Mindfulness is the practice of intentionally focusing all of your attention on the current moment, and accepting it without judgment – simply put mindfulness allows us to be here now. This capacity to be in the present moment really helps us to find our inner peace and calm no matter what the external circumstances of our lives. Even if you new to mindfulness simple evidence based mindfulness practises will allow you to
: decrease your stress and anxiety,
: minimize the amount of time that you spend feeling overwhelmed, and
: help you appreciate the joy of living.
Seven key ways we know from neuroscience that practising mindfulness can positively impact both our mental and physical well-being.
1. Mindfulness reduces rumination and overthinking.
One of the most common experiences we have when we are living with stress and anxiety is rumination or overthinking. Unhelpful thoughts keeps swishing around in our head it is easy to get into a thought loop where we continue to rehearse each and every bad outcome imaginable. We all know that worrying about something does not stop it from happening but mindfulness can help us to first to see this unhelpful habit of rumination and then to get ourselves out of this unhelpful cycle unhelpful of overthinking thinking and worrying.
2. Mindfulness helps us to better manage stress.
As 21st century humans we are often living with a generalised anxiety disorder – constantly vigilant, living stress build up and overload with no obvious steps to take to deal with the perceived threat. This stress build up has serious consequences for body, mind and spirit. Mindfulness gives us both a way to understand how stress can cripple our ability to live well, and most importantly tools and resources to minimise and better manage the inevitable stress in our lives.
3. Mindfulness improves memory, concentration, and performance.
We have evidence now from neuroscience that meditating on a regular basis causes the brain’s cerebral cortex (which is responsible for memory, concentration, and learning) to thicken. So we know that simple evidence based mindfulness practises will help us to hone and develop these skills, giving us more focus, clarity and better concentration for whatever the task in hand.
4. Mindfulness helps better manage emotional reactivity.
Of all the reasons that people want to learn mindfulness, being less emotionally reactive is usually high on the list. Being more mindful or in the moment can give us more choice when handling emotionally charge situations we can learn to take a step back in the heart of the moment, to find a different place to stand so that we are more likely to respond more wisely rather than react to a difficult or challenging situation.
5. Mindfulness creates happier relationships.
Recent brain studies provide evidence that people who engage in mindfulness on a regular basis show both structural and functional changes in the particular brain regions linked to qualities such as enhanced empathy, compassion, and kindness.
6. Mindfulness reduces anxiety.
Research shows that mindfulness can be particularly helpful in reducing anxiety. Practicing mindfulness regularly helps to actually rewire our brain so that we improve our focus and attention. Rather than following a negative and worrying thought that spirals us downward to generalised anxiety, we begin instead to learn to recognise our thoughts for what they are and just let them go.
7. Mindfulness improves sleep.
The relaxation response that our body has to mindfulness meditation is the very opposite of the stress response. Through mindfulness practise the relaxation response works to ease many stress-related health issues, such as pain, depression, and high blood pressure. By using simple mindful practises we can put our body and mind into a more relaxed state allowing rest an sleep to come more easily.
Mindfulness has been practiced for thousands of years in various religious and secular traditions. From Hinduism and Buddhism to yoga and even non-religious meditation, mindfulness has been with us for eons in some form or other. People practice mindfulness either as a secular evidence based practise and as part of a larger tradition to which they have some connection.
It is true however that the current secular wave of mindfulness has roots in Eastern religion and specific practitioners.
The popularity of mindfulness in the United States and Europe is largely due to Jon Kabat-Zinn who is generally considered to be the father of the current or second wave practise of secular mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn works at the University of Massachusetts Medical School as a professor of medicine emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society.
Kabat-Zinn was first introduced to mindfulness as a student at MIT. In 1979, he went on to develop the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he adapted the Buddhist teachings that he had learned on mindfulness to develop the gold standard Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Stress Reduction programme (MBSR).
Kabat-Zinn and many others have since gone on to develop mindfulness programmes, courses and interventions (MBI’s) that are widely used in health care, education and business settings all across the world. This second wave of mindfulness while it has its roots in Buddhism is not rooted in any particular philosophy or belief system. Rather it is a secular evidence based brain training. As Jon Kabet Zinn says ‘Mindfulness is simple but not easy ‘, simple because it essentially it is being present ( be here now), difficult because as humans we find it hard to remember to simply be present.
First decide how long you would like to practise for – 2, 3, 5, or 10 minutes.
1. Decide on a time for your daily practise and a prompt to rmind you everyday when it is time to give yourself this mindful break.
