The How and Why of Mindfulness Meditation
There's a strong chance that you’ve heard about mindfulness meditation, but perhaps you’re wondering what all the fuss is about? When we first practice a mindfulness meditation, we are often filled with worried thoughts about whether we are doing it right, wondering whether we actually ‘get it’, and questioning what the point of doing the exercise is. Don’t fret, that still happens to the most experienced meditators.
But here's why practicing mindfulness will benefit you.
First, why would you even consider doing it? Thanks to big brain scan machines (their technical term), we are starting to understand the benefits of mindfulness meditation. Research shows that regular mindfulness practice reduces activity in our amygdala (our emotion centre). This reduces feelings of anxiety and stress, and improves our mood. This also equates to less cognitive activity (which means a reduction in worry and rumination). Mindfulness builds connections between our emotion centre and the logical part of our mind (known as the pre-frontal cortex), making it easier to make a considered choice in a difficult situation, rather than just reacting out of emotion. Amazingly, mindfulness also increases our capacity for memory and learning, and even improves immune functioning.
Clearly there are a lot of benefits.. but how do we do it?
The aim of mindfulness is to intentionally direct your attention to something in the present moment. To be in the present moment, we need to find an anchor for our attention. Often, people will use their body to do this, as your body is always available to you, and it’s always in the present moment. Your breath is a perfect example of something that is happening in the here and now, that we can tune into and use it to hold our attention.
What we also want to do while focusing our attention, is to observe our experience, without judging it. So it’s not good or bad, right or wrong, it just is what it is. The reason why we want to observe our experience, is so that we aren’t stuck or fused with it, so that we are a spectator rather than a player.
A common myth about mindfulness is that you are supposed to have a blank mind. This is definitely not the case. Even Buddhist monks who are masters at mindful meditation don’t have a blank mind. In fact the only difference between someone who is a novice at mindfulness versus someone who is experienced, is that when they notice that their mind has started to wander, they will bring their attention back with kindness and ease to their anchor, rather than judging themselves for it or getting frustrated.
Our minds are meant to wander, your task in mindfulness is to simply notice when your mind has wandered off, and to gently redirect your attention back to your anchor. While practicing mindfulness, we observe whatever is coming up for us, so when we have a thought, instead of getting swept away with that train of thought, we just notice that the thought has come up. Like standing on a platform of a train station, we just watch the trains come in and out of the station, without boarding the train. And if we get on the train (which is likely to be a to-do list, a fantasy, or a memory), our job is to notice that we’ve gotten on the train, and to get back off onto the platform so that we can stand back and watch the trains.
Why does it help to redirect our attention all the time? Well, if you went wandering aimlessly in a forest, chances are you’d get lost. Similarly, if we spend a lot of time wandering around in our mind, we find ourselves ruminating about things that have happened in the past (which, by the way, won’t change no matter how much you think about them) or worrying about things in the future (most of which we have little control over). With mindfulness we can be more deliberate in what we focus on and bring ourselves back to the present moment (the only moment we have, and where all of our power resides).
Mindfulness can be an uncomfortable experience at first, but give yourself a bit of time, and you will start to see the benefits. If you find yourself distressed by the thoughts or feelings that come up while practicing mindfulness, don’t forget that these are just sensations of your mind and body. Just like an itch, this is also a sensation. By just noticing and being curious about these sensations, you can experience and explore them, without anything bad happening. As Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is a well known mindfulness mediation teacher once said, “you don’t have to like it, just do it”.
Mindfulness is simple, finding the time is the hard bit. But never you mind, we’ve got this covered. Please find our favourite ‘short and simple’ mindfulness meditations here (hyperlink). Do yourself a favour, spend 5 minutes a day… and watch the beauty unfold.
The better we get at mindfulness meditations, the more able we are to integrate this into our daily lives. Find our tips for practicing mindful living more easily.
With Warmth, K & A xx