“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose,
in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
~ Jon Kabat-Zinn
Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.
Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them — without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.
Being mindful means paying attention to the present moment, exactly as it is. It is really hard to be anxious if you are completely focused on the present moment – what you are sensing and doing RIGHT NOW … and NOW … and NOW.
This is different than what we usually do when we are anxious: get stuck in our heads and think about everything that could go wrong. Our anxious brain likes to hang out in the unknown future and think about all the bad things that could happen. An anxious brain is very creative and can come up with the most amazing worst-case scenarios! Our anxious brain also likes to obsess about the past, and dwell on regrets.
When we do this, we can’t notice the pleasant experiences all around us.
For example, imagine you are learning how to sail. As you are getting in the boat, you decide that you are going to focus on the present instead of worrying about what will happen at school tomorrow. You feel the warm sun and cool breeze on your cheeks. You look up and watch the sail catch the wind above you. Maybe you smell the salt water and hear the seagulls as they circle above. As the boat increases speed, you enjoy the rush. All of your senses are alive and focused on the present moment. This is sailing in a mindful way.
It would be just as easy to have this experience and not be present and mindful. You might be thinking over and over about the test you have on Monday or worrying about why your friend didn’t call you back. You wouldn’t notice the pleasant feeling of the sun on your face. You wouldn’t appreciate the thrill of the wind. You may even get home and not remember very much about sailing, or even feel like it was like a dream.
Our current understanding of mindfulness meditation stems from the work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn who began to apply the practices of meditation and body awareness developed in Buddhism to the problem of chronic pain (1990). Based on the tradition of Vipassana, Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “Paying attention in a particular way, in the present moment, on purpose, non-judgementally” (1990).
Awareness here is meant to include not only focusing attention on sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch that we experience in the interface between ourselves and the environment, but to notice bodily sensations occurring within us as well; accepting non- judgementally all experience, even if it is painful. This was quite counterintuitive. Many strategies for coping with chronic pain sought to help patients numb, distract, or ignore distressing sensations.
Trauma causes a number of changes in the brain that can be tracked using various forms of scanning techniques. Researchers have noted particular changes in the part of the brain associated with memory and learning difficulties; more reactive and weaker neural connections between the hemispheres (Perry and Szalavitz, 2006 and Badenoch, 2008).
When we are being “mindful”, we are bringing, focused, non-judgemental awareness to our experience. It is this attention that changes the structure and functions of our physical brain (Siegel, 2007). For example, when we are passengers in a car, we may not be able to retrace the route taken from our home to a new destination, but if we have to drive, we pay close attention to where we are going; our brain literally builds a pathway of neurons that “remember” how to get from A to B. Such bulking up of spatial memory has been studied in London cab drivers who need to recall thousands of streets and laneways. Their knowledge can be seen as a thickened area on a brain scan (Begley, 2007).
MINDFULNESS AND THE TRAUMA BRAIN
Studies into the brains of chronically traumatized children reveal that although there can be crippling side effects, there is also hope for healing with mindfulness practice.
Childhood trauma has been linked to smaller brain size, diminished IQ, anti-social behaviour, aggression, and emotional numbness. “Trauma is the residue of what those experiences leave in your body,” says Bessel van der Kolk, the president of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. “People’s brains change because of trauma.”
Yet, recent studies show that mindfulness practice helps children connect with positive emotional and social experiences, often things that a traumatized brain struggles to do. These practices stimulate the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain linked to reflective awareness.
This recent study is one of a growing number of studies into the practice of mindfulness for children living with trauma. Many have offered promising results.
Over time, mindfulness meditation practice builds more connections between the areas of the brain, slows down the reactivity, and increases the sense of the body as a whole (Siegel, 2007). These changes can lead to greater emotional regulation and the capacity to tolerate the ups and downs of relationships, as well as the frustrations and setbacks that are simply a part of life. More body awareness also strengthens the part of the brain that is associated with interpretation of the emotions and bodily sensations of others which strengthens empathy (Siegel, 2010). Yi-Yuan Tang and Michael J. Posner (2012) note that meditation improved the ability of people to read the emotional states of others, after an eight week intervention.
Mindfulness practices can be very helpful in relieving the symptoms of toxic stress and PTSD, however, some caution is advised. It is important to choose the practices that fit the learning style and tolerance levels of the person who uses them. Sitting quietly and focusing on the breath for long periods of time may be soothing for some but very unsettling for others. If introducing mindfulness meditation, starting with very short periods of practice, is the best approach, people can still benefit from only a few minutes of focusing their attention on their breath or their bodily sensations of sitting in the chair.
A FEW SIMPLE MINDFULNESS EXERCISES
When you catch yourself being caught up in worries about the future, or in guilt and regret about the past, just notice that it is happening, and simply and kindly say to yourself, “come back.” Then take a calming breath and focus on what you are doing right now.
