Not long ago, I was teaching a workshop called The Opposite of Stress, to a room of Federal Executives. After introducing and practicing three body~mind techniques – centering, Nia, and mindfulness – I led a final guided body scan and invited the participants to focus their attention on sensation.
“Don’t think,” I said. “Just sense.”
At the end, when I asked for questions, one exasperated-looking man looked at me steadily and said, “Why in the world would I want to stop thinking?”
Ah. Why indeed?
The Opposite of Stress is a workshop that Bev Wann and I have developed over the past several years targeted at stressed business people who desperately need the benefits of body~mind practices and yet may not have encountered them in their traditional work environments. Our presentation has evolved over the years to include not just information about the benefits of these practices and experiences of them, but more information about WHY the practices work.*
My own body~mind practices have had such inherent and practical benefits, that I have never thought to ask the question “Why would I want to stop thinking?” I know from experience that when I focus on sensation and really deeply listen to the sensations in my body, that I have more resources, more patience, more space for dealing with any situation, even stressful. Teaching this workshop has helped me learn more about the neuroscience behind somatic attention that is both fascinating and helpful especially when communicating to those who have not yet experienced and may not yet be convinced of the benefits of the practices.
Further study of the neuroscience of somatic attention and contemplative practices is part of what I will be doing on my sabbatical this summer. My early explorations into the topic begin to reveal how neurological functions produce the effects I have experienced and why “not thinking” actually helps us respond better.
The very basics are that there are two competing systems of the brain: the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system is the “fight or flight” system and the prefrontal cortex is associated with reasoning, planning, and problem solving. When we are under stress, the limbic system kicks in and gives us the rush of adrenaline that keeps us alert to danger. When we are relaxed, the prefrontal cortex is able to work its problem-solving powers. While some stress is actually good for the nervous system, if we spend a preponderance of our time under real (or imagined) stress, we are actually cutting ourselves off from the resources of the prefrontal cortex.
So what does this have to do with attention to sensation and mindfulness? The neuroscience shows that the part of the brain that is associated with sensing physical sensation is the lateral prefrontal network. By listening deeply to sensation, the details of sensation as they are happening, we are literally training the brain to function from the cognitive center that allows us to reason clearly and solve problems.
Over and over again, research shows that mindfulness preserves working memory (like where you left your keys), enhances attention, reduces rumination (the mental churning about events that have happened in the past or will happen in the future), reduces the risk of depression, improves immune function and an array of other positive things. In some ways, then, attending a Nia class (or doing any mindful movement) trains both your physical body and your brain! By allowing my attention to stay with the details of physical sensation, I am actually able to use more of my brain to make better decisions, stay more grounded, and build stronger relationships. Hence: don’t think, just sense.
I’m not sure I was able to convince the skeptical executive about why it’s a good idea not to think. (I think maybe the combination of my daisy pants, The Chaos Walk, and a dose of the Harris Teeter Dance, may have compromised his confidence in my authority.) With Bev’s help and some excellent resources (like Rick Hanson’s work), I’m learning more about the science of these ancient body~mind practices as well as the practical constraints of someone working in a high pressure, high stress situation. Even with my fumbling, the experiences our Opposite of Stress participants have of deeper calm, greater resilience and clearer presence, speak volumes. I hope you’ll join me this week – either in Nia class or in taking some time to deeply listen to what is happening in your body – and really engage your whole brain.
*We are excited about how well The Opposite of Stress has been received by busy leaders in stressful positions and the research continues to mount about the physical, emotional and neurological benefits of “not thinking”! This work is not just for federal execs: Bev and I are offering a weekend workshop on The Opposite of Stress from September 7-9!