It does not have to be the same time every day, but using a prompt such as brushing your teeth or drinking your morning cuppa will allow you to help get your body into the mode to meditate. It will send your brain a signal that it is time to quiet down.
2. Find a quiet place to go.
You might like to set up a special space in your home for your mindfulness practise or you might prefer to go outside or to some other quiet place where you can feel calm. It really does not matter where you decide to do your mindfulness practise as long as it is quiet and you will not be interrupted.
3. Get comfortable.
Find your sweet spot – a way of sitting where you can be both comfortable and alert for a time. Imagine there is a thread extending from your sitting bone to the top of your head, lifting your chin and allowing you to sit up tall.
4. Pay attention to what your legs are doing.
If you are on a cushion, sit with your legs crossed comfortably in front of you. If you are sitting in a chair, gently rest the soles of your feet on the floor beneath you.
6. Soften your arms.
Feel the weight and volume of your arms coming from the shoulders all the way down to the wrists. Allow the hands to rest on the lap or thighs,palms facing up or down as you like.
7. Soften your gaze.
Allow your chin to drop just a little, and allow your eyelids to fall slightly downward softening the gaze. If you prefer you can close your eyes.
8. Notice how your body is
Scan your whole body from the crown of your head right down to your toes – noticing any areas of tension or holding, and seeing if these areas of holding or tightness might soften even a little. Pay particular attention to the lower back, the shoulders, face, and jaw, which are all very common areas to hold tension. Imagine a strong back and a soft open front.
9. Form your intention for practising
Maybe just ask yourself the question – what do I want from this practise?. Maybe you are looking for more energy , or less stress , to be kinder to yourself and less judgemental of others, to cope better with some physical or emotional pain.
If nothing comes don’t worry, just allow the question to sink a little further. Maybe focussing on what you would wish for yourself- May I ….
10. Notice your breath.
No need to breath in any particular way – just notice the rhythm of your breath as it comes into and leaves the body. Maybe noticing the slight rise of the belly on the in breath and the gentle falling back on the out breath.
11. Notice when your mind begins to wander.
There is nothing wrong, you have not made a mistake. Noticing the wandering mind simply means you are present –knowing what is happening as it is happening. Each time you notice instead of feeling bad congratulate yourself for noticing, and invite the mind back to where you intend it to be – on just this breath.
12. Be kind to your wandering mind.
Even the very experienced meditator knows that their mind will wander many times as they sit – it is perfectly natural and normal. So as you begin to notice your wandering mind try to not judge or criticise yourself. Instead see if you might rather be very gentle and kind – just noticing where the mind has gone and inviting it back – again and again – to just this breath.
13. When you are finished, slowly lift your gaze or open your eyes and bring your attention back to the present moment and your surroundings.
Acknowledge the space around you. Slowly begin to wiggle your fingers and toes, and then start to move your hands and the rest of your body, noticing any sounds that are around.
Intention is about the inherent motivation for all that we think, say, or do. From the brain’s perspective, when we act in unintended ways, there’s a disconnect between the faster, unconscious impulses of the older brain centres and the slower, conscious, wiser abilities of the more evolved centres in the brain such as the pre-frontal cortex.
Given that the unconscious brain is in charge of most of our decision-making and behaviors, focusing on intention in this way can really help us to align our conscious thinking with a primal emotional drive that the lower centers care about such as safety, reward, connection, purpose, self-identity and core values.
Setting an intention at the beginning of each morning can change our day, making it more likely that our words, actions and responses— especially during moments of difficulty—will be more mindful and compassionate.
First thing on waking up:
1. Take three long, deep, nourishing breaths—breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Then let your breath settle into its own rhythm, as you simply follow it in and out, noticing the rise of your chest and belly as you breathe in and the gentle falling back with each out breath.
2. Ask yourself: “What is my intention for today?” Maybe focussing on these three questions:
What kind of presence in the world will I be today ?
How will I balance doing and being ?
If challenges or difficulties arise , how might I be more compassionate to others and myself?
4. Set your intention for the day. For example, ‘Today, I will be kind to myself and others; remember to take a breath in difficult moments, and to practise gratitude’. As you get into this practise of setting your daily intention you may surprise yourself with how specific you can be about what you want from the day.
5. Take short mindful breaths throughout the day, to check in with yourself. Pause, take a breath, and remember your morning intention.
The very best way to build the mindfulness muscle and to begin the see the benefits in your day to day life is to find a practise you can commit to and then just do it no matter what your mood on any particular day.
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