Another helpful mindfulness trick is simply to notice what you are experiencing right now through three senses – sound, sight, touch. Take a few slow breaths and ask yourself:
- What are three things I can hear? (clock on the wall, car going by, music in the next room)
- What are three things I can see? (this table, that sign, that person walking by)
- What are three things I can feel? (the chair under me, the floor under my feet, my phone in my pocket)
Think of these answers to yourself slowly, one sense at a time. It’s impossible to do this exercise and not be present.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness. For example:
- Pay attention. The next time you meet someone, listen closely to his or her words. Think about their meaning and uniqueness. Aim to develop a habit of understanding others and delaying your own judgments and criticisms.
- Make the familiar new again. Find a few small, familiar objects — such as a toothbrush, apple, or cellphone — in your home or office. Look at the objects with fresh eyes. Identify one new detail about each object that you didn’t see before. As you become more aware of your world, you might become fonder of the things around you.
- Focus on your breathing. Sit in a quiet place with your back straight, but relaxed. Feel your breath move in and out of your body. Let your awareness of everything else fall away. Pay attention to your nostrils as air passes in and out. Notice the way your abdomen expands and collapses with each breath. When your mind wanders, gently redirect your attention to your breath. Don’t judge yourself. Remember that you’re not trying to become anything — such as a good meditator. You’re simply becoming aware of what’s happening around you, breath by breath.
- Awaken your senses. Get a raisin. Sit in a quiet place with your back straight, but relaxed. Look at the raisin. Smell it, feel it and anticipate eating it. Taste the raisin, and slowly and deliberately chew it. Notice the way the raisin’s taste changes, your impulse to swallow the raisin, your response to that impulse, and any thoughts or emotions that arise along the way. Paying close attention to your senses and your body’s reaction to it.
10 Daily Mindfulness Exercises
- Reverse the order in which you do things. Be involved in the awkwardness of reversing the order in which you towel yourself off, get dressed, and put on your socks and shoes in the morning.
- Write with the opposite hand; use the mouse with the opposite hand; brush your hair with the opposite hand. You’ll laugh at how preschool-ish your handwriting suddenly becomes, and how you really have to focus on making your letters NOT look like potatoes.
- Need to reorganize your books? Stack them in a spiral like the picture above.
- Pay attention to the full experience of walking: the sensations, fine and gross motor movement, how objects seem to move past you, the temperature, the wind, etc.
- Pay attention to the full experience of breathing: the sounds, sensations, smells, etc. (this is a great way to get into a deep meditative state)
- Change up your routine. Drive a different way to work, reverse the order in which you get ready in the morning, and eat something new for breakfast. Change up your routine anytime you can.
- Play the A-Z game as you walk in an urban area (NOT while you are driving, please); try to spot all the letters of the alphabet, in order, as you walk. This works with numbers too; set an arbitrary number you want to “count” to and go about finding those numbers, in their correct configurations, until you reach your target.
- Periodically stop and smile. Become aware of the immediate physiological response in your body. Feels great, doesn’t it
- Whenever you catch yourself doing something habitually, STOP. Start over and do it a different way. Even if it’s a destructive habit, go ahead and indulge but be VERY mindful of the process. You can choose how to make the action different – light the cigarette with your other hand; pour your drink with the other hand. And, if it’s a destructive habit, become aware of the urge; become aware of the actions you are taking and the physiological response to the habit.
- Take a deep breath and while you hold it, notice and name 5 things you can see; feel; hear.
WHY PRACTICE MINDFULNESS?
The cultivation of mindfulness has roots in Buddhism, but most religions include some type of prayer or meditation technique that helps shift your thoughts away from your usual preoccupations toward an appreciation of the moment and a larger perspective on life.
Professor emeritus Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder and former director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, helped to bring the practice of mindfulness meditation into mainstream medicine, and demonstrated that practicing mindfulness can bring improvements in both physical and psychological symptoms as well as positive changes in health attitudes and behaviors.
Mindfulness improves well being
- Increasing your capacity for mindfulness supports many attitudes that contribute to a satisfied life.
- Being mindful makes it easier to savor the pleasures in life as they occur, helps you become fully engaged in activities, and creates a greater capacity to deal with adverse events.
- By focusing on the here and now, many people who practice mindfulness find that they are less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past, are less preoccupied with concerns about success and self-esteem, and are better able to form deep connections with others.
Mindfulness improves physical health
If greater well-being isn’t enough of an incentive, scientists have discovered the benefits of mindfulness techniques help improve physical health in a number of ways. Mindfulness can:
- help relieve stress
- treat heart disease
- lower blood pressure
- reduce chronic pain
- improve sleep
- alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties
Mindfulness improves mental health
In recent years, psychotherapists have turned to mindfulness meditation as an important element in the treatment of a number of problems, including:
- substance abuse
- eating disorders
- couples’ conflicts
- anxiety disorders
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
Some experts believe that mindfulness works, in part, by helping people to accept their experiences — including painful emotions — rather than react to them with aversion and avoidance.
It’s become increasingly common for mindfulness meditation to be combined with psychotherapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy. This development makes good sense, since both meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy share the common goal of helping people gain perspective on irrational, maladaptive, and self-defeating thoughts.
Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness, even for just a few weeks, can bring a variety of physical, psychological, and social benefits. Here are some of these benefits, which extend across many different settings.
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