Mindfulness is becoming more and more popular. It is somewhat of a buzz word at the moment, so you are likely to find it applied to work, parenting, health, environmental practices and so on. Practitioners rave about its many benefits, including greater calm, improved concentration and a more positive attitude but there’s more than just anecdotal evidence to prove its validity.
Scientific studies have proven that mindful practices change brain chemistry by shrinking the amygdala. This almond-shaped portion of the brain is central to emotions and emotional behaviour, particularly fear-based emotions and reactions. It is often over-developed in those who worry a lot much like an over-trained muscle. By reducing the size of the amygdala, we lower its sensitivity and capacity to bring us into the states of fight, flight or freeze.
So, what does it means to be mindful, where does the practice come from and how does it work?
Mindfulness is very simply the practice of focusing our awareness on the present moment, which means being more conscious of how we are, where we are and what we are doing. Simple but not always easy as our busy minds are quite good at taking us elsewhere.
If I ask you, as you read this, to notice how your body feels as you sit or stand, what happens? You might find that you can feel your feet on the ground or the seat underneath you. How is your posture? Are you comfortable? Are your shoulders relaxed or tense? How about your jaws? Is your breathing easy or restricted, deep or shallow? By paying attention to these, you just practiced one form of mindfulness.
In a mindful state of present awareness, we notice how we are and can then choose to remain or to change. In a mindless state we are too busy thinking about other things to really know what’s happening in and around us.
By mindless I mean that our mind is less here because it is more somewhere else. We are often preoccupied with worry. We project our thoughts to a future that doesn’t exist yet, or to a past that we can do nothing about.
The mind-body connection is powerful. Body language proves that what the mind is thinking is often reflected physically, through our movements, posture, facial expressions and the tension we hold in our muscles. How we feel when we wake from a dream demonstrates how the mind creates feelings and physical reactions in the body.
Imagine a stressful situation and you will feel stress and all the physical effects that come with it. Imagine a pleasant situation and you will feel pleasure and all its benefits. Take a break from overthinking and your body gets a chance to return to neutral, to reset. We can’t always be happy, and it is difficult to exist in a state of unhappiness, but neutral is a really nice place to hang out in between.
In reality, all we have is the present. Right now, this moment, is the only time that we can do anything. It requires our attention for us to experience it fully and do what’s needed to create future experiences. Mindfulness is just a new word for an old practice, which has been taught for millennia around the world. We need it now as much as then, perhaps more.
There are many forms of practice. Our senses can really help pull our minds back to the present. Feeling the sensations in our bodies while we lie, sit, stand or move. We notice tension that we can choose to let go, poor posture that we can adjust and pain that we just might do something about.
I use it when jogging to help me find a pace, distance and technique that feels good, rather than pounding my joints or overdoing the exercise. The point of exercising is to get more feel-good-factor from improved health so why not feel good during the process too?
Hearing is another way. By focusing on a sound around us the other noises and our distracting thoughts, fade into the background, giving us a welcome break. A mindless listener, in conversation, is just rehearsing what they are about to say next, while mindful listener will pay greater attention, hearing both what is being said and unsaid. Communication skills skyrocket with mindful practice.
Our sight can be used too by simply watching a candle flame, noticing how it dances, flickers, twists and sways. A mindless viewer has too many images in their head to see what is in front of them. Mindful seers are more likely appreciate a beautiful view, possess greater clarity and pick up the finer details of a situation, all helpful in our day-to-day lives.
Taste can be used too. Mindful eating brings our attention to the taste and texture of our food, heightening the sensations we get from it. A mindless eater often gulps down a meal on autopilot and can easily find themselves wishing they hadn’t eaten it afterwards. Mindfully, we eat more slowly, chew more fully, choose more nutritious foods, practice greater portion control and enjoy the full flavour.
Art, music, sport, exercise, gardening, meditation, prayer or any activity that focus our attention are all forms of mindfulness. Simple guided meditations can be a good place to start if you don’t have these in your life already or want more options. I have several 4 and 10 minute guided ones uploaded on www.highestpotential.ie that you can try out.
Like any new practice, start small. Little and often is best. There will be days when your mind won’t let you focus, just like there are days you don’t feel like exercising or working. Let it be what it is and come back to the practice the following day.
Don’t expect to be mindful all the time. You will get distracted, we all do, but less so with practice. If in mental, physical or emotional pain, you may need some distraction to reduce its severity. A mindless person might use drink, drugs or some other unhealthy means to escape, whereas a mindful individual can choose a more proactive way to improve their state and situation.
In time, you will enjoy more moments of calm, a clearer perspective on life, motivation to explore all that we can do, acceptance of the things that are out of our control, greater appreciation of the beauty in this world and less worry. You will notice when you are feeling heightened unpleasant emotions and find you can sit with them, choosing how or if to deal with the trigger rather than reacting mindlessly.
The best way to find out what mindfulness can do for you is to give it a try!