What do we mean when we talk about mindfulness?
Simply, being present in each moment. When we are mindful, we are fully engaged in what it is we are doing, without placing any label or judgment on the experience as being 'good', 'bad', or something else. Instead of reacting to something based on an overwhelming thought or feeling we are having, we are able to take a step back and observe the thought or feeling for what it is, and choose how we want to respond.
We can train our brains to live more in the present moment through meditation practice. Through regular meditation practice, the skill of mindfulness can be built up enough to incorporate into every day life.
We use meditation as our training ground when it comes to the practicing of mindfulness. Meditation allows us to become familiar with the present moment all the while we are sat in practice. When this practice is built up over time, it becomes easier to stay present throughout each day.
Mindfulness goes beyond the temporary state of mind developed through meditation. Mindfulness is a way of being, so that we have the ability to step back and be in the present moment in any situation and at any time.
Mindfulness won't make any problems magically disappear. It won't stop stress from being part of your life. What mindfulness can do, however, is give you the tools to become aware of any unpleasant thoughts and emotions that may appear during difficult situations. By becoming aware of such thoughts and emotions, and learning how to step back and observe them, allows us to make choices on how to respond. Instead of reacting to stress in a way we might later regret, mindfulness may enable us to respond in a more effective way, being calm and having empathy - leading to more effective outcomes. So, it doesn't mean we'll never feel things like stress or anger, more that we will have greater control over how we manage such feelings.
There is some science behind it all, too. Mindfulness has been found to change the shape of our brains. MRI studies have shown our brains to have been rewired to be more positive, following 8 weeks of meditation practice.
Meditation can activate and deactivate certain areas of the brain. It has been able to decrease connections to the area of the brain involved in regulating fear, stress and anxiety. It has also been found to create new pathways in the brain to areas involved in focus and decision-making. There have been increases found in pathways to the area of the brain involved in emotional regulation, planning, and problem-solving following meditation practice, alongside the cortical thickness, which is responsible for learning and memory. Interestingly, with meditation practice, there is one part of the brain which has shown to decrease in size: the amygdala, responsible for regulating how we feel stress, fear and anxiety.
Need I go on with the many benefits evident with the practice of mindfulness and meditation?
Those who have incorporated it into their daily lives frequently report many positive side effects, such as: compassion, happiness, patience and acceptance, and report that they experience lower levels of stress, sadness and frustration. The evidence speaks for itself, right?
So, in summary, we know that the practice of mindfulness can have many positive effects: to help with stress, to increase our abilities to be compassionate, to increase our focus, empathy, patience and happiness. So how do we start? it can be really useful to have a mindfulness teacher when we're at the beginning, in order to guide us through the basic steps and get the most from the experience. Especially at the start of our practice, we can find our minds become easily distracted both during practice and after. The more our practice can be refined and developed, it becomes easier to notice such times when we become distracted, and guide ourselves back. When we are able to do this, we are adhering to the whole point of mindfulness practice: to be more present and less distracted by thoughts and emotions.
Find out more about the science of Mindfulness here.