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What is Mindfulness?

Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one.

But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.”

-Ekhart Tolle,

Spiritual Teacher & Author

The act of mindfulness is to practice becoming aware of the present moment. So much of our modern lives are spent worrying about the future and dwelling on the past, we forget to simply enjoy the present. Mindfulness has become more popular in recent years as a growing number of people become aware of the benefits that come from stilling the mind and training ourselves to notice our thoughts and feelings as they arise without judgement.

The scientific benefits of mindfulness…

STRESS REDUCTION

Research shows that after practising mindfulness, the grey matter in a brain region known for its role in stress (the Amygdala) can become smaller.

Stress reduction is one of the most common reasons people try meditation.

One study including over 3,500 adults showed that it lives up to its reputation for stress reduction (1Trusted Source).

Normally, mental and physical stress cause increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This produces many of the harmful effects of stress, such as the release of inflammation-promoting chemicals called cytokines.

These effects can disrupt sleep, promote depression and anxiety, increase blood pressure and contribute to fatigue and cloudy thinking.

In an eight-week study, a meditation style called “mindfulness meditation” reduced the inflammation response caused by stress (2).

Another study in nearly 1,300 adults demonstrated that meditation may decrease stress. Notably, this effect was strongest in individuals with the highest levels of stress (3Trusted Source).

Research has shown that meditation may also improve symptoms of stress-related conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder and fibromyalgia (4Trusted Source5Trusted Source678Trusted Source).

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BETTER EMOTIONAL HEALTH

Two studies of mindfulness meditation found decreased depression in over 4,600 adults (1Trusted Source14Trusted Source).

One study followed 18 volunteers as they practiced meditation over three years. The study found that participants experienced long-term decreases in depression (10).

Inflammatory chemicals called cytokines, which are released in response to stress, can affect mood, leading to depression. A review of several studies suggests meditation may reduce depression by decreasing these inflammatory chemicals (15Trusted Source).

Another controlled study compared electrical activity between the brains of people who practiced mindfulness meditation and the brains of others who did not.

Those who meditated showed measurable changes in activity in areas related to positive thinking and optimism (16).

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REDUCED ANXIETY

Habitual meditation helps reduce anxiety and anxiety-related mental health issues like social anxiety, phobias and obsessive-compulsive behaviours.

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IMPROVED SELF AWARENESS

Some forms of meditation may help you develop a stronger understanding of yourself, helping you grow into your best self.

For example, self-inquiry meditation explicitly aims to help you develop a greater understanding of yourself and how you relate to those around you.

Other forms teach you to recognize thoughts that may be harmful or self-defeating. The idea is that as you gain greater awareness of your thought habits, you can steer them toward more constructive patterns (17Trusted Source18Trusted Source19Trusted Source).

A study of 21 women fighting breast cancer found that when they took part in a tai chi program, their self-esteem improved more than it did than in those who received social support sessions (20).

In another study, 40 senior men and women who took a mindfulness meditation program experienced reduced feelings of loneliness, compared to a control group that had been placed on a wait list for the program (21).

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HELPS TO IMPROVE MEMORY FUNCTION

An area of the brain known as the hippocampus helps your memory and learning. This area can also become thicker after practising mindfulness.

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MANIFESTS KINDNESS ATTITUDES

Cultivating empathy through compassion meditation affects brain regions that make a person more sympathetic to other peoples’ mental states. Richard Davidson, the William James and Vilas Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a pioneer in this field of meditation as a tool for brain plasticity.  Davidson and associate scientist Antoine Lutz have been working on this research for years.

“Many contemplative traditions speak of loving-kindness as the wish for happiness for others and of compassion as the wish to relieve others’ suffering. Loving-kindness and compassion are central to the Dalai Lama’s philosophy and mission,” says Davidson, who has worked extensively with the Tibetan Buddhist leader. “We wanted to see how this voluntary generation of compassion affects the brain systems involved in empathy.”

Davidson and Lutz’s work suggests that through mindfulness training, people can develop skills that promote happiness and compassion. “People are not just stuck at their respective set points,” Lutz says. “We can take advantage of our brain’s plasticity and train it to enhance these qualities.”

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain imaging shows that positive emotions such as loving-kindness and compassion can be learned in the same way as playing a musical instrument or being proficient in a sport. The scans revealed that brain circuits used to detect emotions and feelings were dramatically changed in subjects who had extensive experience practicing compassion meditation.

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HELPS TO BOOST IMMUNE FUNCTION

Your immune system is one of the most critical, and most fascinating, aspects of the mind-body connection. For a long time, the ability of immune cells to attack invading disease organisms was considered purely physical, even though the mechanism was not completely understood.

Then, in the ‘80s it was discovered that the immune system is highly intelligent; it became known as “a floating brain” because of the ability of immune cells to participate in the chemical messages sent by the brain throughout the body. This means that your thoughts, moods, sensations, and expectations are transmitted to your immune cells. When you meditate, these messages change in important ways.

Consider these research findings that offer very good news for anyone who mediates.

  • Since your immune system responds to both negative and positive thoughts, meditation creates a positive mental environment for the immune system to flourish. This study showed a reduction of pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults.
  • A UCLA study shows that HIV positive patients who practice mindful meditation slow down the reduction of their CD-4 cell count. These are the immune cells that are associated with keeping the virus from propagating. 
  • Meditation boosts antibodies. A recent study confirmed that, after being given weekly meditation training for 8 weeks, 48 biotech workers had significantly higher levels of antibodies than the control group (coworkers who didn’t meditate) as well as higher levels than before the study.
  • Meditation stimulates immune system brain-function regions. Mindfulness meditation has shown increases in electrical activity in the prefrontal cortex, the right anterior insula, and right hippocampus, all parts that control positive emotions, awareness, and anxiety. These are also the areas of the brain that act as a command center for your immune system. When stimulated, they make the immune system function more effectively.

