What is Mindfulness?

Practicing mindfulness allows us to see that we can handle staying with discomfort and challenging emotions. Instead of pushing away our experience, we can lean into it, be curious about it, tune into the bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts that accompany it. By simply noticing the present moment, we build our innate ability to heal and grow. We can choose mindfulness anytime and anywhere.

Mindfulness is the practice of gently turning our attention to the present moment. It is not a destination or a final sense of enlightenment. We don't have to change or judge anything about our experience or ourselves. We can simply notice what's happening. Many people have the misconception that they need to go on a meditation retreat or be a trained yogi to be mindful. The reality is that we can all be mindful anytime and anywhere.

Mindlessness occurs when we are lost in thought and disengaged from the present moment. Our minds have a tendency to get caught up in thinking, fantasizing, planning, worrying, liking, disliking, remembering, forgetting, evaluating, reacting....an endless stream of activity. There are times when we get hooked on "the story" of "he said, she did, this shouldn't be happening," instead of recognizing our direct experience in the present moment. Have you ever arrived at a destination in your car (or on the bus/train) and realized you don't remember anything about the trip that got you there?

Don't worry - you're not alone. Often, we work really hard at trying to figure things out, dwelling somewhere other than the present. Sometimes it seems too painful or uncomfortable to be present in the moment. It might seem easier to reject our experience and engage in thoughts or activities that take us away from pain, suffering, fear, and discomfort. We all experience these challenging thoughts, emotions, and the bodily sensations that often arise with them (a stiff neck, a clenched jaw, a tightening in the chest area, etc.). And we have all made the habitual choice to "be mindless" at some point when we were afraid, sad, or angry. Yet, mindlessness can create more suffering by perpetuating the discomfort. If we believe that things should be different from what they are, we often choose to reject our experience. Maybe we believe that we aren't strong enough to handle a challenging experience. The great news is that our brains, nervous systems, and bodies are actually designed to be aware of our experience and move through whatever discomfort might be arising.

The hardest part of practicing mindfulness is actually doing it. It can be difficult to make a different choice. But mindfulness actually changes our brain structure every time we do it. There are many ways to practice mindfulness, including yoga and other mindfulness-in-action activities, in addition to walking and sitting meditation, and simple breathing techniques that only take a few minutes. Just a few minutes of practice can significantly decrease stress, anxiety, fear, and feelings of helplessness. Moreover, it can increase feelings if relaxation, mental ease, and compassion, among many other positive benefits.

More than likely, you are already practicing mindfulness in some area of your life. When we are engaged in an activity we love, we are often focused specifically upon it, leaving our thoughts, worries, feelings and sensations aside, at least for a moment or two. What do you love? Have you noticed a pointed concentration when doing it?

The practice of being present, for even just one moment, builds our confidence so that we know we can “handle” any
experience, deepening our belief that we are okay just the way we are, and literally changing our brain structure to promote
relaxation, mental clarity, compassion, and overall well-being.

Whatever mindfulness practice you explore, the most important thing to keep in mind is that there’s no right or wrong way to
do it; you are gently bringing your attention to the moment, giving yourself the gift of increased awareness, calm, and mental
flexibility.

Practicing MindfulnessA Few Examples

Chocolate
One way to practice mindfulness is to really enjoy a piece of chocolate (or other piece of candy if you prefer). You can start by looking at the chocolate. Is it wrapped individually? What color is the wrapper? Notice the way the wrapper feels in your hands and what it sounds like as you unwrap your treasure. What does the chocolate look like? Maybe it’s milk chocolate or a dark chocolate and perhaps it has something else about it that you can see, like nuts or pieces of dried fruit. Continue to engage all of your senses with this chocolate, including how it smells and then how it feels on your tongue. What is the taste and texture? Bringing mindfulness to a special treat is another way to regulate the nervous system and calm our brains, intensifying the pleasure of the experience.

Washing Your Hands
Washing your hands can be an everyday mindfulness practice. Turn your attention to the temperature of the water and how it
feels on your skin. Notice the suds of the soap. How does the soap and water feel? What is the scent of the soap, if any?
Washing our hands is typically perceived as a rather boring activity and a time when we are thinking of our to-do list or an
argument with a co-worker, but we can use this opportunity several times a day to calm our mind and nervous system,
approaching such a simple task as an invitation to lean into our experience and simply notice what’s happening.

