Have you ever started eating a bag of chips and then look down and the bag is empty? Or been driving somewhere and arrived at your destination only to realize you remember nothing about your drive? This is so common. In our modern, busy lives, we constantly multi task. Its easy to lose awareness of the present moment as when we become lost in our efforts to juggle work, home, finances, and other conflicting demands to our attention. The human mind is a powerful thinking, planning and emoting machine and right now, most humans believe that they ARE the thinking, planning and emoting machine.
What is mindfulness? It is a hot buzz word right now. There are scientific studies and media outlets speaking about the numerous benefits of being mindful. Being mindful reduces anxiety, soothes depression, and helps with a host of other medical conditions. Its even said to literally make your cells age slower! Being mindful slows down the aging process! Yo...I am SO IN!
OK - now that we are all in, what is it and how do we do it? Simply put - mindfulness is the FULL awareness of the present moment. It is the awareness that we are NOT the machine.
To understand how it is practiced – lets take the concept of “awareness of the present moment” a little further.
The awareness that we are not our thoughts or our emotions is the first part of mindfulness – to practice mindfulness – we must accept our present moment. Non judgmentally – crap this is so hard! How can we accept – without judgement or labeling – some of life's more difficult experiences? Lets look at what happens when we don't do this – I'll give you an example of me, last week: My children are off from school. I have a six year old and a three year old and no morning sitter which left me to work on some time sensitive things while I was with my children. So right off the bat – my attention needs to be divided. This is my reality. My present moment and I'm fully aware of it.
I can't give my work my full attention (as much as I want to) and I can't give my children my full attention (as much as I want to). So notice i'm resisting a bit? But this is life, right? The children (of course) want to paint (their hands). Which, in case you aren't aware – is the A#1 messiest kid activity there is. Nevertheless I let them paint. They paint happily while I try to concentrate on my computer. Then my 3 year old spills the water ALL OVER THE TABLE. This is when mindfulness gets REALLY practiced – when shit goes wrong. The feeling in my body – the constriction in my chest, the desire to yell, the overpowering resisting of my moment created some major stress sensations in my body. When I resisted my experience – my mind was agitated with negative thoughts (which make it worse) and my body responded with a stress reaction. Now if I didn't have a practice of mindfulness – I may have flew off the handle. But because I was, in the moment, aware of what was happening, aware of the sensation of stress and the sensation of my thoughts – I was able to affect my behavior. I was able to take a breath and (mostly) calmly deal with the situation.
So the practice of mindfulness is not just the full awareness of the present moment – it is the full acceptance and EXPERIENCE of it. I resisted my experience – but I also was aware of my resistance and experienced and watched how that felt (tight chest, negative thoughts). I came back to the moment by becoming aware of my breath and deepening it. This immediately pacified my system.
MRI scans of meditators have shown that concentration on the present moment (aka meditation) shrinks the amygdala – which is the primal region of the brain associated with fear and emotion. It is the initiation of the brain's fight or fight response to stress. Interestingly – the MRI also showed the pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision making – becomes thicker. Further – the functional connectivity between the two regions changes. In long term meditators, the connection between he amygdala and the rest of the body gets weaker. The connection between the pre-frontal cortex and the rest of the body gets stronger.
It is the disconnection from this “stress center” that is leading to the physical and mental health benefits. It seems that long term meditators brain's are able to remove or lesson the aversion to unpleasant stimulation and thus the stressing nature of it. How do you think that is happening?
Meditators are refraining from engaging in the thought process that make an experience painful. So for me, in that moment, I disconnected from my resistance of the situation. I disconnected from all the negative thoughts surging in my mind, pushed them aside and became aware of my breath. This helped me be nice mommy. Not this mommy:
So, in our lives, in this modern world, science is now showing the residing our awareness of the present moment, accepting what is happening in every moment – FEELING what we are feeling in every moment (not distracting, repressing or numbing), brings our body into a state of its highest health. It even helps us to be kinder, more patient and more loving to the people around us.
So, I'm all in. Are you?