Mindfulness has well-documented benefits, but it is only part of the picture; compassion is the missing link that helps to manage our "tricky brain".
Mindfulness has exploded in popularity over the last 10 years, and for good reason. Some of the benefits of mindfulness include:
Helps manage chronic pain
Supports immune function
Improves sleep quality
What you may not know, however, is that mindfulness is only part of the picture, and this is due to the evolution of the brain.
You see, we all have an ‘older brain’, which developed around 150 million years ago, and a ‘newer brain’ that developed around 2 million years ago, and it is the interaction between these two parts of the brain that has caused it to become “tricky”.
The limbic system - the older part of the brain, involves our behavioural and emotional responses, especially when it comes to behaviours we need for survival: feeding, reproduction and caring for our young, and fight or flight responses.
While the newer brain, involves a range of advanced cognitive abilities for behaviours such as ruminating, anticipating, and imagining.
These advanced abilities can cause major issues when they interact with the older parts of the brain, and as such, research suggests that our evolved brain can be easily triggered into behaviours such as worrying and anxiety, which are linked to high levels of stress hormones.
Over time, chronic stress can impact our health by influencing levels of inflammation, disrupting blood sugar stability, and contributing to the dysregulation of immune function - all of which are crucial factors in managing autoimmunity,
This interaction between the older brain and newer brain is called our “tricky brain”.
If you are interested to learn more about how the "tricky brain" can negatively impact our health, read my last blog post The Power of Compassion in Autoimmunity. I also highly recommend reading Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers or you can watch this lecture by the same author.
What can be done to help protect us from falling prey to the pitfalls of our “tricky brains”?
We can develop a practice that cultivates both mindfulness and compassion, as a way to work with our human 'tricky brain' rather than allow it to run rampant.
Tara Brach describes mindfulness and compassion as the two interdependent wings of a great bird. They work together, in unison.
She describes mindfulness as the quality of awareness that recognises exactly what is happening in our moment-to-moment experience. We can recognise our experience without trying to manage it in any way, without pulling away. We are willing to be with whatever arises, and because we are not meddling with our experience, mindfulness allows us to see life “as it is.”
The second, often neglected wing, compassion, is our capacity to relate in a tender and sympathetic way to what we perceive. Instead of resisting our feelings, we embrace our pain with kindness and understanding.
The two wings of mindfulness and compassion are inseparable; both are essential in protecting us from the pitfalls of our “tricky brain”. They work together, mutually reinforcing each other.
Brach highlights that if we were to utilise only the wing of mindfulness, we might be clearly aware of painful emotions; we might clearly see the stories we are telling ourselves (e.g. that we are a victim, that we will always be alone). But, we might also compound our suffering by feeling angry with ourselves for getting into the situation in the first place.
This is where the wing of compassion joins with mindfulness to create a genuinely healing presence. Instead of pushing away or judging our anger or despondency, compassion enables us to be softly and kindly present with our pain.
For example, in a time of suffering, being mindfully present of what is going on, and saying to yourself:
This is a moment of pain.
I'm so sorry you're going through this.
Everyone feels like this sometimes, it's ok not be ok.
I'm here for you, and I'm not leaving.
You can pair this with gently stroking your arms, or finding a comfortable position that feels safe and soothing.
Ultimately, both wings together help us remain in the experience of the moment, just as it is, rather than being judged by or getting swept away with our “tricky brain”.
Hi I'm Molly, I'm a UK-based Nutritional Therapist (DipION, mBANT, CNHC) and Self-Compassion Coach (MSc) serving my community in Harpenden and online. Here in my little online home, you'll discover the benefits of nutritional therapy and complementary therapies for autoimmune disease and chronic illness.
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