“Meditation is essentially training our attention so that we can be more aware— not only of our own inner workings but also of what’s happening around us in the here & now.”
– Sharon Salzberg
So What Is Mindfulness?
How many of us have read about Mindfulness or even know what it is? How many of us would like to have a skill that allowed us to switch off for 10 minutes every day?
Time to allow us to think to find space to take a breath and to reflect on where we are in our lives?
I guess most of us would love to just have that time and space to reflect but have never taken the time to learn How.
Or we may have tried and just given up because we found it difficult to mast the technique.
And that’s what mindfulness is all about, it’s not a gimmick, one of the new world hairy fairy ideas going back to the 60’s – the hippy years-flower people.
Mindfulness or to give its scientific name Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy has been proven to help in the understanding of the brain/mind.
There are many reasons to meditate and practice mindfulness and meditation.
Mindfulness and meditation can decrease stress and anxiety, increase focus and productivity. However, it’s perhaps misplaced to see mindfulness and meditation simply as another fad. All of these benefits of mindfulness and meditation are actually side effects.
All of us naturally strive to understand our existence, we seek to understand- the meaning of life, our purpose in life.
It cannot be as simple as getting up going to work and repeating the same process every day. As a human being, we fulfilment, we need to have a purpose, a reason to get up every morning.
Mindfulness and meditation is a way to increase self-awareness and gain clarity about why we’re here and what our missions, values and goals are.
What Is The Science Of Mindfulness and Meditation – MBCT?
The largest meta-analysis to date of randomised controlled trials of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) for relapse prevention in recurrent depression was published in JAMA Psychiatry today.
Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, says that mindfulness means knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment.
The definition of mindfulness is
Compassionate and lucid awareness, a sense of knowing what is happening in the external and internal world as it is happening.
Most of us are more used to its opposite:
Mindlessness – times when we are not really conscious of what is going on when we are most liable to make mistakes. Mindfulness means waking up and checking in to what’s happening so we can make wise choices.
In its more common usage in recent clinical literature, it has come to mean the awareness that emerges as a by-product of cultivating three related skills:
- Intentionally paying attention to moment-by-moment events as they unfold in the internal and external world,
- Noticing habitual reactions to such events, often characterized by aversion or attachment (commonly resulting in over-thinking).
- Cultivating the ability to respond to events, and to reactions to them, with an attitude of open curiosity and compassion.
So What Do We Know?
Sara Lazar, a Harvard University neuroscientist, pioneered a different approach.
Sara Lazar published two studies in 2009 and 2011, where she asked volunteers with little or no experience with mindfulness and meditation to take an 8-week mindfulness meditation course.
Results from the two studies surprised the scientific community by showing that mindfulness didn’t just alter the volunteers’ brain activity to become more monklike while they meditated.
It also changed the physical structure of their brains. (This is your brain on transcendental meditation.)
Comparing this with a control group, volunteers who took the course felt less stressed.
Their brains were larger in areas that affect learning, memory, and emotion and smaller in the area that governs response to the threat.
This is the opposite of what happens to the brain when people are chronically stressed.
Further studies carried out since then, have suggested that mindfulness and meditation training can help repair the damage done by stress, reshaping the brain in a way that makes us better able to regulate our emotions and more resilient to stress in the future.
Health Benefits of Mindfulness and Meditation.
There is mounting new evidence that shows that mindfulness training can ease pain and fatigue.
In one of the largest mindfulness studies ever conducted, 61% of patients with chronic pain who received mindfulness training said their pain improved and the improvements lasted at least a year.
These findings raise interesting questions and possibilities.
All of us suffer from stress at any given time which creates a cascade of physiological changes (known as the fight-or-flight response) that triggers inflammation, which is the body’s first line of defence against infection and injury.
But exposure to long-term inflammation can be lifesaving when we are in an emergency—but inflammation caused by chronic stress makes wounds heal more slowly, worsens autoimmune diseases, and increases susceptibility to infection.
Chronic inflammation is also linked to some cancers and faster cell ageing.
In the US and Europe, about a third of us have dangerously high inflammation levels due to poor diet, excess body weight, underlying diseases, and other factors. Added stress only compounds the problem.
For a quick mindfulness meditation, close your eyes for 60 seconds and pay attention to your breathing, experiencing the sensation of air moving in and out of your nose. If you notice your mind straying, return your focus to your breath.
So Can stress-busting Mindfulness And Meditation Stop Us From Becoming ill In The First Place?
Research in this area is in its early days, but there is some exciting evidence to support the idea.
In 2012 a trial of 154 people found that, compared with a control group, volunteers who practised mindfulness had fewer colds, and when they did get sick, their symptoms were less severe and didn’t last as long.
Several recent studies have also found that mindfulness and meditation training reduces markers of inflammation in the blood and boosts the activity of an enzyme called telomerase, which slows cell ageing.
A study from Costa and Barnhofer (2016) backs this theory. They found that, when compared to guided imagery relaxation, a brief training in mindfulness helped participants struggling with depression to reduce their symptoms through greater emotion regulation.
Besides the many mental health benefits of mindfulness and meditation, it can also improve your overall health.
A study of how the two facets of mindfulness impact health behaviours found that practising mindfulness can increase multiple behaviours related to health, like getting regular health check-ups, being physically active, and avoiding nicotine and alcohol (Jacobs, Wollny, Sim, & Horsch, 2016).
A further study on mindfulness and health showed that mindfulness is linked to improved cardiovascular health through a lower incidence of smoking, more physical activity, and a much healthier body mass index (Loucks, Britton, Howe, Eaton, & Buka, 2015).
Also, mindfulness has been shown to lower blood pressure, especially when the practitioner has a nonjudging and nonreactivity approach to his patient. (Tomfohr, Pung, Mills, & Edwards, 2015).
