Updated: Mar 12, 2021
Mindfulness is increasing in popularity, and it is estimated that the number of people who are now practicing it worldwide is up in the millions. It has gone from being a bit “new age” to being taught as part of the curriculum in schools, and being promoted by many individuals and organisations as an essential tool in enhancing wellbeing and effectiveness.
There is a plethora of reading material, courses, programmes and styles of practice out there to meet everyone’s taste, from spiritual to practical and everything in between. The practice of mindfulness respects individual beliefs, culture, time constraints, location, and schedules.
With so many differing ways of approaching and implementing mindfulness in daily life, it can be hard to pin point what it actually is and where to begin.
The purpose of this two-part article is to:
de-mystify the practice a little
give you an idea of why you might consider giving it a try, and
if so, how you might go about it.
What Mindfulness is not
Before understanding what mindfulness is, it can be helpful to look at what it isn’t. Let me begin to explain this by asking you some questions:
Have you ever found yourself rushing from task to task, with your mind whirling with all the other things you have to do?
Have you driven your car and when you arrived at your destination been unable to recall part or all of the journey?
Have you been to a special event such as a wedding or a holiday and not been able to remember too much about it?
Have you experienced your mind being so full of worries and thoughts that you couldn’t concentrate or sleep?
Or been reading a book and realised your mind has wandered, and you’ve missed an entire page or more?
Yes, me too, and we are not alone. I have heard it said that the average person spends half of their waking time experiencing these or similar states of ‘Mindlessness’ or ‘Autopilot’ which is essentially the opposite to ‘Mindfulness’.
This can have its place, so we don’t have to remember all the repetitive detail of daily tasks. As I type, I have no awareness of where the letters on the keyboard actually are, unless I were to really stop and think about it, but fortunately my subconscious has this covered. But it’s not helpful if we are spending too much time on autopilot, missing out on the richness of life and being reactive in dealing with life’s challenges and in our interaction with others.
What is Mindfulness?
The Oxford dictionary defines it as ‘the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something’. Or, in a sentence, ‘a mental state achieved by focussing one’s awareness on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique’.
In practice, mindfulness offers a way of navigating life where you are able to experience more of what is happening whilst it is happening. Both in your outer world, in experiencing the good stuff in life, and being able to show up fully in facing life’s challenges, and your inner world, in experiencing what you are thinking and feeling.
We all have moments where this happens but by practicing mindfulness we are able to have more. To be there 100% more often, consciously choosing how we experience each moment as life unfolds.
With regular practice, the fruits of your efforts can be plentiful including:
a reduction in stress
an increase in the ability to focus and retain information
better health and wellbeing, and much, much more.
From an organisational perspective, happy, healthy and productive employees will have a positive impact on the bottom line.
The reason mindfulness is being incorporated into the curriculum at schools is predominantly because children learn better when they are mentally and physically healthy and can manage their stress levels. And as employers, schools have a role in supporting their staff too, particularly as teaching is up there in the top 5% of stressful positions.
With so many benefits, it really is mind boggling why everyone isn’t doing it, especially as it is accessible to anyone and it really doesn’t need to cost much, if anything, at all.
The good news is that all you need to do is find space in your day for mindfulness practices, and to meditate. And the bad news is that all you need to do is find space in your day for mindfulness practices and to meditate.
As human beings we are used to the concept of effort and reward, but doing what feels like ‘very little’ is more effort than a lot of us can muster, and the excuses start to flow….. ‘I practice meditation whilst I’m running’, ‘I don’t have time to meditate’ etc. As a mindfulness teacher I have heard them all and until I really “got” mindfulness, I used a fair few of them too!
The challenge with mindfulness practices is that we can’t actually see what is happening. We may start to notice that our day seems to flow better; we feel better in ourselves and our outlook is more positive; the little things bother us less; our interactions with others are improved and we get more joy out of the simple pleasures in life. But connecting the dots of the benefits to the practice is not clear-cut.
For me it wasn’t until I understood how mindfulness works, and some of the research backing it up, that I personally mustered the effort to attain a regular practice where I began to feel and see changes in all aspects of my inner and outer life.
I hope in understanding how mindfulness works it will also encourage you to allow it to become part of your daily life, and to open your mind to a new way of experiencing your world.
How Mindfulness Works
Mindfulness works in two principal ways:
Firstly, when you bring awareness to your thoughts, feelings and activities, overtime you become more in-tune with these. Bit like if you decided to buy a red car you might start seeing red cars everywhere!
Secondly, by developing and reorganising the mind itself is where the concept of neuroplasticity comes in. Rather like the body is exercised to change its structure and the way it feels, mindfulness and meditation techniques are used to exercise the mind and its structure, and the way it feels also changes.
One of the early researchers in the field of neuroplasticity – Michael Meaney of the Douglas Institute – conducted experiments on rats, showing that the way a mother treats her babies determines which genes are turned on and which are turned off. This is just one example of how our experiences can shape our gene expression.
What this means is that we don’t need to accept the mind we have, any more than we need to accept the body we have. Of course, not everything is in our power to change it and what we can change, through practices such as mindfulness, requires time and effort, but there is a lot that can be done.
Let’s explore this through two areas or reasons people often seek out mindfulness:
‘to stress less and relax more’
and to ‘quieten the mind and be more focused’.
Stress Less and Relax More
A topic in itself, but suffice to say that modern life is a breeding ground for stress. Days seem to be getting longer, and there are ever increasing demands on our time and energy. Thanks to technology we are constantly accessible with little opportunity to fully switch off.
