I will leave you with three quotes from my teachers:
“When we start to practice mindfulness we learn that the mind is not so mindful and is not so aware. It is constantly worrying and anticipating and we are often burning a lot of energy just in nervous energy, worrying about how much we have got to do – which of course takes a lot of energy away from being able to do all the things we need to do. If we have a lot on our plate, we need to use our energy and our time simply and as effectively as we can, because if we don’t we will often feel exhausted. If we are doing one thing at a time but we are actually worrying about the other half a dozen things that we’ve still got to do, then we feel like we have done half a dozen days work at the end of the day rather than just one days work.” – Craig Hassed
“Without mindfulness we can easily go on autopilot and the days and years will go by, not caring for ourself or our relationships” – Rick Hanson
“You can’t just wish yourself to be happy. You have to create the conditions for it from the ground up.” – Barbara Fredrickson
May you be well.