What is mindfulness, really?
It’s such a trendy word these days. Everybody uses it. Most instances of general usage refer more to awareness than mindfulness. To say, “do something with mindfulness” means paying deliberate attention to the task at hand. The official definition that has taken hold in the West is,
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgementally.”
by Jon Kabat Zinn,
There are about 30 years of research that shows mindfulness practiced in a nonsectarian context brings tremendous benefits in many areas of life, including, but not limited to various illnesses, stress, heart disease, chronic pain, OCD, eating disorders, substance abuse, and the list goes on. Some of the big areas where it helps are Self Awareness, Impulse Control, and Emotional Balance.
Isn’t it Eastern religious thing? Where’s the science behind it?
Although it did come to the West from Eastern spiritual traditions, it’s practiced in the West, in many settings, without any spiritual connotations. For example, the military, hospitals, therapeutic settings, academic settings, etc. The main areas that mindfulness practice affects the brain are the Hippocampus, Amygdala and the Prefrontal cortex. The Amygdala goes into overdrive during times of stress and reacts with your basic “Fight, Flight, Freeze” conditioning and makes the Prefrontal cortex less accessible. When the brain is familiar with practicing mindfulness, the Amygdala deactivates and the Prefrontal cortex is more accessible. The reason why we want the Prefrontal cortex to be accessible is that this is the region that helps us make better decisions/choices, and this is the area that is primarily responsible for learning. This is the area responsible for higher level thinking.
So, if you are a child in a classroom that has just come in after recess, where you might have had some sort of conflict, or come to school in the morning after a conflict with your parents or siblings; or simply forgot to do your homework; or not studied enough for your test, your Amygdala is in an activated state and your Prefrontal cortex and the Hippocampus (responsible for memory and recalling information) is inaccessible, you cannot expect to get much out of the lesson the teacher has in mind. However, if you are familiar with mindfulness practice and do it on a regular basis then you have tools to deactivate the Amygdala, which then makes the good parts of the brain (Hippocampus, Prefrontal cortex) accessible.
If you are a parent and are at that point where you are really about to lose it with your child, your Amygdala is on overdrive and your Prefrontal cortex is inaccessible. What this does is your better judgment of being calm and not yelling at the child is blocked (because your Prefrontal cortex is responsible for making good decisions/better choices). If, however, you have a mindfulness practice, your Prefrontal cortex is more accessible because your brain knows how to deactivate the Amygdala and has become really good at it through practice.
Just paying attention to the breath can do all this?
Yes! As much as we want things that work really well to be complex and intricate and expensive and luxury, mindfulness practice is nothing extraordinary. It’s a very simple practice, and its benefits have been tested by Western scientists in scientific labs. Don’t take my word for it, google, “Dan Siegel mindfulness”, “Jon Kabat Zinn”, “David Vago”, “MBCT”, “MBSR”. Research labs at Harvard, MIT, UCLA, Stanford, and many other respectable institutions are specifically researching mindfulness practice and not just meditation in general.
So, how do you do it?
Here are the 3 steps:
1) Find your seat on a cushion or a chair and try to keep your spine straight (if not, you will not be doing it wrong).
2) Close your eyes, breathe naturally, and keep your attention on the movement of the breath. Breath in, breath out-just be as attentive as you can to that breath.
3) When you find yourself lost in thought, just be aware that you got distracted and say, inwardly, “thinking”-no judgments or analysis about your thoughts or that you got distracted, just a simple label like, “thinking”, or “discomfort”, “hungry” will suffice. After labeling your thought, come back to the breath.
Start with 2 minutes and increase the time every week. Some people practice for 30 minutes, 45 minutes, 1 hour and some do it for 15 minutes. It’s better to have short frequent practices, so don’t worry if you are just doing it for 10-15 minutes a day. Do 10 minutes a day twice a day if you are able.
1) What should I visualize-like a peaceful place?
Nothing. You keep your thoughts on the present breath. You’re trying to be awake to the present moment, not relax into some abstract idea of meditation. When you are in stress, the stress happens here in the present, not in some peaceful place in your mind, so train your mind to be present.
2) Can I open my eyes?
Yes, you can keep your eyes open, but keep the gaze downward and soft so that your surroundings don’t distract you too much.
3) What if I itch and move?
Try to stay still and experience the itch, but if it gets uncomfortable then, scratch the itch and come back to your breath if your attention gets distracted while you itch. If you feel pain in your legs, move your legs and come back to your breath. This isn’t bootcamp.
4) Will I look weird when I do this?
Yes, as weird as when you sit down in front of the TV or when you text on your phone. It’s all weird-there’s no normal.
5) I can’t do this. I can’t sit still for 5 minutes doing nothing! So, what now?
Practice active mindfulness. When you are eating, just pay attention to the food in your mouth as you chew it. Just for a few seconds-maybe 30 seconds or 2 bites the entire dinner. Then after dinner when you do the dishes, keep your attention on 2 of the dishes you wash (not the whole sink, just 2). When you kiss the kids goodnight, just hug him for 10-15 seconds and keep your focus on his heartbeat. After the kids are off to bed and you turn on the tv, pay attention to how you hold the remote and what buttons you are pushing to turn it on and increase or decrease the volume-don’t let it happen on auto pilot. When you change into your pajamas, pay attention to how your pajama shirt feels as you take it off the shelf, put it over your head, and how it feels on your skin (that’ll probably take 10-15 seconds). For each time you are paying attention, you will get pulled away by other thoughts. When you become aware that you were distracted, say, “thinking” or “distracted” and come back to your focus of action (this step of labeling and coming back is the key to your practice).