Never As Good As The 1st Time

Well that’s what the singer Sade says.  But is it really true?  I can guess what you are probably thinking about, but switch gears in your head for a minute, search your memory banks and see if you can recall some memorable firsts in your life. Maybe the first time you tasted a certain food, the first time you saw something amazing like Paris or the Grand Canyon, the first time you put on skis, the first time you heard your favorite song.

But there are other firsts you probably don’t remember, like for example, the first time you saw a dog.  That was also probably an amazing experience for you but it doesn’t usually come to the top of the list of memorable “firsts”.  You probably also don’t remember the first time you tasted ice cream or smelled a rose or saw a sunset (all amazing experiences). So why is that?

Research from neurobiology explains it this way.  Information flows into our brains in two different ways. One is called bottom up processing and one is called top down processing.  When we encounter something for the first time we are flooded with bottoms up processing which is the raw sensory input, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the feel.  If it is an experience we don’t have very often, this intense experiencing may last for awhile. But soon, the top down processing starts to work.

Top down processing is the sense that our brain makes out of all of this raw sensory input. It consolidates and organizes it into learnings, and concepts, beliefs, and ideas.  This abstraction is useful and necessary, we can now easily recognize and label things like “dogs” and “trees” and “schizophrenics” and other things that don’t actually exist, but that fit into our labeling system.

So now when we get this raw sensory input it moves up towards the brain while the top down processing is busy interpreting it, and the two processes crash like two waves in the center, with the top down processing usually winning out.  The stronger the prior learning is – the more likely it is that the top down process dominates.

Now suddenly…nothing is as good as the first time.  And as we get older and we have more and more experiences and our top down processes dominate more and more –  we may begin to feel suffocated, our lives feel dull, familiar, uninteresting. Some of the joy and wonder and energy are gone and we feel weary at the end of the day.  So is this just an inevitable part of aging and building more and more top down processes, or is there some way we can get back some of this stuff that makes life really exciting?

We often hear “be in the present moment”, “live for now” be “mindful”. And you might say – I’m not into that yoga or meditation stuff and I wouldn’t have the time to do it if I wanted to.  But if you knew that having some kind of mindfulness practice could greatly enhance your life experience and your sense of well-being could you make time?

In reality it’s not that hard. Mindfulness really means simply that we focus attention in some way (yoga, meditation, qiqong, running or walking, fishing, biking, etc) that disengages the top down processes and allows us to just be in the flow of life and live in the moment. It can be a regular daily practice, but it might simply mean that you notice new things on that familiar drive to work, that you notice the aromas, the flavors and textures of the food you eat, how the water feels on your skin in your morning shower. Simply that you take some time in your day to notice sensory input as it flows from your body to your mind.

So what does that do for you? In general, it increases your enjoyment of life. In the “Neurobiology of We”  Daniel Siegal describes this as “integration of consciousness” which means we are not just running around controlled by our top down processes. We are more “integrated” which means overall we are healthier and happier.

And that’s not all. When we take time to focus on our bottoms up processes, the top down processes begin to dissolve and we are less imprisoned in patterns from our past.  We now get the sense that we have more choices, we are more open to new experiences, and we even approach the old experiences in ways that feel fresh and new.

So in a moment take your head away from your computer,  stop reading and take just a moment to notice all of the wondrous stuff you are surrounded by every day. Look, smell, listen, feel and like the song says “just breathe”.

So here’s to you and mindful awareness (however you practice it)

Bottoms Up  : )

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