How Mindfulness increases Emotional Intelligence

This article is a continuation of my recent article, ‘Mindfulness Meditation, Emotional Intelligence and Success’ and is based on Chade Meng Tan’s (“Meng”) book ‘Search Inside Yourself’.

The amygdala is the part of the brain that acts as a sentinel, constantly scanning everything we perceive for threats to our survival. When we are attacked by a while animal, the amygdala will immediately shut down our rational thinking and the only option is to kill the attacker or run. There is just no time to think about the best way to resolve the threat; by the time we considered all the options, we would have been dead and half eaten.

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Here is our modern day problem – our amygdala works just as well when our boss comes up to us and say, “I am not happy with your work”. When our fight or run response kicks in, we are not able to act rationally. We may say things that we later regret such as, “oh yeah? I am not that happy with your face either”. Threat resolved but new problems arise.

A research done by a neuroimaging researcher, Julie Brefczynski-Lewis found that mediation could lower the activation in the amygdala. This is useful because we want our amygdala to work when we are threatened by a wild animal but want it to hold back when we are faced with our boss, and need to act rationally rather than instinctively. The research found that when expert meditators were subjected to negative sounds (such as a woman screaming), they showed lower amygdala activation compared to novice meditators. The more hours of meditation training the expert had, the lower the activation in the amygdala.

We do not need many hours of mediation to benefit from mindfulness. As mentioned in my previous article, as little as eight weeks of training can increase our emotional intelligence substantially.

As we train our mind by meditating, we become more aware of our body and emotions. In Meng’s example, it is similar to increasing the resolution, contrast and brightness of a picture so that we can see the picture more clearly. When an event makes us angry, we may be able to perceive the anger rising within us and this awareness creates a space between the event and our chosen response. Victor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness”.

Of course, we cannot expect to master our emotions in a blink of an eye. We need to train our mindfulness and allow ourselves to stumble many times before we succeed. We need to treat ourselves like a baby learning to walk. Every time we take a few steps before we fall, we should clap our hands excitedly for the successful few steps and laugh at ourselves for ‘falling’. Remember, training our mindfulness is like training the muscles of our body. Every time we flex our biceps by lifting a dumbbell, it gets stronger; every time our attention wanders away and we bring it back, we strengthen the muscle of our mindfulness.

So, on those days when we find it difficult to meditate because our mind is very active (for example, when we just returned from an exciting party), let us remind ourselves that there is no such thing as a bad meditation. We are just given the opportunity to lift heavier weights. The more times our mind wanders and we have to bring it back to the object of meditation (such as the breath), the more we get to exercise our mindfulness muscles.

Here is another benefit of mindfulness– Meng wrote, “When the mind is calm and clear, at the same time, happiness spontaneously arises. The mind becomes spontaneously and naturally joyful. But why?…I put that question to my friend Alan Wallace, one of the Western world’s top experts in the practice of relaxed concentration (called shamatha) and he said the reason is very simple: happiness is the default state of mind”.

In Sanskrit, this is called ‘Sukha” which is normally translated as bliss or happiness. However, the technical translation is ‘non-energetic joy’. It is a quality of joy that does not require energy or stimulus. In other words, it does not require any sensory input or stimulation. The joy we feel when we hear some good news is not Sukha because it is dependent on an external factor – the good news.

One way to understand Sukha is to hold a heavy dumbbell for a few minutes before putting it down. Our bicep will immediately feel light, relaxed and at ease. This is the same thing with our mind. Our mind is always thinking and processing sensory inputs. It does this all the time; non-stop. When we allow it to relax in mindfulness, there is a feeling of lightness, serenity and ease. That is the best way I can describe Sukha.

When we are caught in the raging river, we can only see our struggle and the threatening water all around us. However, when we imagine ourselves floating up above the river, we can see the beautiful river instead of the fearsome water. Similarly, when we become mindful, we rise above our thoughts, we are no longer caught within our thoughts but we are able to see the beauty of our mind.

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