As we’ve discovered in previous posts, meditation is uniquely able to strengthen the communication between our brain’s so-called “relaxation stations.” Focused breathing and body scanning help to quiet the parts of the brain that tend to analyze situations from a self-centered perspective, allowing the more rational and neutral areas to inform our thoughts.
What specifically, then, is happening in a mindful brain that allows it to see stress in a new, dare we say blissful, way? The goal of meditation is not to eliminate stressful situations from our lives – we have no control over when, where and how they will appear – but to instead change our relationship to them. So, assuming all things equal with the particulars of a stressful event, here is how a meditated brain responds to it differently than a brain without the benefit of meditation.
It leans right into that stressor, and in doing so takes the power away from it.
Humans are very good at taking things personally, which means we ascribe great power to many things that are simply out of our control. In our attempt to find meaning behind situations, we turn to the place we know best: our inner selves. Our “Me” centers of the brain work in close concert with our “Fear” centers, and we quickly absorb whatever the original stressor was and put ourselves in the middle of it. The story you create around the event, with you as the main character, is where that knot in your stomach comes from.
Well-practiced meditators still recognize stressful situations. They may even feel anxiety bubbling up. But because mindful brains have practiced quelling the input of the “Me” centers, they’re able to say, “it is what it is” when a stressful situation occurs. Techniques like body scans help us recognize the different ways our bodies react in different situations, and the more consistently we practice meditation the quicker we become at acknowledging that those feelings are happening without judging why they are and trying to fix them.
It hops right into the shoes of others.
How often does wire-crossed communication with other people give you anxiety? It’s a safe bet that our interpersonal connections are often the greatest source of our stress. Again, that’s the self-referential part of our brain doing the bulk of the work. When we take everything personally, we default to defending ourselves and deflecting instead of listening and understanding.
A mindful brain has extremely strong neural bonds between the areas responsible for empathy and recognition of people and situations that are unfamiliar. What this means is, essentially, people who practice regular meditation are mind readers in a way. Or, at least, emotion readers. Mindfulness removes most of the self from a given interaction, which shifts the focus to the other person. Awareness of every little thing, from the intonation of someone else’s voice to the subtleties of their body language, increases – and so does compassion along with it. No longer are social situations cause for anxiety; they’re opportunities to get in the same boat and enjoy more shared experiences.