"Control of consciousness determines the quality of life."
―Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Close your eyes . . .
Breathe deeply . . .
Focus on your body as you breathe . . .
Think about a calm, relaxing ocean wave coming over your body as you breathe in . . .
Think about the wave receding down your body as you breathe out . . .
Repeat . . .
Does this sound familiar? Does it remind you of a meditation class? Mindfulness has recently become the buzzword from experts in both mental and physical health. Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment with intention, while letting go of judgment, as if our life depends on it, says expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.[i] And as it turns out, your life does depend on learning to be more in the moment. The time has come to STOP being unconscious and simply drifting through life on autopilot.
Kabat-Zinn, founding director of University of Massachusetts Medical School’s renowned Stress Reduction Clinic, says that the present is the only real moment we have. But what I’ve noticed in my own life and those of many people is the tendency to allow our energy to be fragmented by either ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. Dwelling on past mistakes or fretting about what might happen tomorrow steals your joy and lowers the energy vibration that each of us emits.
Did you know that you can literally change your brain for the better by using mindful meditation? Surprisingly, neuroscience has proven it. The old wisdom taught that your brainpower starts to decline in middle age. The good news is that your brain is the most changeable part of your whole body and can form new neurons and new connections well into an advanced age.
“Our brain peaks at age 48 mainly because we let our brains decline—not because it has to,” says Sandra Chapman, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist, founder and chief director of the Center for Brain Health at The University of Texas at Dallas, and author of Make Your Brain Smarter.[ii] A lot of people think they don’t have to worry about brain health until they are older, but what you do in your thirties, forties, and fifties and beyond matters. Your brain changes moment to moment.”
The work of Richard Davidson, PhD, a cognitive scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, proved that Buddhist monks meditating on unconditional loving kindness—
compassion meditation—produced thirty times more gamma waves than the nonmeditating control group.[iii] Plus, the monks’ brains lit up in much larger areas during meditation, especially in the left prefrontal cortex, which is where positive emotions reside.[iv]
In 2008, positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, revealed results of a study of 139 working adults—half of whom were trained in compassion meditation—showing that those who practiced meditation daily achieved big gains in joy thanks to feeling more purpose in their lives, more social support, and decreased illness symptoms.[v] In another study, an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course given to 174 adults demonstrated that mindfulness improved significantly in all subjects, and along with that came a significant boost in joy and lower stress, both of which are my goals in this book.[vi] Fascinatingly, the part of the brain where empathy resides gained volume in the subjects who participated in the study, demonstrating that, just as weight training improves muscle mass, you can literally change your brain by what you focus on.[vii]
Among its many benefits, mindfulness meditation has actually been proven to increase telomerase, the “caps” at the end of our genes, which, in turn, can reduce cell damage and lengthen our lives. In addition, research demonstrates that mindfulness bolsters our immune system, making us better able to fight off diseases, from a cold to cancer. Mindfulness helps improve our concentration and reduce ruminative thinking that contributes to the high levels of stress so prevalent in our society. Stress and ruminative thinking—being stuck on a negative experience—are not only mental health hazards, but they are, quite often, the symptoms that lead people to seek the help of a therapist.
Mindfulness is an incredible tool to help us understand, tolerate, and deal with our emotions in healthy ways. Neuroscientists are using it to help people with traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD, depression, and anxiety, as well as to ward off dementia. It helps us STOP our habitual responses by taking pause and choosing a different course.
I was trained in mindfulness at Vanderbilt University in a two-day class taught by Marc Lesser, who wrote a great book called Less. Marc trained with his colleagues at Google, Chade-Meng Tan, who wrote the best-selling book on mindfulness called Search Inside Yourself. In the seminar, we learned about the benefits of mindfulness and practiced several mindfulness exercises. My favorite was a meditation outside in nature as we walked slowly. The exercise allowed us to experience the world directly through our five senses. It also encouraged us to recognize the thoughts we were having and to label them and the feelings we were having, rather than letting them overpower our thinking.[viii]
“Can you sit for one minute and completely quiet your mind? Can you do this without feeling like you’re coming out of your skin?”
– Lisa Firestone
I welcome your feedback.
Joy to you!
[i] Lisa Firestone, “Benefits of Mindfulness,” Psychology Today, March 6, 2013, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/compassion-matters/201303/benefits-mindfulness.
[ii] Sandra Bond, Make Your Brain Smarter: Increase Your Brain’s Creativity, Energy, and Focus (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013).
[iii] John Geirland, “Buddha on the Brain,” Wired, February 1, 2016, http://www.wired.com/2006/02/dalai/.
[iv] Geirland, “Buddha on the Brain,” http://www.wired.com/2006/02/dalai/.
[v] National Center for Biotechnology Information Database (PMC ID: PMC3156028; accessed May 5, 2016), http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3156028/.
[vi] National Center for Biotechnology Information Database (PMC ID: PMC2908186; accessed May 5, 2016), http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2908186/.
[vii] National Center for Biotechnology Information Database, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2908186/.
[viii] National Center for Biotechnology Information Database, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2908186/.