How To Start and Practice Mindfulness Meditation
When I first started to learn the techniques for mindfulness and meditation I found it really difficult. For one thing, sitting in one place for only 10 minutes felt really strange, if you think about how many of us have taken the time just to sit and reflect?
We spend so much time rushing around from bed to work and work back to bed, in between we will try and fit in family time, which for most of us we would like more of and better quality, but modern life limits us to the bare minimum, even at weekends we spend most of it recovering from the working week, its the “hamster on the wheel”
But, with practice and a bit of patience mindfulness has become second nature to me, it’s not been easy but its helped me to focus my mind on who I am and its given a purpose to my life that was missing before.
It’s surprising how just 10 minutes a day, I have taken that to 30 minutes now can focus your mind.
My golden rule for all beginners is not to rush, take your time don’t aim to sit still for 30 minutes, take it slow, 10 minutes is fine to start with, whats the point of trying 30 minutes and then not seeing any benefits and giving up.
There are some really great support services you can contact for help a good place to start is Breathworks
If you want to find free programs anywhere in the world this is another great website-A heartspot is your nearby place where Heartfulness meditation and rejuvenation practices are offered to the public free of charge by a certified trainer.
Or, try this audiobook, its great for the beginner-Mindfulness for Beginners Audio CD – Audiobook, Single, Unabridged
Mindfulness is worth trying, don’t be a sceptic, there is plenty of research that has been done into the science of mindfulness, it’s about you, no one else, it’s your 10 minutes or 15 or 30 minutes of reflection.
So How To Start?
- Find a quiet place, a place that you will not be disturbed.
- You can either sit crossed legged or you can sit on a chair, on a personal note, I find sitting on a straight back chair a lot more comfortable, crossing my legs for any period of time is a bit of a challenge, my knees are not as good as they used to be, so sitting is a chair is a far better option, always remember you need to feel comfortable.
- Just find a spot that gives you a stable, solid seat, not perching or hanging back, it even could be a park bench-the choice is yours. The last point, it’s good if the bottoms of your feet are touching the floor.
- Notice what your legs are doing. If on a cushion on the floor, cross your legs comfortably in front of you. (If you already do some kind of seated yoga posture, go ahead.) If on a chair,
- Straighten—but don’t stiffen— your upper body. The spine has natural curvature. Let it be there. Your head and shoulders can comfortably rest on top of your vertebrae.
- Place your upper arms parallel to your upper body; let your hands drop onto the tops of your legs. With your upper arms at your sides, your hands should land in the right spot. Too far forward will make you hunch. Too far back will make you stiff. And relax.
- Drop your chin a little and let your gaze fall gently downward. You may let your eyelids lower. If you feel the need, you may lower them completely, but it’s not necessary to close your eyes when meditating.
- Be there for a few moments. Relax. Bring your attention to your breath or the sensations in your body.
- Feel your breath—or some say “follow” it—as it goes out and as it goes in. (Some practice and put more emphasis on the out breath, and for the in breath, you simply leave a pause.)
- Either way, focus your attention on the physical sensation of breathing: the air moving through your nose or mouth, the rising and falling of your stomach, or your chest. Choose a focal point, and with each breath, you can mentally note “breathing in” and “breathing out.”
- Inevitably, your attention will leave the breath and wander to other places. Don’t worry. There’s no need to block or eliminate thinking. When you get around to noticing your mind wandering—in a few seconds, a minute, five minutes—just gently return your attention to the breath.
- Practice pausing before making any physical adjustments, such as moving your body or scratching an itch. With intention, shift at a moment you choose, allowing space between what you experience and what you choose to do.
- You may find your mind wandering constantly—that’s normal, too. Instead of wrestling with or engaging with those thoughts as much, practice observing without needing to react. Let your thoughts drift through your mind, note them but don’t dwell on them. Just sit and pay attention. Come back over and over again without judgment or expectation.
- When you’re ready, gently lift your gaze (if your eyes are closed, open them). Take a few moments to notice any sounds in the environment. Think about how your body feels right now. Feel your thoughts and emotions. Pausing for a moment, decide how you’d like to plan the rest of your day.
That’s it. It’s often been said that it’s very simple, but it’s not necessarily easy. The work is to just keep doing it. Results will accrue.
Practice Makes Perfect!
Despite all the research and the proven benefits of mindfulness and meditation, many people are still a little wary when they hear the word ‘meditation’. So let’s some up and dispel some myths:
- Mindfulness and meditation is not a religion. Mindfulness is simply a method of mental training. Many people who practise meditation are themselves religious, but then again, many people who do not believe in any religion are keen meditators too.
- You don’t have to sit cross-legged on the floor (like the pictures you may have seen in magazines or on TV), sit where you feel comfortable, everybody is different- I sit on a chair because its comfortable and I suffer from knee problems. You can practise mindfulness on a bus, train or while walking to work. You can meditate more or less anywhere.
- Mindfulness practice does not take a lot of time, you can start with just 10 minutes a day. Although you need to be patient and have a degree of persistence. Many people soon find that meditation liberates them from the pressures of time, so they have more of it to spend on other things and their families.
- Meditation is not complicated. Nor is it about ‘successes or ‘failure’. Even when meditation feels difficult, you’ll have learned something valuable about the workings of the mind and thus have benefited psychologically.
- Meditation is not about accepting the unacceptable. It is about seeing the world with greater clarity so that you can make wiser and more considered action to change those things which need to be changed. Meditation helps cultivate a deep and compassionate awareness that allows you to review your goals, dreams and aspirations. It helps you to find the optimum path towards realising your deepest values. To give you that purpose in your life.