Mindfulness: The Art & Science of Changing Your Brain
What do you think about when you hear the word “mindfulness?” To be honest, I used to think “nope, not for me!”. Breath in, breath out, follow my breath. Ugh! I honestly couldn’t see the point and every time I tried it seemed like a miserable failure.
And then I attended a workshop by the brilliant Dan Siegel, MD and also began reading one of his many books on mindfulness entitled “The Mindful Therapist.” My mind has been forever changed now that I’m beginning to understand why mindfulness is so critical to our health.
I’m going to give you a 3 part synopsis of how Dr. Siegel’s work on mindfulness has changed my life:
1. Mindfulness can be defined as: awareness of the present experience with acceptance, no judgement
2. Our brain naturally goes a thousand miles a minute. That’s what it is designed to do. When we practice bringing it to the present moment physiological and structural changes occur in our brains! Yes, the act of bringing our mind to the moment changes the very structure of our brain.
3. As this happens, there are PROFOUND consequences. I will name a few: we become more open, less rigid in our thinking, more creative and resilient, less anxious, able to act rather than to react.
Practicing mindfulness is tough stuff. But it’s with the act of practicing, the act of drawing your mind to the quite present moment WITHOUT JUDGMENT that the magic happens.
Below is a story of one person’s journey with a 30 min meditation. Enjoy.
Recently I went to a 30-minute guided mindfulness meditation session. The teacher spoke for about 5 minutes at the beginning of the session, suggesting ways we could approach quieting our minds for that half hour. She suggested relinquishing following the breath, which is a typical approach to mindfulness meditation.
Instead she referred to a passage she had recently stumbled upon in the Bhagavad Gita that suggested that the labor, or effort, was the goal of this meditation practice; that we should not expect results or a mindfulness “product.” She went on to give us other ideas to use as a focus: the deep red of fall leaves that correlates with the chakra of groundedness, or the fiery red that corresponds to passion for life and self-confidence. We could also focus on an image from nature, or the words “softer, softer, softer.”
Then she was quiet. The room was quiet. My mind was not quiet: “ ‘Effort,’ I like that idea, just keep putting in the work at all my endeavors, yes, effort, interesting.” Then I observed that I was “thinking.” “Thinking,” I told myself.
I tried to see the two colors of red and feel grounded and self-confident. My mind wandered to an image of a leaf I had seen earlier that day; it had startled me by being so loud just by turning onto another leaf after a puff of wind.
The room stayed quiet. My neck felt tired. I felt tired. I wondered if anyone would mind if I quietly lay down. I decided they would.
I remembered an image I like that I recently cut out from a magazine—a young woman, smiling, her arm draped around her painted self-portrait (with the help of Photoshop). My words for that image have been “Here I am; I am good.” I want to be her: solid; self-confident; with an inner self that she herself has created that goes with her throughout her day, unchanging, no matter the circumstances. I stayed with this image for a few minutes.
I continued to move from image to image, occasionally saying the words “softer, softer, softer.” These words were soothing.
Then the session was over. I walked home and Ms. Anxiety swept into me like a Nor’easter. At home I stared out my window at the crescent moon’s light.
No results? Perhaps what the meditation leader meant by the words “effort” and “labor” was “engagement”—that engaging with any activity, including mindfulness meditation, is accepting, not resisting the activity. I stared at the moon and thought, “I will continue this labor as best I can.”
Ha! I’ve just spent 2 hours playing Freecell on my computer. The images from last week’s meditation session have grown pale. Today was an anxious day and “engagement” seemed impossible. I know the labor takes practice (as in, it must take place). I am resisting.
But: Begin again. Loud leaf. Quiet night. Re-engage to groundedness and self-confidence. “Here I am; I am good.” Softer, softer, softer.
That’s so cool that mindfulness can actually change one’s brain structure! I have to give this mindfulness thing another try if it has the potential to make me less vulnerable to anxiety.
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