Mindfulness — the what, the why, and the how

“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.”
— Thích Nhất Hạnh

Today’s culture is one focused on business, deadlines, and achievements. We are constantly busy, worrying about the next place we have to be and the next task on our endless list.

We are literally racing through life, but are we happier?

Most of us rarely allow ourselves to stop for a moment, slow down and be fully present to experience our days with awareness and appreciation for the little things in life we tend to take for granted.

We know we are too busy and too disconnected from ourselves but at the same time we often find ourselves too overwhelmed to do anything about it. Certainly, to accomplish something great you have to be commited and dedicated to your goals and work hard to achieve them. But if periods of hustle are highly adaptive, too much of that prevents you from leading a balanced life.

“Peace is the result of retraining your mind to process life as it is, rather than as you think it should be.” — Wayne Dyer

It’s estimated that about 95% of our behavior is automatic and runs on an autopilot. That’s because neural networks underlie all of our habits, reducing our millions of sensory inputs per second into manageable shortcuts so we can easier function in this fast, crazy world.

Mindfulness is the exact opposite of these processes – it’s slowing down and being aware. It’s being in control rather than on an autopilot, it’s about being intentional with our thoughts, actions, and decisions. But that takes some practice and commitment. The more we activate our ‘mindful brain’, the stronger it will become. That’s why creating mindful, intentional rituals, rather than sticking to our mindless habits, is a great way to start to incorporate more mindfulness into your daily life. This can be as easy as taking your time and all of your attention to make your morning coffee, instead of just going through the motions automatically. Focus on each step, each sound, smell. Be truly present and if you can’t commit to anything more to start with, try to shift your habits into rituals practiced with awareness.

How the Brain Changes during a mindfulness or meditation practice

Mindfulness changes the brain, according to multiple studies. Lutz, Dunne & Davidson (2008) examined how mindfulness impacts the amygdala, which is a region of the brain that is associated with emotional processes. It was determined that this area of the brain tended to be less active following mindfulness sessions.

The hippocampus also plays a role in mindfulness. The hippocampus is the region of the brain associated with memory, and it helps regulate the amygdala. Following mindfulness sessions, this part of the brain was also found to be more active according to Goldin & Gross (2010).

The Pre-frontal cortex is a newer part of the brain that helps us deal with our emotions and make wise decisions. It helps us to deal with our thoughts, emotions, and our actions in relation to our goals. However during a stress response, we disconnect from rational thinking. This is the Amygdala doing its job.  We go into an impulsive, reactive fight-or-flight mode. At the same time we lose connection to some of our higher brain functions like self regulation, memory, and mental flexibility.  According to several studies we can practice mindfulness to activate the Prefrontal Cortex and the Hippocampus, and reduce activation in the Amygdala.

Results from the studies also showed that the amygdala decreased, which meant the fight-or-flight response also decreased. The smaller the amygdala becomes, the better we react to stress. The decrease in the brain’s grey matter correlates with the changes in the levels of stress as well, according to the study.

All of this research is promising because what it means, is that the change in people’s reactions occurs within themselves, and not within their environment. 

Mindfulness can help you change how you react to stressful situations, helping you feel calmer and more in control.

How is mindfulness different than meditation?

Mindfulness and meditation are mirror-like reflections of each other: mindfulness supports and enriches meditation, while meditation nurtures and expands mindfulness.  But they are not the same thing. Mindfulness is the awareness of “some-thing,” while meditation is the awareness of “no-thing.” 

Mindfulness is being aware. It’s noticing and paying attention to thoughts, feelings, behavior, and our surroundings. Mindfulness can be practiced any time, wherever we are, whoever we are with, and whatever we are doing, by being fully engaged in the present moment.

If you’re wondering how many times a day you’re in a mindful state, there’s a 15-item questionnaire researchers use to measure mindfulness called the Mindful Attention Awareness Score (MAAS), that you can take to see where you stand — the higher the score, the greater your ability to be mindful. If you scored lower than you’d like, take it simply as a sign that you may benefit from a mindfulness practice.

You can take the test here.

So how do we become more mindful, present, act with greater awareness and intention?

Here’s a few ways to try to be more mindful.

Go outside. 

Shinrin-yoku, also known as “forest bathing,” is aJapanese practice of simply being in nature. Engaging in this simple activity significantly reduces cortisol levels and blood pressure, while boosting parasympathetic brain activity, which is the part of your nervous system responsible for rest.

Breathe

Focusing on your breath is one of the simplest and most proven effective ways to be more mindful and relaxed. If you’re not sure where to begin, try “box breathing”: count to four as you inhale, hold for four, count to four as you exhale, hold for four. Repeat.

 Be grateful.

Spend a moment thinking about 3 things you feel grateful for, whether it’s your health, or family and friends, or anything exciting that has happened to you that day. Write it down in a notebook or give yourself a few minutes to feel the emotion of gratitude.

Read a book. 

Reading can be a crucial opportunity for mindfulness—the ability to be in the present moment, aware and focused, without judgment. Set aside at least an hour a day to allow yourself to really escape. Jon Kabat Zinn defines Mindfulness as “paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the moment, non judgementally.” By choosing (on purpose) to read (the particular way) and focusing (paying attention) on words in a book we are almost there in meeting his definition. When we get lost in words, we can lose track of time, our day to day thoughts, feelings, emotions and reactions are forgotten for a moment, they settle. We don’t judge the words we just read them and accept them for what they are – in the moment, non judgementally.

Give yourself a body scan. 

Lay down, close your eyes and imagine a light “scanning” your body from head to toe. Go through each part of your body one by one. What sensations come up? Use it as an opportunity to check in with yourself without judgement.

Through self-observation, mindfulness automatically sets into your life. The moment you realize you are not being mindful – you are mindful! You have stepped out of the constant mental dialogue going on in your mind and are now the observer. You are now watching the mind instead of being lost in it.

resources:

https://chopra.com/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19568835/

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/meditations-calming-effects-pinpointed-in-brain/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2847024/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5003767/

https://afaeducation.org/blog/mindfulness-through-reading/mindfulness-through-reading/

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