With all the craze around mindfulness and being mindful, one is sometimes confounded by what it is essentially.
According to the influential book “The Mindful Way Through Depression Mindfulness”, mindfulness is:
“The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are.”
It is the practice of learning how to pay attention in each moment to our thoughts, emotions, sensations and bodies without trying to judge them as either ‘bad’ or ‘good.’ Mindfulness is a way to become comfortable with things as they are, rather than the constant striving we go through to try and make things different.
We can practice mindfulness in lots of different ways. We can pay particular attention to the sensation of our breath. Or we can choose to eat something carefully and consciously, making note of the different sensations that arise. We can take a walk and pay focused attention on how our body is moving and the sensory input in each moment from our surroundings.
We can also take time to practice ‘body scans,’ where we feel each part of our body in turn and accept how we are feeling, without judging.
For many people who are used to ruminating thoughts, or constant daydreaming and wishing things to be different, mindfulness can provide a powerful release from the constant task of trying to change our experience.
But it doesn’t stop there!
What can Mindfulness do for us?
Studies have shown that after an 8-week course in Mindfulness meditation there was a noticeable effect in the brain. MRI’s showed that the amygdala, the brain’s primal ‘fight or flight’ response center, appeared to shrink. This is important because this region of the brain also plays a part in our fear and stress responses.
As this area begins to shrink the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for actions such as concentration, decision-making and awareness, begins to get thicker.
As this happens the way the two areas interact also changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain weakens, whilst areas responsible for better concentration and awareness connect more strongly.
This is a wonderful motivation to practice Mindfulness, but there is also another reason – how it affects our relationship to pain. People who are advanced in Mindfulness practice report feeling less pain intensity than those who do not practice. Meditators do not develop a weaker ability to feel pain, rather the way their brain speaks to different regions changes the way it is processed. Zen practitioners lessen their aversion to stimulus such as feeling pain, rather than blocking it altogether.
The Spectrum of Being Mindful
People with mental health issues such as depression have also reported a lessening in their symptoms, and a slower rate of relapse, as compared to those who don’t meditate.
There’s still lots of research to be done in this area, but the work done over the last couple of decades is incredibly encouraging and shows that mindfulness doesn’t only affect us from subjective self-reporting, but that it objectively changes our brain to allow us greater access to relaxation.
Other areas which Mindfulness can help with are emotional processing and helping to increase self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief in your ability to exercise control over events and emotions in your life. Mindfulness can help you achieve this by putting you more in touch with what is truly happening in your body and mind, and giving you tools to be present with it, without fighting it or trying to change it. In another one of our paradoxes, the act of accepting without trying to change something, particularly unpleasant sensations like physical and emotional pain, actually helps ease their burden.
Here below are two introductory exercises you can try.
Eating the raisin.
A common introductory exercise into the power of mindfulness is the raisin exercise.
Take a raisin and find a comfortable area where you won’t be disturbed.
Sit comfortably and take a few moments to regulate your breathing.
Put the raisin in your mouth and hold it there, taking note of how it feels. How does it taste? What does its texture feel like?
Begin to chew slowly, and take note of all the sensations that arise.
Notice how the raisin tastes and how its texture changes.
Notice how your teeth and tongue and lips feel as you chew.
Notice your throat and other areas of your body as you swallow.
The Body Scan.
Sit or lay comfortably, in a place you won’t be disturbed.
Take a few moments to breathe in and out, and notice how your body feels as a whole against the surface on which you’re sitting / lying.
Take your focus and begin to pay attention to the toes on your left foot.
Feel each toe and what sensations arise. You may feel no sensations at all, that’s ok, just pay attention to how it feels.
Focus on each toe, on the top of each toe and below each toe.
Notice the spaces between the toes or any sensation or air passing if you are barefoot, or warmth or tingling if you are not.
Allow yourself simply to notice how your toes are feeling.
Don’t pass judgement on what you’re feeling. When you are ready move your attention to the rest of your foot.
Feel the top of your foot, the arch of your foot and your heel and the pads of your foot. Feel any sensations that arise, gently taking note of what you are feeling.
When you are ready move onto your other foot. Repeat for all areas of your body, ending at your head.
This exercise is a powerful tool for grounding us and bringing us into greater touch with how we are feeling. Sometimes when we feel the physical sensations in the body we become aware of the emotional body as well. For example, we might feel a tightness in the stomach and realize we are feeling anxious. This is ok. Just notice the emotion and where it is located.
As you might have concluded, meditation in the form of mindfulness is no doubt a highly valuable skill to possess in today’s frantic society. It seems the more we are advancing into the future, the more distractions we are met with in our day-to-day lives.
Mindfulness does not really promise the absence of these distractions but rather the freedom from their overwhelming influence.
If you want to take your meditation practice further, you could have a look at Giovanni’s great meditation course for beginners.
I’m Grace, a fallen star living in Englands blooming fields.