Hannah Frahm is a dual-qualified Scottish-German solicitor working with Brodies LLP's Brexit team. She also teaches mindfulness and meditation at the Grassmarket Community Project in Edinburgh.
To borrow a much (over-) used phrase of contemporary British history, we need to take back control. Of what, you ask? Of our minds. As Paulo Coelho says: “You have two choices: to control your mind or to let your mind control you.” One effective way of achieving control is to practice mindfulness.
But why is "taking control" of your mind so important?
Your brain is a grouch
It is suggested that the average human can have up to 80,000 thoughts per day (this includes emotions, mental states etc.). Although the exact numbers vary in different sources, the message is the same: your brain thinks. A lot. As a busy professional, you don't need a study to tell you that. Just re-run the last few minutes before you began this article. It probably goes something like this: “OK, let’s focus on this legal question. – [legal thoughts] – Why is the internet so slow? [annoyed feelings] – Will I make the deadline? [worried/anxious feelings] – Shall I get a coffee while this is loading? – Nae, I shouldn’t drink so much coffee and it's raining again [frustrated feelings about the weather]. – This whole health hype is annoying, really [thinking about coffee] - Oh, internet’s working again. – Oh no, not another Brexit update.” You get the picture.
It is also suggested that a large proportion (possibly up to 80%) of these thoughts are either negative or unhelpful. Again, you probably don't need to be told. This tendency to negativity is often called the “negativity bias” and we have all experienced its effects: A good and successful day can be ruined by a single ill-placed word; the memory of an unpleasant event, even as far back as nursery, can easily stay with you forever while you hardly remember all the positive experiences that you've also had. We easily let ourselves be drawn into negative and stressful thinking because our brains are just built with a sensitivity to unpleasant events (from an evolutionary point of view, it makes absolute sense to focus on "unpleasant" ie, potentially life-threatening events).
Your brain is a creature of habit
Not only are the majority of your daily thoughts (mental states, feelings etc.) thought to be either negative or unhelpful, they might also be the same ones that you had the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that. Some even suggest that up to 95% (!) of the brain's daily activity is repetitive.
Why is that? Our brain works best with patterns. They are energy-saving. It is easy to follow the same neural paths every day instead of deciding moment for moment how to feel / what to think / how to react. This is how healthy habits but also negative thought patterns (eg, "I am not good enough") and behaviours (e.g. substance misuse) are formed.
Most of your brain activity runs on "auto pilot"
Mindfulness can be defined as the ability to know what is happening in your mind at any given moment without getting carried away by it. Although this might sound straightforward, it can be very difficult to maintain. Most of us spend too much time on "auto pilot".
Imagine driving to work and seeing another person take your right of way or your parking space; an uncomfortable confrontation with another parent at school; someone being rude to you on the bus; a fast approaching deadline; even just browsing those ubiquitous social media entries suggesting that everybody else is living the dream. Chances are high that you will immediately engage with these situations internally (if not externally).
Dr Paul Gilbert, a clinical psychologist, proposes that all brain activity can be placed into one of three emotional regulation systems: threat – thrive – soothe. The threat and self-protection system is responsible for what we could call a "stressed" mindset (in the form of negative stress, anxiety, envy, worry, fear, anger and irritation etc.). The threat system kicks in automatically in situations like those above ("attacking tigers", if you look at it from an evolutionary point of view). Our body releases adrenaline and cortisol, our heart rates increase, and we “see red”. It can be very difficult to get out of this "stressed mindset" (hello, negativity bias).
If we spend too much of our time in the "red zone" we risk compromising the quality of our health, relationships, productivity and overall well-being. From an evolutionary point of view our brains are wired to prioritise the "red zone": it is most relevant to our immediate survival. However, the under-development of the soothing system (oxytocin, high feelings of peace, safety, relaxation, happiness and connection) is the root cause for distress and many mental health problems like depression and anxiety.
So, what can mindfulness do?
Control your mind or your mind controls you: the lion's share of our brain's daily activity may not only be negative, but also the repetitive and habitual patters of our brains on "auto pilot". This is pretty scary when you think about it.
But we have the ability and the tools to "take back control" and not let our mind be polluted by unnecessary negativity which can put us at risk of constant stress or, worst case, mental health problems. We can strengthen our ability to become aware of what is happening in our minds and then wisely control our response to it and even decide not to engage with it. Like everything worth doing, this (mindfulness) takes practice.
Companies too are seeing more and more the benefits of mindfulness and meditation for the well-being and productivity of their employees and are finding ways to implement it (for example, Dentons has recently appointed tax partner Karina Furga-Dabrowska as European Chief Mindfulness Officer).
In today’s busy world it is becoming more and more important to take back control of our thoughts, feelings and emotions. The quality of our internal communication, ie, of our thoughts, emotions, and the ways we talk to ourselves, determines the quality of our external communication, i.e., our relationships with others, our performance at work, our ability to focus. It also affects our overall health and well-being. The well-known phrase coined by French philosopher René Descartes, “I think, therefore I am” could well be re-phrased to “I think better, therefore I am better”.
Please feel free to contact me with any questions or comments. If you'd like to learn more about the benefits of mindfulness, the Mindfulness Association offers an introductory eight-week course on Mindfulness Based Living Course (evening classes available).
You might also want to re-read Tim Taylor’s article on how to become a mindful lawyer, 10 minutes at a time.