Mindfulness is everywhere in the media these days, so what is it exactly and what makes it so attractive? To be mindful, literally means “to pay attention,” but mindfulness is more than this. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), defines it as “awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” So, there are two main components of mindfulness: paying attention and withholding judgment. Most of the time we are caught up in the past or the future with our thoughts and we’re missing what is going on in the present moment. Mindfulness moves us back into the present, into the body, and out of being on auto-pilot. Mindfulness practices have been a part of nearly all cultures over thousands of years ranging from body and energy practices of yoga, tai chi, and qigong as well as devotional rituals of prayer, meditation or chanting.
Recent discoveries in neuroscience have demonstrated that our brains are literally changed by our experiences, including our mental habits and behaviors—a term referred to as neuroplasticity. One study looked at the brains of monks, priests and nuns who prayed or meditated on a daily basis and found that their brains had a thicker prefrontal cortex than the general population. This is important because these are the regions of the brain responsible for complex thinking, planning, decision-making and regulating mood and social behavior. Our brains are malleable and the regular practice of mindfulness can change how we think and experience our world. Just as we exercise our bodies with weights and arm curls to create bigger biceps, a regular practice of mindfulness can lead to structural changes in the brain allowing us to be more present (and mindful) in our everyday lives. As Donald Hebb, the Canadian physician and psychologist describes, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
The easiest way to start a mindfulness practice is to commit to a 5-10 minute daily practice. It is best if you can find a time when this will fit seamlessly into your day. For some people, this will be in the morning, for others, it may be at lunchtime or prior to going to bed. To begin, sit comfortably on a chair or cross-legged on the floor. Next, simply focus your attention on your breath… breathing in and breathing out. Although it is impossible to stop your thoughts, just witness them with a nonjudgmental attitude. As your thoughts arise, bring your awareness back to the present moment with kindness or repeat a loving-kindness phrase such as “May I be safe” or “May I be well.” With regular practice, you will find increased awareness and greater emotional resilience in your daily life. Although this may at first seem like just another chore to get done during your busy day, do it anyway. Regardless of whether you find it difficult or not, it will still change the way you feel and you will reap many benefits from the practice.