What is mindfulness?
“I am here right now and in the moment, what’s the problem?” you might ask. The problem is that your brain is not. It travels back and forth between the past and future, preoccupied with plans and dreams. Being mindful means concentrating on what’s happening now. This includes:
- Your physical sensations: smells and sounds, the shape of the table, everything around you.
- Your physical presence. How are you breathing? Are you standing? What are you doing and how?
- Your thoughts and emotions. Recognize that they don’t define you right now and can’t influence you.
In a nutshell, you must free your brain from every worry except for what’s happening right now. When you practice mindfulness, you nurture your curiosity about life in the present.
The most important rule in mindfulness: stop criticizing. Jodie Katz, M.D., Director at the Center for Integrative Medicine, The Valley Hospital explains that mindfulness should make you stop judging yourself and your experiences. It’s a break for your mind.
Isn’t mindfulness a religious practice?
It’s about changing the structure of your physical brain, which has been confirmed through numerous MRI-based experiments. You don’t have to be a Buddhist, you just have to believe in science.
The scientific research proving there are health benefits to mindfulness meditation contributed to its rise in popularity. Within the last 10 years, 8% of Americans started to practice general meditation. A brand new study revealed that approximately 75% of practitioners do mindfulness for general wellness, half of them for improving concentration and one third for reducing stress, anxiety, or depression.
Many CEOs practice mindfulness meditation: Arianna Huffington, Founder of Huffington Post, Steve Rubin, former CEO of United Fuels International, Roger Berkowitz, CEO of Legal Sea Foods, Rick Goings, CEO of Tupperware.
What will change if I start meditating?
Research shows it works:
- You will be more intelligent. For example, a University of California experiment showed that mindfulness training improves GRE reading comprehension scores and working memory capacity.
- You will have better memory. Mindfulness meditation leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Positive changes happen in the area of the brain involved in learning and memory processes, emotional regulation, self-consciousness, and perspective thinking.
- You will learn faster and have more self-control. Mindfulness improves the efficiency of white matter, which leads to an increase in neuroplasticity. It results in better memory and the ability to learn something new. Moreover, white matter affects the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain related to self-control.
- You’ll boost your creativity. Researchers asked a group of 21 people to practice meditation and perform some tasks that required creative solutions after every training session. Participants showed better test results after meditation, and MRI scans demonstrated that areas of the brain associated memory retrieval and emotional processing were activated during meditation sessions.
- You’ll have better reaction time and be able to cope with extreme pressure. Athletes use mindfulness meditation for these benefits. It also helps them increase self-control and be mentally and physically prepared for athletic competitions.
Mindfulness meditation will help you process information and master new skills faster. You will be more emotionally stable and able keep cool under pressure.
In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a student of Buddhism, founded the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Since then, researchers have developed a strong scientific base for mindfulness, exploring its biological and psychological impact on the mind and body.
Mindfulness, meditation and body
- Meditation reduces inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and asthma. One study compared two methods of reducing stress: mindfulness meditation and a program designed to enhance health in ways unrelated to mindfulness (nutrition, walking, and music therapy). Both techniques helped reduced stress, but mindfulness was better for reducing stress-induced inflammation.
- Mindfulness is an alternative to painkillers. Cold-water experiments from Leeds Beckett Universityhave shown that people who practiced mindfulness had higher pain tolerance when they put their hands in ice-cold water. There are biological reasons for this effect. Brain scans have shown that meditation significantly reduces brain activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, an area involved in creating the feeling of intense pain.
- Mindfulness meditation lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which means it may reduce the risk of stress-related conditions like peptic ulcers and migraine. Researchers at the Center for Lifestyle Medicine, Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic even recommend using mindfulness meditation in combination with standard stress treatments.
In short, mindfulness meditation helps you prevent stress-associated health problems like difficulty breathing, panic attacks or indigestion problems, and reduces pain intensity.
