What is Mindfulness Anyway?
Mindfulness seems to be popping up everywhere- Mindful Business, Mindful Parenting, Mindful Marriage, Mindfulness in schools. Just add the word ‘Mindful’ in front of anything and it seems to hold a promise of better. And Mindfulness is a pretty powerful thing, proven to increase immunity, resilience, creativity, attention and to decrease stress and pain, among other benefits. But what is Mindfulness anyway?
Mindfulness is non-judgmental awareness of the present moment.
That doesn’t clear it up? Sometimes to understand what something is, it helps to talk about what it is not. Here are 5 things that are often misunderstood about Mindfulness and perceived barriers.
**This article first appeared on Thirty on Tap
Loving Yourself with Mindfulness
I was having coffee the other day talking about a new idea I had and a dream for an exciting project, feeling pretty hopeful and inspired for a few minutes. Then someone said, “What are you thinking? There is no way you can pull that off? Why don’t you just stop trying to be so special, you aren’t”.
You know who that dream-killer bitch was? Me.
I don’t think I’m alone here in having this mean, grumpy, pessimistic roommate in my head. As I’ve been teaching meditation I’ve seen that this inner critic is prolific and vocal and taking up a lot of real estate in people’s minds. We can love others easily, but are stingy and hesitant to turn the warmth of our hearts inward. Really think about when you last said something nice to yourself. It’s probably been awhile.
Inner critics can be powerful and destructive forces on our lives. The voice saying that we are not good enough, that we are flawed, and that we have little to offer. What will ‘they’ think this voice asks?
Allowing the inner critic to have a voice can keep us from happiness and reaching our dreams and greatest potential. We may be so accustomed to this companion in our minds that they become a familiar backdrop of doubt or worry that permeate our daily existence and keep us locked in shackles we don’t even notice are there.
Mindfulness meditation offers the key to unlock ourselves from the cage and take the mic away from the inner critic. An important ‘ah ha’ moment that can come from mindfulness is the recognition of this voice and the awareness of it as an ‘object’ (not you) that can be observed and not attached to. If you don’t buy into the story it’s selling, it can lose strength, creating room for other narratives. Observing your habit of knocking yourself down can help you create new habits to lift yourself up.
The practice of loving kindness meditation (metta) helps us cultivate love for ourselves (and others, but we need to start with ourselves). I believe the most powerful antidote to a harsh inner critic is this practice of loving kindness.
Here is a ten-minute loving kindness meditation to bring push back to that bitch in your head. Try starting every day doing this meditation for a week and see how your days change. Audio can be found here.
Minutes 0-2: Ground into a comfortable seated posture in a chair or on the floor. Feel the stability in your body and begin to open up into a place of receptivity and ease. Move your awareness through your body from your scalp to your toes softening areas of tension and bringing awareness into your body.
Minutes 2-3: Bring your awareness to your breath. Anchoring your awareness on each in breath and out breath. Noticing and releasing the thoughts that come and go through your minds like clouds. On the in breath feel love coming in, on the out breath feel doubt exiting.
Minutes 3-5: Think of someone who loves you wholly and unconditionally. This can be a partner, child, pet, anyone of any species that sees you as the awesome lovable person you are. Noticing in your body how this love feels.
Minute 5: Repeat to yourself the intention “May I be safe”.
Minute 6: Repeat to yourself the intention “May I be happy”.
Minute 7: Repeat to yourself the intention “May I be healthy”.
Minute 8: Repeat to yourself the intention “May I be at peace”.
Minute 9: Move awareness into your heart and feel the energy and warmth and love fill you. Allow this energy to expand out of you, to your friends and loved ones, to your community, to the world, and to all beings. Wishing yourself and everyone to be happy, safe, healthy, and at peace.
** This article first appeared on Thirty on Tap
A surge of scientific research on Mindfulness in the last decade is proving what practitioners have known for hundreds of years. Meditation is good for you.
Here's some recent summaries of exciting studies.
Mindfulness Meditation Training Lowers Biomarkers of Stress Response in Anxiety Disorder
Mindfulness meditation, the practice of paying more attention to the present moment, helps lower stress hormones and decreases inflammation in the body, scientists have proven for the first time. Scientists in the US have shown that an eight week course of mindfulness, involving daily classes can help lower inflammatory molecules and stress hormones by around 15 per cent. The therapy was shown to work better than non-meditation stress management course. More details of the study here.
Mindful Attention Modulates the Link Between Motivation and Behavior
Behaviors occur as responses to emotional triggers and their associated thought patterns. Basically we feel something, make some sense of it, and act. This can all happen unconsciously and contribute to deeply engrained patterns of behavior . Highly rewarding stimuli like sex and junk food can often leave people engaging in unhealthy behaviors. A study found with mindful attention there was more ability to control behavior. More details of the study here.
Mindfulness Training Reduces Pain More than Relaxation Meditation or Placebo via Distinct Neural Correlation
There is extensive evidence demonstrating that Mindfulness meditation reduces feelings of pain. A 2015 study by Zeidan et al. demonstrated that these effects were higher than in response to relaxation meditation or a placebo ointment. The neural mechanisms were also distinct. Mindfulness meditation was associated with increased activation in the orbitofrontal, anterior cingulate, and insular cortices, regions associated with cognitive appraisal and emotion regulation. More details of the study here.
