This Is Your Brain on Mindfulness

My greatest core fear is that I am alone, and this issue has repeatedly come back to haunt me through the various challenges in my life. When I was a child, my father was an orthopedic surgeon and he worked a lot. He was a great man who was extremely loyal and dedicated to my mom and our family, and he worked hard to make sure that my siblings and I had every opportunity in life, but he wasn’t the type to talk about feelings or get emotional. Even when he was home, he constantly kept busy because that was his way. However, when I was a kid I felt emotionally abandoned by him because I wanted a father who would take the time to talk to me about my experiences and feelings and that was not his gift. I would only get the attention I craved from him when we were working together on some household chore or on some project. This dynamic among other things fed into the fears of my narrative or life story that I was alone and that I was just not good enough to deserve his time and attention.  

In the last few years of his life, my father had dementia which got worse as time progressed and for a while I was his primary caretaker when he was in an assisted living facility near my home. I would go to visit him and he would be shuffling his papers working on his bills as he would tell me. My brother had taken over the responsibility for his finances long before, but he still needed to do something to keep himself busy. I would ask him to come with me to go do something and he would say, “Sorry, Steve, but I’m just too busy.” He literally had nothing to do, but he still didn’t have time for me. This was the story of my life with my dad, but by this point I knew his issues had nothing to do with me, and I simply felt compassion for his pain and his inner emotional struggles that I had never understood as a child. 

Before this, I had often taken my father’s constant busyness personally, but here the life lesson was so clear: My value as a human being is not defined or limited by my father's emotional issues. His struggles were not my fault and the emotional walls I felt with my dad didn’t mean anything about me, personally. My dad was a good man who had some issues just like the rest of us on this planet and it wasn’t my fault. This mental shift freed me up from the drama of the narrative of my life story about being alone, so I could finally feel love for him and compassion for his emotional struggles instead of hurt and anger because he was not who I wanted him to be.

This lesson may seem so simple and so clear now, but over the years as I have worked on owning and releasing my narrative of being alone and being not good enough it was not clear at all. Even though I intellectually realized these fears were simply not true, learning how to release this fear-based thinking and embody the truth of my love for my father and others has taken years of practice in being more mindful of my thoughts and choices and my perspective on any life situation. Even today, maintaining this daily mindfulness is a process with continuing challenges where I often miss the mark.

However, as I continue to practice being true to my Authentic Self to the best of my ability, and as I continue to practice being mindful in every interaction in my life, over time I do get better at staying centered in the face of life challenges and I get better at being more present and tuned into making a difference for the needs of the current situation instead of having my consciousness hijacked by the ghosts of my past.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Penn Program for Mindfulness have done a series of MRI brain scans and studies looking at the effects of meditation and mindfulness. They conclude that in different regions of the brain one distinct neural network is involved in the present moment experience of sensations and emotions and another neural network is involved in the narrative or descriptive thoughts about our experience and how we interpret our experiences. They show that in as little as eight weeks, meditation and mindfulness practices "enhances the ability to disconnect these two regions" so that people can better focus on their experience rather than allow their narrative or story about the experience to cloud their judgement. So for example, in the past my narrative about my dad being uncaring and myself as being alone clouded my judgement, but through practice I was able to disconnect my experience of my father from my narrative or story about him being uncaring and about myself being alone so I could experience love and compassion instead of anger and blame. The research article is titled "This is Your Brain on Mindfulness" and the link to the research article is below. [1]

The bottom line is this: YOU DON'T HAVE TO SACRIFICE YOUR HAPPINESS FOR ANYTHING! You can use whatever happens in your life for growth and healing or you can let the fear-based narrative of your life story run your life. When your negative emotions are triggered by life challenges, you can self reflect and use the moment to face and release your fears. You can disconnect your experience from your life narrative about your experience or you can allow your fears to take over and you can become more bitter. Your choice. Whether or not you continue to center yourself on the present moment or whether you give into the fears of the narrative of your life story is your choice alone. This doesn’t mean that there are not difficult struggles, but it does mean that the primary challenge in life is to face and release the fears of your narrative when life happens and to stay centered and present in the moment so you can bring the best of yourself to any given situation.  

You can listen to other’s feedback and seek for wisdom, but you don’t have to take other’s actions or words personally and you don’t have to let the fears of the narrative inside your psyche define your reality. You have a choice not only in how you react to any life challenge, but you have a choice in how you perceive and interpret the people or situation in front of you. (For example, I can interpret my father's actions as meaning that he doesn't care, or I can recognize the ego-based fears and look past his emotional issues to the loving father who wants nothing but the best for me. My choice.) How you interpret your experiences determines your happiness and your ability to respond in a healthy manner so that you can make a positive difference in any situation.  

So here's some concrete suggestions to help you practice these principles to improve your life. 

  1. Have a daily meditation practice where you clear your mind of all your daily concerns and find the joy of the stillness within. 
  2. Throughout your day, self-reflect when your negative emotions are triggered by life events and become the observer of your own awareness so you can create the habit of unplugging from your fears before they hijack your awareness. 
  3. Become more aware of the emotions and sensations of your present experience by allowing yourself to disconnect from the fears of your ego narrative or life story.  This is the practice mindfulness in the course of your daily life that can help you to be more effective in dealing with life's challenges. 
  4. Take every opportunity to savor the joy of being alive. 


You can do this. Be well. 


Steven Fisher 


This is Your Brain on Mindfulness, Shambhala Sun, July 2011.