By Jessica Kirby –
With the New Year comes myriad promises to turn over a new leaf, make important changes in our lives, and better ourselves in some way. You may vow to hit the gym, clean up your food choices, quit something unhealthy, or run 5 km a day—and I hope you do. But there is one, simple thing to which you can commit that will change your life and make these other tasks come easier: mindfulness. The art of mindfulness means staying in the moment, interrupting impulsivity with a deep breath and a moment’s pause, noticing distraction and choosing focus, and being deeply aware of the big picture. It means patience and thoughtfulness, and being brave enough to not respond immediately. With a wider lens, it means seeing the light in others, assuming the best, and living in the solution when disaster strikes.
Some people carve time out of the day for meditation, the way others make time to run, clean, or read quietly. Others take classes – yoga, meditation, chanting, the study of mindfulness – or seek inner peace in a church, synagogue, or temple. We can also conjure the muscle memory to practice mindfulness by first learning the physical habits of staying in the moment, and then teaching our hearts to eventually assume these habits as normal reactions.
For instance, if we remember taking a big breath is a more suitable reaction to another person’s negative comment than screaming at them, we will eventually take that reaction on as natural. In the beginning, we may take a breath and then react poorly, but eventually we can teach ourselves to take that breath, and stay focused on that breath for long enough to feel calmer. Soon, there will be only breathing, no screaming, followed by rational action.
The science behind the effectiveness of conjuring mindfulness is growing. Researchers have become more interested in the neurology behind self-propagating inner peace as tangible evidence of its benefits become more obvious.
The most recent research on the topic explores the ways the brain responds to mindful practice, measurable improvements in physical and mental health as a result of mindful practice, and cultural shifts such as changes in relationships and job satisfaction.
Scientists have identified lasting changes to the structure and neural patterns present in the brains of people who practise mindfulness. According to Greg Flaxman and Lisa Flook, Ph.D. of UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Centre, a 2005 study published in NeuroReport indicates “thicker cortical regions related to attention and sensory processing in long-term meditation practitioners compared to non-meditators. These findings also suggest that meditation practice may offset cortical thinning brought on by aging.”
In another recent study, individuals participated in compassion mediation while researchers looked at how the brain reacted in terms of emotional regulation in response to various stimuli. The results showed the more experienced the meditator, the more activation in those areas of the brain, indicating greater empathic awareness and ability to detect emotional cues.
Another study, discussed by Flaxman and Flook, focused on individuals who took part in an eight-week mindfulness course on meditation. The results indicated “increased activation in a region of the brain correlated with positive affect, as well as evidence that the immune system would react more robustly in antibody production after meditation training.”
Other research conducted in the past 10 years demonstrates being mindful can allow better stress regulation thanks to faster decrease of the stress hormone cortisol, and lower levels of anxiety, depression, and anger in people who received relaxation training.
Relationship meditation has led to improved closeness, acceptance of one another, autonomy, and general relationship satisfaction in study participants, and loving kindness meditation is known to improve relationships between family members, and improved parents’ self-confidence and general positive feelings toward their parenting experience.
Even children of parents who meditate benefit—these children are far less likely to participate in aggressive behaviour and non-compliant behaviour, and adolescents with externalizing disorders that involved their parents showed greater self-control and progress in their treatment after using a mindfulness therapy approach.
Chronic pain, sleeplessness, stress disorders, ADHA, uncontrollable anger—all of these and more are tackled, at least in part, during mediation and mindfulness. So, where to begin?
Read everything: There are many strategies for achieving mindfulness—too many to list here. Find a quiet place and start to read everything you can find on how to stay mindful. Eventually, a plan that works for you will become clear.
Take a class: There are online and in person classes on mediation available in most locales. If not meditation, then yoga, which is all about deep breathing, body awareness, and being present while you set intentions for a brighter, calmer life.
Learn from others: Who do you know who is mindful and calm, and stays solid in the face of adversity? Ask that person out for coffee and find out what makes he or she tick. You never know how another person’s insight can inspire you.
Good luck, and namaste.