Whoever makes up the seemingly random holidays and monthly honorings has designated May Meditation Month. I am not going to ask too many questions about the how or why, but I’m going to go with it as an excellent excuse to encourage people to get off their butt and get motivated to put that butt right back down onto the meditation cushion.
It’s pretty hard to escape the moment that Mindfulness is having in our popular culture now. Despite its practice for thousands of years without catching on with the mainstream, it seems Mindfulness has finally gotten the right agent and celebrity backers. Oprah meditates, that’s all some people need to know.
It’s ok now to meditate, kind of cool even. Katy Perry, Madonna, Kobe Bryant, Jennifer Aniston, CEOs. Musicians, … everyone is doing it. With the exception maybe of our political figures who arguably need it the most, people are starting to notice this thing called meditation. Your dad’s doctor told him it might help his blood pressure, your sister heard it helps weight loss, your boyfriend read it gives a competitive edge. Meditation and Mindfulness are no longer for the fringe, but for all of us.
Are you feeling left out? Good. Time to get started. But many people have no idea how to get started. Yes, meditation is simple to do in practice, just watch the breath. But it is very hard to begin and stick with. A successful practice needs more than hype, it needs guidance, support, and consistency.
The easiest way to get started and not have to go somewhere scary or intimidating to you is a meditation App. My favorite is Insight Timer because it lets you search for meditations, track and time your session, and doesn’t try so hard to be cool and make you go through its own program. Other Apps that people like are Buddhify, Headspace, and Calm. These to me have some start-up guy’s finger prints all over them and seem less authentic and too mainstream packaged, but they are friendly and accessible and may be the right fit for some beginners who are more comfortable with extra structure. Check them all out and see which draws you in.
If you’re the type who just wants to dive in and go big, you could get started with a few days at a Meditation retreat. Most of these are multi-day events conducted in silence where you spend your days in sitting and walking meditation and learning from a teacher about the practice. These days are both incredibly challenging and life-changing. You will leave knowing how to practice and having seen first hand the changes in brain and body when you do. There are many opportunities for retreat you can find with a google search, but here is a list of excellent and reputable centers that would be amazing places to find your cushion.
There are many online courses to learn meditation. Most have weekly classes you view at home for 6 to 8 weeks with ‘homework’ of 20-60 minutes of meditation per day between classes. I have personally done this one from UMass and found it to set a great foundation for practice, though it required about an hour a day. Another class from UMass also looks excellent and allows for real-time interaction with the teacher.
This last option isn’t very techy or new, but it might be one of the best. If you live in area where there are local groups getting together to meditate, go join them. Many communities have groups of people who get together weekly to practice, at the library, local college, coffee shop… somewhere people are coming together to do this. Finding a group to share questions and comments and support for your meditation practice can be invaluable and significantly increase your chance of continuing. And most people who meditate are pretty awesome, like Oprah and Katy Perry, and you’ll probably enjoy being around them as an added benefit.
There is a reason that meditation and mindfulness are becoming so popular, this is not an empty trend. There is expanding scientific evidence showing that mindfulness significantly improves many medical conditions as well as or even better than current pharmaceutical approaches, including anxiety, pain, stress, cognitive decline, and immunological diseases. Mindfulness has been shown to change the size and function of brain regions related to emotion and decision-making, as well as empathy and creativity. It is not surprising that a meditation practice leads to less emotional reactivity, more self-control, increased attention, enhanced cognitive performance, and greater social connectedness among many other outcomes for overall better job performance and relationships.
Happy Meditation Month.
** This article first appeared on Thirty on Tap
Who is Mindfulness for?
The media may have you thinking that Mindfulness is primarily a tool for the uber elite and attractive. Nearly all the coverage in the mainstream press of the emerging popularity of Mindfulness is accompanied by pictures of beautiful, young, white, affluent, healthy people sitting blissfully in a serene and contorted posture.
While I am sure actresses, models, and start-up heros are people, too, who like the rest of us have stresses and can benefit from stillness, I am concerned a message is being sent about what type of person Mindfulness is for and who is welcomed.
The beautiful thing about meditation and mindfulness is that it is free to do. No special props, places, or extensive training needed. Daily new studies are coming out demonstrating the positive health impacts of meditation, including increased immune function, decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, improved cognitive function, and decreases in depression and anxiety. If meditation was a pharmaceutical it would be touted as the wonder drug. And likely very expensive and not accessible to all. But meditation CAN be accessible to all and could have the most significant impact on disadvantaged communities who lack access to health care and money for things like organic foods and gym memberships.
There are some awesome initiatives bringing meditation into schools for kids of all backgrounds. The Mindfulness community is also very much aware of the lack of diversity in its students and teachers and working to balance that. I'd like to work from the other direction though as well, the direction of the consumer. In raising the expectations of people of all kinds that meditation is FOR THEM. That taking care of your mind takes care of your body, too.
In my last 6-week SIT class there were many fantastic students of differing backgrounds and ages. From new moms, to retirees, to construction workers. No one was more or less 'right' to be there. I'd like to share a picture of two of the students, Dale and John. These 'manly men' drive trucks, fire guns, and have some stories that could shock you. But they are just as open to meditating on loving kindness as they are to watching the game.
It can be really scary to start new things sometimes, especially if you feel out of place or like you dont belong. Please hear me when I say, you do belong. No matter who you are, Mindfulness is for you.