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  • Reduce Rumination and Increase Positive States Through Neuro-Learning

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June 15, 2022

Sometimes we all have days when we spend much of our mental energy on everything other than what’s in front of us now. We get anxious about tomorrow, replay a situation that happened yesterday, or worry about what other people may think of us if we do or say something that’s on our hearts. This tendency to ruminate on anything but the present moment is absolutely normal. 

Your brain wants to protect you from experiences that caused pain in the past. Yet in the meantime, without deliberate awareness of what your mind is doing, you may be missing out on the precious moments happening right in front of your eyes. 

So is it possible to use mindfulness to not only reduce mind-wandering but also amplify your learning in any area of life that you want to improve? Can you train your brain to experience positive states like joy, happiness, gratitude, or compassion more consistently just by sitting quietly with your mind…even if it’s only for three minutes a day?

To address these and other fascinating questions, Dr. Rick Hansons blends the wisdom of neuroscience and mindfulness practices. He shares his science-backed guidance on training your brain on Mindfulness Exercises’ podcast episode on Neuro-Learning and Amplifying Our Meditation Practice

Below we expand on Dr. Hanson’s insights from this podcast to help you address ruminating thoughts and experience more positive states like joy, happiness, and gratitude more consistently through a deeper experience of mindfulness.

rumination, Reduce Rumination and Increase Positive States Through Neuro-Learning

What is rumination and how does it pull you away from the present?

Research shows that in the absence of a task to focus on, our mind naturally tends to wander. And while thoughts are a normal activity of the mind, there is a point at which too much mind-wandering can become a source of suffering. Rumination is when your mind wanders in a way that always focuses on the worst-case scenario so that you can never feel fully calm and present. 

Neuroscience can help explain why rumination is so common. As part of your biological survival mechanism, your brain is always preparing to face the next potential threat. It does this by looking at the present moment through the lens of your past experiences and conceptual knowledge. 

Your brain can project painful memories or fears from the past into your ideas about the future. You get stuck in a state of mental time-travel where you’re never fully present, which can often lead to stress, anxiety, or depression.

rumination, Reduce Rumination and Increase Positive States Through Neuro-Learning

Reducing mental chatter by taking your focus off the concept of “self”

There’s a region in your brain, the midline cortex, that is mainly responsible for planning and task execution. And while it can help you achieve your biggest dreams, it can also be a source of over-thinking and rumination – especially when there’s too much focus is on the concept of your “self.” 

Ancient wisdom traditions often talk about there not being an individual “self.” Rather, everything is seen as part of one large whole, of which we perceive parts by where we place our attention. The more neuroscience looks into the structures of the brain, the more it shows that there is no one place where our concept of “self” exists.

rumination, Reduce Rumination and Increase Positive States Through Neuro-Learning

When people are engaged in self-referential activity, or they have a strong sense of ‘I’ or they’re describing themselves in some way, activations occur throughout the brain. There’s no place in the brain that does self, which is really interesting.

- Dr. Rick Hanson -

Mindfulness can help you get beyond ruminating on your worries

The more present you become, the more you light up various regions of the brain, allowing your brain to function in a more coherent manner. As your brain becomes more open to data other than your personal fears and worries, it starts to see opportunities for new ways to learn and grow. These opportunities can often be the solution to perceived problems or challenges in your life.

As Dr. Hanson points out in this Mindfulness Exercises’ podcast episode, “what we think of as the self is continually constructed. What we can find in the brain is more akin to a self that is compounded, impermanent, and independently arising.”

Knowing that there is no “self” in your mind to overcome can be a great source of relief. As you practice mindfulness, you simply settle into what is present. You can then more easily accept whatever shows up in the mind without judgment and without tying it back to an idea of yourself. 

So if you ever struggle with yourself as you meditate, remember that even the concept of self is still simply a concept in the mind. You can observe it, notice it, witness it. But you are not it.

How to transform positive states into permanent traits

To heal, learn, or grow, you must be able to take positive short-term experiences (states) and translate them into longer-term character traits or habits. Mindfulness can help you do this by cultivating positive states of being – whether that’s happiness, joy, compassion, courage, gratitude or any other feeling you’d like to experience more in your life.

Ever wonder why good experiences pass by so quickly while negative ones seem never-ending? It all has to do with the way your brain stores information. Dr. Hanson compares negative states of mind to velcro; they tend to stick with us more easily because of our brain’s negativity bias. 

The more you experience negative states, the more likely you’ll cultivate negative traits where you become more reactive, irritated, or anxious unless you consciously choose to override these mental states. Positive states like joy and happiness, on the other hand, are more like teflon. They tend to slide off your neural networks easily – that is unless we continually practice feeling them. 

To override your brain’s negativity bias, you have to continually train your brain to nurture these positive states by paying attention to them and consciously activating them.

rumination, Reduce Rumination and Increase Positive States Through Neuro-Learning

Train your brain by embodying what you want to feel more often

Let’s say you wish to feel compassion more of the time. In your mind, you may conceptually understand what it may look like to be more compassionate. Maybe you can even imagine a scenario where you’re being compassionate to someone whom you may consider an enemy.

Yet it’s one thing to visualize this ideal and to embody it on a consistent basis. By exhibiting compassion in real life, you get to wire this state of being into your brain so it becomes a more natural way of being for you. This is also where neuro-learning and mindfulness can help you speed up the process of becoming the kind of person you want to be more consistently.

Through relating to each present moment in a non-judgmental manner, you can set the intention to bring forth feelings of compassion that are already present within you. The more you access the feeling of compassion or joy in your meditation, the more you’re solidifying the neural networks in your brain related to these states. Then it’s easier for you to embody compassion or joy in the midst of daily life because you’ve laid the ground for these neural pathways ahead of time.

How to use meditation to enhance neuro-learning

Your brain is continuously being shaped by what you practice most. This is known as neuroplasticity. To learn more about neuroplasticity and how it plays a role in cultivating mindfulness, watch this video by Dr. Rick Hanson: Understanding Neuroplasticity. 

Neuro-learning is applying your brain’s neuroplasticity to strengthen the connections for the skills, traits, or habits that you most want to master in your life.

In meditation, you’re more able to objectively see what is happening in your mind. As you witness the rumination and mental chatter without judgment, you create a space. The more you practice mindfulness, the more you’re able to enter that space in between your thoughts and feelings. You’re able to see them more objectively and without getting caught up in them. 

It is in this inner space of stillness where you can choose to intentionally bring up positive states like compassion, kindness, joy, or happiness. As you train your brain to do this, the benefits translate into your daily life experience as your brain is shaped based on what you’re practicing in your meditation.

Daily practice is better than one long occasional session of mindfulness

To speed up the process of reducing rumination and turning positive states into longer-lasting traits, practice mindfulness consistently. Just like working out or starting any positive habit, the more consistently you stick with it, the more benefits you’ll see.

When it comes to harvesting the benefits of mindfulness and meditation, you’ll see the biggest changes in your life when you practice daily. Dr. Rick Hanson suggests that repeated episodes of practice spread out over time are more effective than lumping everything together at once.

If you could only do 30 minutes of mindfulness practice all at once or do 3 minutes every day for 10 days, which should you do? Dr. Hanson suggests that 3 minutes for 10 days would be the more effective route. This is why scattering mindful moments throughout the day can be so helpful. Here are some simple tips for helping you practice mindfulness every day.

rumination, Reduce Rumination and Increase Positive States Through Neuro-Learning

Mindfulness exercises to accelerate neuro-learning

So what are some practices you can do to become more present and shift the mind away from ruminating thoughts and towards being able to cultivate positive states?

One place to start is body awareness practices. As you bring conscious awareness to physical sensations, your attention is shifted away from ruminating thoughts. Your weaken the neural networks between the ruminative links in your mind while strengthening the ones linked to being more present and focused.

Cultivating awareness of the body puts you in touch with what’s physically happening inside both your mind and body, allowing you to notice it with less judgment. Learn how to do a body scan meditation here to enter deeper states of awareness.

Enjoy the learning process and celebrate your progress

The great thing about mindfulness is that the more you practice, the easier it becomes. So celebrate yourself each time you complete a practice, regardless of how long or short it is.

When you rejoice in completing something you set out to do, you’re giving your brain an extra boost of motivation that makes it easier to do it again next time. Focus on what feels good in your body after your mindfulness practice – or after any positive experience for that matter. This helps stimulate reward-tracking neurochemicals in the brain like dopamine and norepinephrine.

To integrate more moments of mindfulness into your life, start with any one of our thousands of free mindfulness exercises or grab our complete mindfulness toolkit here.

Become a Certified Mindfulness Teacher

About the author 

Sean Fargo is the Founder of Mindfulness Exercises, a former Buddhist monk of 2 years, a trainer for the mindfulness program born at Google, an Integral Coach from New Ventures West, and an international mindfulness teacher trainer. He can be reached at [email protected]