Turning Point: Happiness and Wellness Part Nine - Mindfulness
September 10, 2015
Mindfulness“Compared to what we ought to be, we are only half awake.” – William James
- Do you sometimes find that you haven’t really been paying attention to what you’ve been doing, and have instead been running on autopilot?
- As you’ve gotten older, do you sometimes find it more challenging to maintain focus on things you’re doing?
Sometimes we simply don’t pay attention to what we’re doing in the moment. Perhaps we’re multitasking, or lost in thought about something that’s not even related to what we’re actually doing. And, when driving a car, most of us have had the rather unnerving experience of suddenly realizing that we can’t recall how we got from one place to the other. An alternative to this probably familiar ‘mindless’ state is practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is a specific way of paying close attention to your moment-to-moment experience, without judging or trying to alter the experience in any way. There are different approaches to practicing mindfulness, but all are essentially a form of meditation.
Research has shown that mindfulness meditation is associated with many physical and emotional benefits: it supports the immune system and helps people with a variety of medical and psychiatric disorders, including heart disease, high blood pressure, chronic pain, sleep disturbance, gastrointestinal problems, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and stress-related issues. Learning to simply observe experiences and thoughts without forcing, judging, accepting or rejecting them, has been found to diminish their ability to provoke automatic, potentially destructive emotional and physical reactions. In other words, mindfulness reduces emotional reactivity and breaks the usual connection between negative thoughts and negative emotions.
Brain imagining studies have found that regularly practicing mindfulness changes the brain in ways that promote happiness and well-being. These studies have shown that mindfulness leads to an increase in the number of neurons in areas of the brain involved in attention, concentration, self-regulation, positive emotion, and the creation of new memories. Mindfulness meditation appears to increase the speed capacity of nerve impulses too. Studies have also found that mindfulness leads to a decrease of neurons in the area of the brain most reactive to stress. These important brain changes undoubtedly underlie the many medical and psychiatric benefits associated with regular mindfulness practice.
It is also worth noting that regularly practicing mindfulness has been shown to protect against changes in cognitive functioning that are sometimes associated with normal aging. Older meditators have been found to perform better than same age non-meditators on tasks that involve attention, working memory, perceptual speed and some of the other higher level cognitive functions that help to organize and order behavior. Studies have also shown that it is never too late to reap the benefits of a regular mindfulness practice: when beginners received only 8 weeks of basic meditation training, they began showing some of the same brain benefits that were found in the experienced meditators.
INTRODUCING MINDFULNESS INTO YOUR LIFE
Mindfulness can be practiced formally or informally. Formal practice involves regularly setting aside time to practice mindfulness meditation. The general recommendation for developing a formal practice is to begin with brief periods of meditation, and then gradually increase the duration as you strengthen your ability to maintain a mindful state. The more you practice, the greater the benefits you will experience over time. If possible, beginners may wish to aim for 20 minutes a day of formal practice, and over time increase the duration of practice to 45 minutes. But, even if you are only able to devote smaller amounts of time to practice, you will still experience some benefits.
Concentration Practices: The first step is to learn to increase your capacity for concentration (also called “concentration practices”). There are a variety of possible concentration practices, but the simplest involves merely focusing on the sensation created in your nose or your abdomen when you inhale and exhale. When using your breathing to help develop your concentration, it is not necessary to breathe deeply, or to change your breathing pattern in any way. Just breathe naturally and focus your attention on how it feels. This exercise may seem very simple, but it is much more challenging than you might expect. As you try to maintain focus on your breath, your mind will undoubtedly wander; when you notice this has occurred, simply bring your attention back to your breathing, without judging yourself for becoming distracted. Some people find it easier to maintain focus if they silently name what they’re doing (e.g. “breathing in,” “breathing out”), or if they silently count their breaths. Developing the ability to remain focused during meditation is a learning process that takes time, patience and a lot of practice.
Informal Practices: Whether or not you choose to develop a regular formal mindfulness practice, it’s important to recognize that virtually anything you do can potentially be done mindfully instead of mindlessly. It’s a matter of putting energy into developing the habit of paying attention. Pick a few activities that are a regular part of your life, and make a decision to do them mindfully all the time. In this way, you can start to associate the activity with being mindful, which will increase the chances that you’ll remember to pay attention when you engage in those activities. As an example, you can wash the dishes mindfully, you can shower mindfully, you can eat mindfully, you can walk up and down the stairs mindfully, you can go for a walk mindfully, etc. Instead of thinking about other things while you engage in the activities you select, focus exclusively on remembering to pay close attention to the sensations and actions involved in what you are doing. You will, in a sense, be “single-tasking.”
NEXT TIME: More on mindfulness, including additional ways to incorporate mindfulness into your life.
Audrey Berger, Ph.D. has been a life coach, psychologist and psychotherapist for 33 years. In her life coaching practice she specializes in mid and later life transitions such as retirement, empty nest, midlife transition, positive aging in general, and creating a new life after divorce/loss. She also works with an array of other life issues and goals, including helping couples to create the relationship they want. You can learn more about her life coaching services, and find out about receiving a complimentary coaching consultation, at www.turningpointlifecoaching.com. Audrey can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or at (585)292-0095.
REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS
Boyce, B. (Ed.) (2011-03-08). The mindfulness revolution: Leading psychologists, scientists, artists, and meditation teachers on the power of mindfulness in daily life. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com
Hanh, T. N. (1991). Peace is every step: The path of mindfulness in everyday life. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
Hanh, T. N. (2012-02-07). The art of mindfulness. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.
Goleman, Daniel (2011-04-12). The brain and emotional intelligence: New insights. More Than Sound LLC. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990) Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain and illness. New York, NY: Dell Publishing.
Mingyur Rinpoche, Yongey (2007). The joy of living: Unlocking the secret and science of happiness. New York, NY: Harmony Books.
Siegel, R. D. (2009) The mindfulness solution: Everyday practices for everyday problems. Guilford Publications [Kindle Edition]. Retrieved from Amazon.com.