“We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.”
Mindfulness can help students focus and reduce stress, and help create new neuronal pathways in the brain. As an advocate of meditation, I use mindfulness because it is relaxing and the benefits are extremely rewarding. Read below to discover the history of mindfulness and how you can practice it today.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness originated in Buddhism, and the 2,500-year-old tradition is part of a much wider set of beliefs and behaviors. Some of these behaviors and beliefs are referred to as a psychological process or as a skill developed over time. Mindfulness has been studied at Penn State for years and it has been turning heads outside of the University with programs and workshops. Meditation is a large portion of the practice, if not the only practice.
What does mindfulness entail? Well, if you are constantly aware of your surroundings, you are practicing mindfulness to some degree. Awareness may be one of the most important aspects of mindfulness. This may be because awareness uses your brain in ways that require order and logical thought. Emotions, such as anger, can be extreme only when you sink back into your thoughts, or if you go forward, such as thinking about the future. Awareness helps one to be fully immersed in any moment.
Let’s see how this can help with our brain, emotions, and stress.
Mindfulness is being aware of each moment that passes, while being fully present of our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and surrounding environment. Meditation is used as a mindfulness technique to help us achieve this optimal state of awareness, which can help you improve concentration and reduce stress.
Mindfulness also incorporates acceptance into everyday situations. This means that we do not judge our thoughts or feelings — we allow them fully. For example, instead of thinking that our emotions or thoughts need to be put into a category of right or wrong, practicing mindfulness allows us to accept how we feel in any given moment and allow ourselves a sense of freedom. We also are tuned into the present, so we aren’t focusing on the past, or imagining the future. As I mentioned earlier, this can help with stabilizing our emotions, such as intense anger, fear, or sadness.
Mindfulness Creates New Connections in the Brain
Mindfulness helps us achieve growth of new neural networks in the brain. By growing neural networks, you are essentially rewiring your brain to find better and new ways to handle tasks and cope with stress and emotions. You are also helping yourself increase your focus.
Practicing mindfulness has been shown in research to increase gray matter in the brain. Gray matter holds most of the actual brain cells compared the other structures of the brain. An increase in density may mean an increase in connectivity between the cells, and an increase in two areas known as the pons and raphe nucleus can improve our overall psychological well-being.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
A recent study on mindfulness meditation showed that participants had less psychological stress from anxiety, depression, and pain. To me, this makes sense, because while we experience anxiety, we tend to give our thoughts too much power. Our thoughts run our lives, and if they are negative, that becomes overwhelming.
Increase Your Focus in 8 Weeks
A study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital was the first to report changes in density in the gray matter of the brain. In as few as 8 weeks, participants had increased density in the areas of the brain responsible for:
- learning and memory processes
- emotional salience (top priority given to certain healthy emotions)
- the ability to take on different perspectives
- emotional regulation
These areas of the brain are known as the posterior cingulate, the temporo-parietal lobe, the hippocampus, and the cerebellum.
As research continues, increases in gray matter density in different brain structures show promise for positive brain changes.
These changes can help improve your focus and enable you to remember what you read more thoroughly. To a higher degree, practicing mindfulness may help you to take more control of what you think about, enabling more space for learning new things, remembering what you have just read, and increasing long-term memory.
New to Meditation?
Of the participants in the study referenced earlier, they were all new to meditation. That means that anyone can start feeling the benefits in several weeks.
At first, you might think your practice is actually making you more distracted. That’s because you’re increasing your awareness of everything, particularly distractions. As you learn to concentrate and focus on your breath, you will notice more thoughts because you are aware of them. So it may seem as if a thousand things come to you during this time. But this means your attention is actually working better — you will notice brain wandering and how easily you can get distracted from just sitting and staring at the wall.
Imagine driving to work. It’s a pretty familiar route, and you know what to expect every day. You see the same trees, signs, roads, and highways. This is how the brain works. The more you think about something, the more it becomes ingrained into your brain, the more you know no other way. The more you are used to racing, uncontrolled thoughts, the more aware you will need to be in order to stop them.
How to Meditate
There are many ways to practice mindfulness meditation: breathing techniques, visualizations, and more. You can find some in my article I wrote earlier this year — Why Mental Breaks Are Important — and here are a few more:
- 60 Seconds — Take 60 seconds to focus on only your breathing, nothing else. Do this several times a day. Over time, you can gradually extend this duration or simply double it every day. Don’t think you’ve failed if you begin thinking and not focusing on your breath. It takes years of practice to be able to have one minute of alert, clear attention.
- Conscious Observation — Pick an object and devote all your attention and awareness to it. Don’t study it or analyze it — just observe it for what it is. It can be a pen, a cup, a Penn State T-Shirt, or a dot on the wall. It’s essential to practice this, as it gives you an alert, “awake” feeling, and puts you in the present moment. Notice how you don’t really think of the past or future during this exercise.
- Slowly Count to 10 — Count to 10 in your mind and catch yourself to see if you are thinking of anything you need to do, a thought from the past, a story you’ve created, or simply forgetting to count completely. If you catch yourself thinking, start over. You can start out doing this a few times until you feel comfortable meditating.
- Eat Slowly — Buddhists and Zen masters truly sink into the present moment by eating slowly. It is a concept they have been teaching for a very long time. Mindful eating can slow down your meal and help you to really appreciate the food you have in front of you. Pay close attention to the taste, smell, what the food looks like. You can repeat affirmations in your head like “I am grateful to be eating this wonderful meal.”