Stress in itself is a physical response managed by the Autonomic Nervous System, which is responsible for managing involuntary functions in the body. It has two aspects:
the Sympathetic Nervous System, also known as the stress response or fight and flight,
Parasympathetic Nervous System, also known as the relaxation response or rest and digest.
Under the stress response our bodies and minds are operating in a heightened state of alert in preparation to face a predator, rush hour or a looming deadline. Here our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rates and muscle tension are increased. Other systems which are not required for fight or flight from the real or perceived stressor are de-prioritised, such as the immune, digestion and circulatory systems. If we go into the stress response too often or spend too long in this state, it makes sense that our emotional and physical wellbeing may be compromised.
Dr Herbert Benson developed our understanding of the opposite aspect of the stress response i.e. the relaxation response. He conducted a study in the 1970’s on how meditation can elicit the relaxation response, and effectively neutralise the negative effects of fight and flight. He demonstrated that through the practice of meditation the relaxation response can be initiated, taking the body into a more relaxed and optimal state. Here the heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure and muscle tension are all reduced. Systems such as the immune system, digestion and circulatory systems work more optimally, and our ability to relax and to sleep are enabled.
Stress and tension is often held in areas of the body and in the breath. You may have had the experience when you get home from a long day, and wonder what on earth you have done to your neck or shoulders, or anywhere else you tend to hold tension. This may be because under the stress response your pain receptors switched off, and you were not aware that tension was building. When you begin to relax, the pain receptors switch back on and ‘ouch!’.
By bringing awareness to where stress and tension is building, through mindfulness and meditation, you are better able to proactively do something about it and prevent it causing issues elsewhere, whether mental or physical.
This not only happens during a meditation practice, but as the effects of mediation are cumulative, mindfulness begins to materialise in daily life. When faced with a stressful situation we learn to connect with the mind and the body and experience a situation for what it really is. This can help in making better choices that may prevent initiating the stress response unnecessarily or as intensely. If you do fall in to the trap of letting stress take over, you can more often reduce the negative impacts of stress and recover from a stressful event more quickly and effectively.
A 2010 study published by neuroscientist Sara Lazar, of the Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, also demonstrated the positive effects of meditation in the field of stress management. Lazar and her team scanned the brains of volunteers before and after they received 8 weeks of training in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). The new meditators showed the measurable changes in two important brain areas – one of which was shrinkage in the amygdala, a portion of the brain that initiates the body’s response to stress. The decrease in the size of the amygdala correlated with lower stress levels reported by the group that learned meditation – and the more they reduced their stress through mediation, the smaller the amygdala got.
In summary there are three principle ways Mindfulness can support stress:
Stress and anxiety can be reduced by a learned ability to recognise and let go of stress and tension.
By eliciting a more relaxed/optimal state which sees key systems of the body working more optimally and improves overall health and wellbeing.
The Amygdala, which is the area of the brain associated with initiating the stress response, has been shown to shrink as a result of a regular meditation practice.
Quieten the Mind and Be More Focussed
When stressed, busy or anxious, thoughts are likely to be racing and it can be challenging to bring the mind into focus. Here you can get caught up in worries, stories and ‘what if’ scenarios, until the mind is so busy that you can’t think straight or concentrate on a task or activity.
Equally if you are stuck in “busy” and unable to rest, or get regular quality sleep, it will amplify the issue.
Under the stress response you lose contact with your higher mind. If you think about it this makes perfect sense. If you are under threat you do not need to make detailed or analytical decisions, the only decision you need to make is whether to fight, flight or freeze (hide) from the pending real or perceived threat.
Out of the stress response and under the relaxation response your mind works better. You can think more clearly and, in more detail, so eliciting the relaxation response will see your productivity and effectiveness increase.
Meditation teaches us to direct the mind to a single point of focus (eg the breath, the body, the senses or a mantra). This effectively takes attention away from thought and on to the object of our meditation.
An important thing to point out is that the aim of meditation is never to stop thought. In fact, this is one of the biggest misconceptions of meditation. The job of the mind is to think, and you have about as much chance of stopping it as you would consciously willing yourself to stop being hungry.
However, over time you may be able to reign in your thoughts a little, and your thoughts may lose their grip enough that you don’t get as carried away by them. When, with practice you are able to direct the mind in meditation, you are better placed to be able to direct the mind to a task and minimise the interruptions of mind noise in daily life.
Sara Lazar’s research also demonstrated the positive effects of meditation for productivity. Her group of meditators showed measurable growth in the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning.
When you don’t rest sufficiently throughout the day or sleep properly your energy levels, ability to function and be productive diminishes. Meditation has been shown to improve sleep patterns. Robert Woolfolk conducted research on 44 19 -71 year olds demonstrating the positive impacts of meditation to sleep disorders.
In summary there are three principle ways mindfulness can support focus and information retention:
Focus and concentration are improved by a learned ability to direct the mind to a single point such as the breath, the body, the senses or a mantra. Thoughts don’t stop but they may take more of a back seat.
Improvements in the ability to rest and sleep support enhanced energy levels and effectiveness.
The Hippocampus, which is the area of the brain associated with memory and learning, has been shown to increase as a result of a regular meditation practice.
In part 2 next week we will explore key aspects to becoming more mindful and how to incorporate practice into your daily life.
This blog was written for Cytoplan and is also available on their website: