As human beings, we thrive on connection. Whether these are with friends in the pub or colleagues in the workplace, the power of connection has huge implications for the way we develop.
Indeed, individuals who feel more connected have lower rates of anxiety and depression and a recent book by Matthew D Lieberman, charts the neuroscientific evidence for the importance of social connection. Lieberman writes that when we are rejected or experience other social “pain,” our brains “hurt” in the same way they do when we feel physical pain.
It could be argued that our modern world is highly connected. We are plugged in, switched on and in constant contact with simultaneous text messages, numerous WhatsApp feeds, Facebook chats or emails with work colleagues, friends and relatives. However, it appears that this modern world is bad for your brain. How aware are we of the way we are behaving and how much attention are we giving to people and the world around us?
The best way I see this illustrated is on a commuter train. When I used to commute into London, I noticed the depth of attention people gave their devices, using this time to engage with the people they were already connected with. People can be quite inward while commuting, either focusing on their phones and tablets or perhaps recharging by taking a rest. The low point for me came when I was upset one morning: I sobbed to myself and not a single person noticed or, if indeed they did, said any words of comfort.
On reflection, I noticed how there was such a lack of connection in that circumstance, a kind of trained lack of attention and awareness, a kind of selfishness (perhaps understandably) to protect one’s own time and space. How could you notice if you’re catching up with 3 people and reading a few articles at once?
The same technology that brings us closer together also drives us apart from the people around us. It takes us away from the moment that we are in, the opportunity to be fully present.
So what’s the impact?
This lack of awareness of ourselves and the hyper-connection and instant feedback of Facebook ‘likes’ or WhatsApp replies means we are not in one place at once – but perhaps in 5 or 6. So, while this multi-tasking is releasing stress hormones, we have less time to connect or to look inwards, to reflect on ourselves. While we are always somewhere else, how can we enjoy the present? If our mind is darting from one thing to another, we are training ourselves in mind-wandering, in shorter and shorter attentions spans.
The dangers of this kind of mind activity is that it trains the mind in automatic behaviours. This is particularly troublesome when it comes to stress, anxiety and depression, where one incident can trigger another and then another, and before you know it, instigating low mood or in worse cases, deep states of depression. The mind has learnt to slip down well-worn paths and not notice triggers or low points for what they are. This downward slope can be powerful and people can feel that they need to fight it or to take hold.
And how is meditation relevant?
Through meditation, you can cultivate a healthier state of attention and awareness. This chance to ‘pause’, to be aware of things exactly how they are, is a time to practice patience and to release judgement. You will find the practice can infiltrate the rest of your life. So, whether it be a conversation in the office or a bird you are listening to sing, you can be in that moment.
It may not have the same adrenaline kick as 5 or 6 conversation threads but you will be able to nurture your connections and your overall wellbeing.
For those who have experienced anxiety or depression, it can be allowing the presence of low or anxious moods without spiralling into deep depression or anxiety. This may sound simple but can actually take a lot of work, self-reflection and practice. This is why mindfulness-based cognitive awareness courses take weeks, to allow the time for the self-reflection and meditation to develop over time. To build the compass inside you to guide you forward.
By training our awareness, we can strengthen our understanding and connection to ourselves and to each other.