These findings bring into focus a clear message: Your response to potential illness, as managed by the immune system, improves with meditation. This is in keeping with another strong message. Being susceptible to chronic disorders like type-2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure, conditions that are not the result of invading microbes, is also reduced through meditation. The entire mind-body system is brought into a natural state of balance, the key to what (Deepak Chopra) called ‘the higher health.’

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IMPROVED SLEEP QUALITY

Nearly half the population will struggle with insomnia at some point.

One study compared two mindfulness-based meditation programs by randomly assigning participants to one of two groups. One group practiced meditation, while the other didn’t.

Participants who meditated fell asleep sooner and stayed asleep longer, compared to those who didn’t meditate (39Trusted Source).

Becoming skilled in meditation may help you control or redirect the racing or “runaway” thoughts that often lead to insomnia.

Additionally, it can help relax your body, releasing tension and placing you in a peaceful state in which you’re more likely to fall asleep.

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CAN DECREASE BLOOD PRESSURE

Blood pressure decreases not only during meditation, but also over time in individuals who meditate regularly. This can reduce strain on the heart and arteries, helping prevent heart disease.

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ASSISTS WITH PAIN MANAGEMENT

We know there’s a link between how much pain we feel and our memories of pain. When we feel pain, we create a memory of it. The next time we feel the same pain, our memories of the pain can make it feel worse.

One study found that mindfulness experts reported feeling less pain than people who didn’t practise mindfulness. Interestingly, in these people the areas of the brain that are associated with pain didn’t shrink. Instead, the areas of the brain associated with emotion and memory were less active. It seems that mindfulness may have reduced the connectivity between these two areas of the brain. By not drawing on past memories of pain, the experts were able to feel less pain.

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IMPROVED CREATIVITY

The pre-frontal cortex is the area of your brain responsible for things like planning, problem solving, and controlling your emotions. The grey matter in this area can become thicker after practising mindfulness, showing increased activity in these areas of thought.

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IMPROVED ATTENTION SPAN

Focused-attention meditation is like weight lifting for your attention span. It helps increase the strength and endurance of your attention.

For example, a study looked at the effects of an eight-week mindfulness meditation course and found it improved participants’ ability to reorient and maintain their attention (23).

A similar study showed that human resource workers who regularly practiced mindfulness meditation stayed focused on a task for longer.

These workers also remembered details of their tasks better than their peers who did not practice meditation (24).

Moreover, one review concluded that meditation may even reverse patterns in the brain that contribute to mind-wandering, worrying and poor attention (25Trusted Source).

Even meditating for a short period may benefit you. One study found that four days of practicing meditation may be enough to increase attention span (26).

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How do I start?

You can start practicing mindfulness anytime, anywhere. Simply start by bringing your awareness to what is happening NOW. What can you see? Hear? Feel? Taste? Touch? Go through each of the 5 senses one by one to ground yourself in the now.

  • Try it whilst washing the dishes. You bet! I’m serious. Pay attention to the temperature of the water, the texture of the dishes and the foam. As you do focus on your breathing and the smell of the washing liquid. When other thoughts wander in, simply note ‘that’s a thought’, let it go without judgement and return to noticing the 5 senses again.
  • Have a stretch. As you stretch, start to become aware of your body and visualise the muscles underneath the skin releasing tension and expanding out. Focus on the breath and as you do, you can visualise oxygen travelling to all those muscles in the body, nourishing and relaxing them as you stretch your body out. Notice any feelings of tightness, or discomfort, simply note ‘feeling’, let it go and try not to judge yourself.
  • Make a cup of tea. Pay attention to the sound of the kettle, the texture of the cup and the heat from the steam, the tea may have a pleasant aroma to you. As you do focus on your breathing and the ease of which water flows, the colour of the water changing. When unassociated thoughts wander in, simply note ‘thought’ and return to noticing the 5 senses again.

Mindfulness can be practiced whenever you choose, the more you do it, the easier it will get. Once you find it easier to be in the moment, you can start to monitor your emotions more. Notice when you are starting to feel stressed or tired or angry and try bring the awareness back to the body and the breath, taking a moment to rest & repair, giving yourself space to ground and find control again. Remember practice is everything! You can try to be mindful, there is no wrong or right, everyone moves at a different pace and some people find it easier to relax than others.

Once you have mastered the art of mindfulness, try out a short meditation session. You can do this by:

  • Setting aside some time for yourself to dedicate to your mind,
  • Assign a space of comfort where you won’t be disturbed,
  • Sit down in a comfortable position with a long spine,
  • Close your eyes down and bring the attention to your breathing,
  • Breathe in for 4 counts through your nostrils, hold for 4 counts. Breathe out for 4 counts through your nostrils, hold for 4 counts. (repeat)
  • Allow yourself to ‘live in the breath’, focus on the chest rising and falling, or it may be noticeable in your stomach if you are breathing deeply. Place a hand on the sensation if this helps to draw your focus there.
  • You can notice any feelings in the body, either of discomfort or comfort. Try not to judge either one.
  • You can notice the colours behind your eyelids or the heat of the breath in your nostrils.
  • You can pay attention to the sounds in the room and the temperature of the air on your skin.
  • When your mind becomes distracted and you realise thoughts have wondered, simply note to yourself ‘thought’ or ‘feeling’ depending on which has interrupted your focus, let is go without judgement and return to noticing your 5 senses or focusing on your breath.

Try to start with 5 to 10 minutes of meditation each day and as it becomes easier you can increase the amount of time you spend doing it.

The Transformation Practice will assist you in learning new techniques and ways to find your inner calm and peace through guided relaxation and mindfulness self-help tools as we move toward your goal.

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