For many, mindfulness is more than just a mental state achieved by living in the moment. It’s about acknowledging and accepting your feelings, your thoughts and even your bodily sensations. It’s not just about freeing yourself from the grips of anxiety, but about a true emotional intelligence that has countless benefits in your daily life.
Mindfulness is so effective that it is often even used as a therapeutic technique, allowing people to do everything from eliminating anxiety attacks to reducing physical pain to improving their own capacity to understand and share feelings with others. It’s also proof positive that sometimes the most dramatic changes in terms of your physical, mental and spiritual well-being require you to start by looking inward.
Mindfulness and Your Emotional Well-Being
One of the most important roles that mindfulness plays in our daily lives is also among the most pressing: It can significantly enhance both our emotional well-being and our sense of empathy toward others.
In 2010, a team of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital conducted an eight-week mindfulness meditation program with volunteers from the area. Participants spent an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises, and their responses to a targeted questionnaire at the end of the program showed major (and positive) changes when compared to their answers at the outset. The results were clear: Such a program appears to make measurable and meaningful changes to areas of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and even stress.
Other scientific studies have been conducted that showed the effects of meditation on the human brain. Meditation not only enhances affective processing, but also the way a person responds to sounds of distress and other stressful situations. This heightened level of emotional intelligence often gives way to a significantly happier, less-anxious individual as a result.
“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life,” said Britta Hölzel, Ph.D.
Mindfulness and Your Physical Health
Even going beyond positively impacting the way someone perceives a stressful situation, practicing mindfulness has also been shown to actually lower stress and reduce anxiety in a number of different ways. One observational study revealed that practicing meditation actually lowers the cortisol levels in the body, which itself is a highly effective method of stress reduction. In certain situations, this can even be an effective way to ward off the effects of an anxiety attack.
As emotional distress has been proven to speed up the cellular aging process prematurely, it’s easy to see how mindfulness can help literally slow the rate at which a person grows, feels and appears older, too.
Guided meditation or “mindfulness meditation” has been proven to change the way that different regions of the brain communicate with one another, often in a permanent way. MRI scans have shown that after as few as eight weeks of mindfulness practice, the “fight or flight” portion of someone’s brain starts to physically shrink. This is the part of the brain associated with fear, emotions and a person’s response to stress.
At the same time, the pre-frontal cortex begins to thicken and get stronger. This is the part of the brain associated with qualities like attention, awareness, concentration and decision-making.
Along the same lines, it should come as no surprise that those with advanced mindfulness meditation experience tend to feel significantly less pain than guided meditation amateurs. This is true even though brain scans reveal that the areas of the brain associated with pain show more activity than in non-meditators, not less. Researchers determined that Zen practitioners were able to lessen or entirely remove the aversive nature of painful stimulation (and by association the stressful nature of it) thanks to the way that guided meditation alters the way these portions of the brain communicate with one another.
How to Practice Mindfulness
Once you acknowledge the importance of mindfulness, the topic of discussion must turn toward how to implement these practices in your daily life. The good news is that guided meditation isn’t just easy but it’s also malleable — there are a wide range of different things that you can do, depending on your needs, your preferences and the personal challenges that you’re trying to solve.
Mindful walking is something that you can do easily in almost any environment, for example. As you walk, align your walking to the rhythm of your breath. At the same time, make yourself aware of the ground beneath your feet. Think about not just what you’re feeling, but what the body is actually doing. Focus on sounds, tastes and even smells. Pay attention to every element of the world around you and take nothing for granted.
Mindful breathing is another very simple discipline that can yield big results almost immediately. Sit in a relaxed position with your back straight and think about what sensations you’re feeling. Pay attention to the natural ebb and flow of your breathing, but don’t be overly critical of yourself. If your mind wanders, let it wander — just make an effort to always return to your breath when you become aware again.
Even more than the physical act, being mindful is all about a true level of emotional intelligence. In a recent discussion on the topic of mindfulness at Google, Jon Kabat-Zinn said it best when he said it requires “a certain motivation to befriend your experience in this way” and to acknowledge that “these are the moments that you have while you’re alive; wherever you are, whatever is up for you.”
True mindfulness must come with the acknowledgement that this isn’t something that will happen overnight, and that this is entirely okay.
In the End
When the late, great comedian Garry Shandling passed away, it was revealed that he had been keeping an extensive series of journals throughout most of his adult life. While the pages were littered with joke ideas and funny anecdotes, they also revealed something far deeper: Shandling’s lifelong dedication to the idea of mindfulness as “the one true path.”
In his journals, he wrote: “Dear Mind, since you are the source of all my misfortune, I will completely annihilate you. Be still. Be still and see what happens. Funny or not, get off my back so I can climb out of this whole. Only in this razor-sharp moment do you exist. Learn until the end. Awareness until the end. I left it all on TV to finally live in this moment.”
These words are about more than just the importance that one man put on the idea of mindfulness. They’re an acknowledgement that we can all stand to benefit, both physically and emotionally, by placing true value on the “now” where it belongs.