Your approach to mindfulness might be.
Most of us will not ascend to new plains of consciousness via mindfulness. We will not become superior, enlightened monks after one sitting meditation. Perhaps movies and television are to blame but mention it to many of my cynical and skeptical friends (I’m raising my hand here too), and you can nearly hear the involuntary eye-roll when the subject comes up. Not every form of meditation requires extended sits with fingers held in funny shapes while chanting out ohm (which is called a mantra and comes from the transcendental practice by the way).
Listen, all my beautiful negative nellies, if you don’t think it will work, it won’t. If you think it’s all new-age hype – it will be. That’s part of the point here. We are creating our realities one thought at a time, and become convinced our thoughts are the only reality when we don’t stop and observe.
There are dozens of forms of meditation, some more studied than others.
There are two primary types though – focused attention meditation and open monitoring meditation. Focused attention meditation is just like it sounds, you focus your attention on a sound or a sensation, like the breath. As time passes, your attention invariably wanders, and you gently bring it back to the sensation of the breath. Open monitoring meditation is more a practice of cultivating awareness of your thinking. Holding all the non-judgment one can muster, you step back into the role of observer of your thoughts, rather than actively experiencing this. Both can be done in guided and non-guided formats.
We tend to overcomplicate it though, so here’s a lovely example of focused attention, using the breath.
Each has its purpose and benefits, and often are even better when practiced together. There are some great apps to use on your phone to help guide you, especially helpful when getting started. Personally, I use Calm; I find Tamara Levitt’s voice to be particularly soothing. There’s also Headspace and a whole host of others out there; there’s bound to be something just right for you if you want to try some guided meditations. (I’m not affiliated with either, to be clear I just happen to find them helpful).
Historically some of the research has shown varied results, but since they began evaluating and conducting MRI studies, the methods used in the studies and the results show something much more consistent.
“… meditation practice has been found to promote well-being by fostering cognitive and emotional functioning . Indeed, the positive effects achieved during the training sessions were generalized to everyday life, enhancing both cognitive (i.e., memory, attention, problem-solving, and executive functions) and emotional (i.e., prosocial behavior) functioning in expert meditators. ” – The Meditative Mind: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis of MRI Studies
Meditation is only part of the equation.
It’s not a one-and-done effort.
Before I run too far down the road of the different types and all the joys of semantical definitions, it seems necessary to point out – mindfulness doesn’t require meditation. These terms are used interchangeably, and well, I object. You don’t need to have a meditation practice to practice mindfulness. It certainly helps, and assists in developing the muscle faster. Meditation will make mindfulness come more naturally. But sweet baby Jesus, you can be mindful without meditation.
Arguably, you can cultivate a bit of mindfulness by having a particularly inquisitive friend around. You know, the ones who are quick to ask, “why do you think that,” “why do you seem tense right now, “what does it mean that you are feeling that way.” those beautiful souls that haven’t lost the child-like wonder of why’s and what if’s. Probably not the best approach, but outsourcing, to begin with, is still better than nothing.
Mindfulness-in-hindsight is even a fantastic place to start (think I could coin the term?). Taking a few minutes at the end of the day to reflect and check in with what you were feeling and why you reacted in the ways that you did, can still have a significant impact. Here likely lies the power of journaling. It’s a means of being mindful of your day, taking stock of your actions and mere reflection.
Or there are more immediate approaches. Like when you catch yourself berating your actions, then taking a step back and trying to observe your thoughts, rather than getting swept away by them. For those who experience chronic pain, the same exercise has been shown to have a meaningful effect.
The benefits of meditation are real.
I love my physiotherapist. She pushes me in that kind of gentle way that makes you want to put in the extra effort to make her proud. She also will do everything she can to find ways to empower you to heal. Directly at the intersection of cognitive behavioral therapy and meditation and mindfulness, she offers up exercises to me to compliment the physical movements. Always, this comes with a reminder that the techniques are science-based, and there is sufficient proof to indicate not only that it works but is worth the effort. She’s quick to remind my eyes they don’t need to roll; I simply need to try with an open mind.
Damn if she isn’t right.
Mindfulness and meditation are how I manage to cope with multiple chronic pain conditions without medication.