How to meditate
Basic techniques includes focus mindfulness, awareness mindfulness, shifting from focus to awareness mindfulness, and unconscious thinking. You can do these exercises anywhere: in the metro, at the conference, or during your lunch-break.
You just need to focus on your thoughts or something else. Try the following:
- Just observe what’s happening in your mind. Stare at any object. Focus on it. Let your thoughts flow, but remain focused on the object. After you feel full inside, switch to another object
- Conscious breathing without observing thoughts. Take deep, slow breaths and focus on the air moving in and out of your body. Conscious breathing has been shown to help fight depression. Conscious breathing can also reduce pain, especially chronic pain.
- Conscious eating. When was the last time you paid attention to the taste, structure, and smell of your meal? Try it! Slower-paced eating reduces hunger and the risk of diabetes.
- Body Scan. Try focusing on one area of your body at a time. Stop whenever you find an area that is unusually tight and focus on it until it relaxes or feels normal. Visualize the area and imagine how it functions.
- Focus on stretching, walking, running, or any other physical activity. Try to focus on the way your body is moving, nothing else. Think about your muscles. How are they stretching? Is there any tension? Are they “burning”? Are they pressing against other areas of the body? If you are walking, focus on how your feet feel.
- Focus on your surroundings. Anything around you. What do you smell? What about sounds?
This kind of meditation is about focusing on your thoughts, not your surroundings. Try to observe thoughts from the outside. Sounds strange? Just follow these steps:
- Watch your breathing
- Watch your thoughts
- Choose one thought
- Focus on it
- Try to examine this thought as if you’re seeing it for the first time. Everything that emerges in your mind about this thought must be examined.
- After observing it, just let it go
- Switch to another thought
Shifting from Focus to Awareness
Watch your stream of consciousness dispassionately, then catch something from the stream and deliberately focus on it.
- Take a seat. Sit on a solid and comfortable surface
- Sit up straight but without tension
- Put your arms parallel to your legs
- Drop your chin a little and look forward
- Be present and focus on your own mind
And remember the most important rule: do not judge anything or anybody, including yourself.
You can also use apps that teach you how to meditate: Headspace, Calm, Buddhify and others. They have different types of meditation what you can do in the car, at home, or at the office.
Bored with meditating alone?
Be careful when choosing a coach. Before hiring the one, ask the coach and yourself these questions:
- Do they have proper training? Look for certificates from reputable programs like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, Google’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, or UCLA’s Center for Mindfulness.
- Do they have experience in teaching mindfulness meditation?
- Can the coach answer your questions about mindfulness? Ask a few questions to test the waters and make sure you’re satisfied with the answers.
There are some online-courses about mindfulness meditation. For example, Be Mindful. This online course is recognized by leading teaching institutions including Oxford University’s Mindfulness Centre. There is also an online course from Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.
These courses will give you more information about the theory of mindfulness in general, teach you some basic techniques, and help you make mindfulness part of your everyday life.
How long should I meditate and how often?
On average, people who are new to mindfulness meditation spend around 23 minutes practicing every day. And, of course, there are no limits. Just experiment with doing more or less and see how you feel. Studies show that the effects of meditation are already noticeable after 20 minutes of practice. That’s when the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain believed to relieve anxiety, is activated.
You can meditate for as long as you want, but definitely don’t force yourself. If you’re constantly looking at the clock to check if you’ve done your daily minimum, you’re likely to miss out on the benefits. .
It’s best to meditate in the morning before breakfast and right after the work day ends. Morning sessions are easier because your mind isn’t occupied with all kinds of problems yet. After work, meditation will help you calm down and create a psychological barrier between work and personal life.
Psychologists don’t recommend meditating before going to bed at night. The aim of mindfulness meditation is not relaxation, but being fully aware and present. If you have no other time to meditate except late evening, it’s best to do so at least an hour before going to bed.
And remember: use mindfulness whenever you feel anxious, stressed, or depressed.