Whole Body
Focusing your attention on your whole body is a mindfulness practice. You can start by noticing the top of your head and working all the way down to the tips of your toes, taking a moment to pause at each part on the way, simply noticing what that part of the body feels and looks like. For instance, without touching the top of your head, you might not be able to actually feel it. That’s okay, you’re just bringing your attention to that part of your body. But once you get down to your feet, you might be able to notice how your feet feel in your shoes or against the carpet. Once you’ve scanned your whole body, noticing different sensations, you can go back to whatever parts need some attention. If you noticed your forehead is tensed, for instance, you can use your hands to smooth over it. This can be done anytime and is especially helpful when feeling nervous, anxious, or even sleepy. Our bodies hold our emotions and can tell us a lot about how we are engaging with life and our present circumstances. By gently turning our attention to our body, we can learn a lot about what we need in the moment to care for ourselves.

A Few Other Activities:

Taking a walk and noticing how your feet feel as you take each step.

Coloring.

Feeling different textures around the house.

Writing your favorite quote or line from a poem.

Petting your dog or cat.

Chopping vegetables.

Listening to the sound of a child's voice.

Closing your eyes and silently repeating your favorite word.

Hugging a loved one.

Smiling.

Spinning.

Sipping tea.

Research on the Benefits of Mindfulness

Research has uncovered numerous health benefits from practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness has a positive impact on the
brain and nervous system; promotes relaxation, compassion, and mental clarity; and decreases stress and anxiety. In fact,
each time we choose to be mindful, we build “muscle” in our brain, strengthening areas, like our hippocampus, that are
responsible for emotional regulation, among other things. Put simply, we increase our awareness that we can choose how we relate to ourselves and our experiences.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, began conducting research on mindfulness in the
late 1970’s. He focused on its effects on pain reduction and found that participants reported lasting moderate to great
improvement in their pain when they practiced mindfulness meditation techniques, including stretching and breathing.
Over the last few decades, there has been extensive literature on the study of electroencephalogram (EEG) and magnetic
resonance imaging (MRI) on physiological changes resulting from different types of meditation. These studies have focused
on mindfulness and its impact on aging, stress, depression, anxiety, and emotional regulation.

Looking at neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections) and the neuroscience of
meditation, Richard Davidson, PhD, Founder and Chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, has made a significant
contribution to the study of neurobiology and emotion using brain imaging studies of Tibetan monks. The studies have shown
that people who practice mindfulness have more mental flexibility when working with negative emotions, such as anxiety, and have greater control over the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with processing fear. Davidson’s work strongly
suggests that emotion and thoughts are linked, because the activity of the prefrontal cortex, a region associated with higher
thought is strongly connected to activity in the limbic regions such as the amygdala, more typically associated with emotion. This suggests that our thoughts impact our emotions and vice versa.

Neuroscientist Sara Lazar of Massachusetts General Hospital, found that meditation can literally change brain structure.
Mindfulness meditation results in neuroplasticity demonstrated by a significant increase in thickened areas of the middle
prefrontal cortex and thickened right anteria insula. As a result mindfulness may prevent typical age-related cortical
thickening, which means that our capacity to coordinate brain, body, emotion, and thought doesn’t have to slow down or
diminish as we age. Additionally, Lazar and colleagues found that people with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder
have less grey matter in the left hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning and emotional regulation, when
compared to those who meditate. The latter have more grey matter, resulting again in more neuroplasticity and the ability to
more effectively manage negative, challenging emotions.

Additionally, studies demonstrate that benefits of meditation are numerous, and include:
1. Helping lower blood pressure
2. Decreasing heart and respiratory rates
3. Increasing blood flow
4. Enhancing immune function
5. Reducing perception of pain
6. Relieving chronic pain due to arthritis and other disorders
7. Maintaining level mood
8. Bringing awareness and mindfulness to everyday aspects of life

The practice of being present, for even just one moment, builds our confidence so that we know we can “handle” any
experience, deepening our belief that we are okay just the way we are, and literally changing our brain structure to promote
relaxation, mental clarity, compassion, and overall well-being.