Mindfulness is defined as a state of active, open attention on the present moment. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them as good or bad. You develop the ability to respond to events in your life, rather than to react emotionally.
So what does mindfulness have to do with language?
Learning a new language engages many of the same principles and processes as those of developing a mindfulness practice. Science shows that both activities flex a muscle in the brain, developing the prefrontal cortex – the brain’s executive control center, involved in the regulation of attention.
As you develop your skills at meditation, yoga and other mindful activities, you are learning a new language with which to communicate with yourself. In the beginning, you must choose your words (as thoughts) carefully and with effort. A certain amount of willpower and perseverance is necessary to develop your capabilities in both speaking (to yourself) and in listening and understanding (your inner voice). Just like fluency is not developed in a day, mindfulness is a skill that builds over time with practice.
When I moved to Europe several years ago, I was presented with the opportunity to immerse myself in Spanish, my third and least practiced language. The day after arrival, at a bus stop in Madrid, I asked two locals for directions in my slightly incoherent mix of “Esp-alemán” (German and Spanish combined). They immediately replied back in English. Determined to expand my skills, I politely declined their offer of easier communication and struggled on in Spanish. By the end of our short conversation, I was feeling good about my prospects. Moments later on the bus, I heard them chuckling together over my German-accented broken Spanish. Hmmm – perhaps not-so-good prospects.
Developing a meditation practice involves a similar dynamic. The brain will inevitably become distracted by a thought. The next moment after that distraction is the critical one. You are presented with several choices. One is to follow the path of easy conversation with yourself that the thought offers, and another is to judge or blame yourself for not getting it right because you were distracted. Neither of those two helps develop the muscle of meditation.
The third choice – to let go and begin again – is the moment of growth, the point of skill development, every time it happens.
Mastering the Practice:
One of the techniques for developing mastery in this moment of distraction is called labeling. It follows four basic steps:
First, you notice and acknowledge that your mind has wandered from its focal point in meditation.
Next, you place a label on the distracting thought so as not to become engaged in the content (eg., planning, judging, worrying, etc.).
Then, you make the choice to let go of the labeled activity (without engaging in another label).
Finally, you begin again to place your attention on the focal point.
As you develop a mindful focus, take comfort in the peace that it inevitably brings. And be grateful that in this wide world of success and failure, you have found an activity where failure is not a possibility. Each moment spent in meditation, no matter how focused you are, simply brings the opportunity for more insight.
To see research findings from our upcoming book on how speaking multiple languages influences behaviors around power, click here.