Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness practice is one way to really experience the current moment and bring awareness into your everyday life.
We tend to spend much of our lives thinking or ruminating about things in the past, whether it be an hour, a day or years ago or thinking and worrying about the future
e.g. “ I must ring … later”, “I must get my hair cut”, “What shall I cook for dinner”, “Shall I apply for that job”, “What will I be doing in ten years” and so on. How many times have you driven or walked somewhere with your head full of so many thoughts you haven’t noticed anything along the journey? Being like this prevents us from living in the present moment and we miss the here and now.
Mindfulness is about being in the present moment, without judgement. The emphasis is on being purposeful as opposed to living life on automatic pilot as many of us tend to do in our busy lives and schedules, for example, purposefully giving your full attention to the feeling of the steering wheel whilst driving, to the water on your hands when washing them or the inhalation and exhalation of your breathing. It is about being really awake and alive – to wake up from the ‘sleepwalking’ of life. It is about not taking things for granted.
Mindfulness means returning to the present moment. It is difficult for anyone’s mind to constantly stay in the present moment. Thoughts keep coming that our minds want to process, but we do have control over returning to the present moment – returning to our breath or one of our senses – what we can see, hear, touch, smell or taste. Mindfulness is about regulating our attention whilst adopting openness and acceptance. It is a way of living, where, with practice we can step back into the present moment anytime and anywhere.
Mindfulness, as well as making us aware of positive aspects of life and things we may feel grateful for, also brings self- awareness to unpleasant thoughts, feelings and situations. This however means we will become more able to respond calmly, rationally and empathetically rather than reacting impulsively or defensively when faced with stress or challenging situations.
Mindfulness meditation as well as changing our mindset actually changes the neural pathways in our brains. Neuroimaging studies have shown that 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation changes our brains by rewiring them towards more positive emotions and thoughts. During meditation our brain waves change from high-frequency to a lower frequency which activates and deactivates certain areas of the brain. Emotions such as fear, stress and anxiety can lessen whilst new pathways can be built to the area of the brain responsible for focus, rational thinking and decision making.
Mindfulness meditation can change the shape of the brain through neuroplasticity. Through regular practice the grey matter in a part of our brain called the pre-frontal cortex changes and structural change occurs in the hippocampus – this area is associated with planning, problem solving, flexibility of thinking and memory recall. There is a small almond shaped group of neurons in our brain called the ‘amygdala’. The amygdala is located within our limbic system which is a very primitive part of our brain – our emotional brain that thinks only in black/white terms and is responsible for our fight, flight or freeze reactions when faced with real danger. However, our emotional brain doesn’t differentiate between real danger (e.g. a bus hurtling towards you) and everyday cumulative stresses. It can therefore keep our bodies flooded with stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This then creates ongoing anxiety and stress, fear, anger etc., With mindfulness practice the amygdala shrinks and the connections between the pre frontal cortex and the amygdala shrink. This allows us to react less and to pay attention more, resulting in healthier emotions and responses.
Our sympathetic nervous system, prompted by the amygdala releases adrenaline which increases our heartbeat and blood pressure and cortisol which suppresses the immune system. Mindfulness meditation helps to self-regulate, to lower stress levels to a baseline state and get everything back into balance. When stress levels are reduced you shift from your sympathetic nervous system to your parasympathetic nervous system which lowers your temperature, your heartbeat and blood pressure, and promotes rest and relaxation.
MINDFULNESS MEDITATION TECHNIQUES
FOCUS ATTENTION ON BREATHING- This technique uses the breath to anchor the mind and maintain awareness. Focus your attention on the breath and let it settle, then breathe in deeply and slowly from the abdomen making the out breath longer – this will activate your parasympathetic nervous system. Whenever you get distracted by thoughts coming into your mind visualise them drifting away and keep returning to your breath ( your anchor).
BODY SCAN – This meditative technique is used to connect mindfully with the body and involves scanning the body from head to toe – being aware of any discomfort, sensations or aches (these could be indicators of anxiety and stress).
VISUALISATION – This technique uses visualisation to focus on something that holds our attention and creates a relaxed focus. You could visualise you are in a special, safe place e.g. a favourite beach or park that you have been to or it could be somewhere in your imagination. Whilst practising meditative breathing try to engage your senses.
MINDFUL MOVEMENT/WALKING – Mindful movement is about becoming aware of your bodily senses and their connection to your thoughts. If your body feels tight and tense, your thoughts may be too. If your shoulders are hunched and spine hunched over you could be in a state of fear or anger. Mindful movement tunes you into every part of your body so that your attention is brought to any resistance or tension.
Mindful walking entails again engaging all senses and giving the automatic thoughts ( the monkey chatter) in our brains a rest. How many times have you been on a beautiful walk yet missed all the beauty – the colours and shapes in the sky, the trees, the sight, smell and sound of the sea, the animals, the smell and sight of plants and flowers, the touch of the ground beneath your feet - all because of being in your thinking brain?
Practising mindfulness meditation can be a wonderful way to manage stress and increase compassion, awareness, empathy, focus, patience and ultimately happiness. There are many mindfulness and meditation techniques but most are aimed at cultivating calm and clarity, whilst remaining focused and embedded in a natural awareness.