But in our instant gratification world, we want the fix, and we want it now, ideally for free and with as little effort as possible. The first time we run through a mindfulness exercise or meditation practice, we seem to expect that there will be profound benefits right away. Generally, we are met with something that feels foreign, perhaps a bit uncomfortable — and rapidly conclude there is no benefit to the exercise. This thinking is completely parallel to the idea that if we make one trip to the gym and make one awkward attempt to lift weights that we’ll leave the building looking like Schwarzenegger. Patently absurd, right?
It’s almost as if we think our mental and physical well being isn’t worthy of putting in a little work.
Since mind-wandering is typically associated with being less happy, ruminating, and worrying about the past and future, it’s the goal for many people to dial it down. Several studies have shown that meditation, through its quieting effect on the DMN, appears to do just this. And even when the mind does start to wander, because of the new connections that form, meditators are better at snapping back out of it. – 7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change The Brain
The thing is, over time the effects are just as observable as Arnold’s dedication to his workouts, both inward and outward. It’s a slow and gradual improvement. Conventional wisdom says that it takes 12 weeks to see results from a workout routine. Well, I have some awesome news for you…
Studies show that in 8 weeks, there is a measurable impact from meditation.
There’s even evidence suggesting that we can produce changes in our grey matter.
MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s “fight or flight” center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress.
“I’m definitely not saying mindfulness can cure HIV or prevent heart disease. But we do see a reduction in biomarkers of stress and inflammation. Markers like C-reactive proteins, interleukin 6 and cortisol – all of which are associated with disease.”
I mentioned in another post that mindfulness and meditation are one of the tools I keep handy for coping with pain. It has seriously made a massive impact on my ability to cope, and hell, my ability to smile on a daily basis. Really, the results are noticeable internally and externally. It only took about two weeks of a consistent 15 minutes in the morning practice before co-workers and friends began commenting things like, “you’re so much more alive.” Seems silly, and it’s definitely anecdotal evidence.
You have nothing to lose by trying.
Most frustrating of all is the way we deny ourselves the opportunity to experience the benefits. Caught up in stereotypes, or conviction that it’s all bullshit, we brush off the potential behind something that is:
- Simple to practice.
I’ve mentioned it to a few friends who commented on the noticeable differences in me and asking for help themselves, suggesting maybe they try checking it out. The suggestions are met with bobbing heads and shrugs and, “yeah….maybe’s.” I love them all the same, but darn if I didn’t wish they’d just try it. Tip of the hat to the friend who did respond with a, “yeah I tried it once, but it didn’t work for me.”
It’s the expectations with which we enter into the attempt, you see. If more of the conversation around all of this focused more on the practical aspects like, it takes a couple of days (minimum), it’s uncomfortable at first – perhaps people would be giving it a better go. Really, what is there to lose in having a bit more presence in your life, a bit more perspective, a bit more peace, a dash more happiness… just a little more calm readily accessible for you? We could stop setting ourselves up for failure with the expectation of finding Nirvana in the first 20 minutes, and perhaps get a little farther.
“I’m too busy.” “I don’t have time.”
Yeah, I tell myself that too, then spend 20 minutes mindlessly swiping along my Facebook feed. I’ll call bullshit on both of us.
What if you could gain even a little empowerment through mindfulness practice?
One of the most notable side effects of six plus months of (admittedly inconsistent) practice has been feeling more in control of myself. Not in any sort of forced way, more fluid and natural. It’s a very empowering feeling to be observing yourself thinking and reacting in the present moment, bringing more of a state of flow to all the little actions and interactions in the day. To be in a state of acceptance more and more. What a pleasant thing to experience!
Worth a shot, no? If you are of the skeptical mind, I highly recommend checking out some of the studies linked to in this article. If only to set yourself up for better success and understanding when you do decide to bring a little more mindfulness to your day.
I confess it’s been a couple of weeks since I sat for a morning meditation session – and I’ve been noticeably crankier and more susceptible to the inputs of the day. A 1300 word call-to-action to return to what I know works. Best heed the call.
Why don’t you get outta here and give it a try too? I’ll see you in a week, feeling a little more observant and at peace.