Reprinted from the Mindfulness issue of Visions Journal, 2016, 12 (2), p. 13
Mindfulness is everywhere these days—mindfulness in education, mindful parenting, mindfulness in the workplace, mindful eating, and mindfulness in medicine are but a few examples of the breadth in interest and relevance of mindfulness in our society.
The muscles of mindfulness
The famous yoga teacher Patabhi Jois is widely credited with the maxim “1% theory, 99% practice.” While mindfulness and meditation remain accessible to anyone, they also require a measure of effort to develop.
The various regions of the brain, with their associated neural connections and chemistry, correspond to different areas of function, just like the muscles of the body. If we lift weights, the muscles we use will grow and become stronger. Similarly, if we use certain brain “muscles” frequently, these parts of the brain develop strength and skill.
We can observe on MRIs of the brain how the frequently used parts of the brain increase in size. A 2007 study of mathematicians showed that the area of the brain associated with mathematics was largest in those who had studied the longest.1 Another study of London taxi drivers showed that the area of the brain associated with visual spatial mapping and orientation increased in size the longer an individual had been driving cabs.2 A 2005 study at Massachusetts General Hospital showed that people who meditate regularly have a larger prefrontal cortex—the area of the brain associated with concentration, choice and compassion.3
If we practise worry, we become skilled at worrying. If we practise anger, fear or self-judgement, then we develop these capacities as well, consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or not. The brain does not judge one capability to be better or worse than another. Each simply serves a different function.
If we practise kindness, self-care, generosity, compassion, hope or mindfulness, then our brain becomes more adept and capable in these functions. We can then access these capabilities more easily.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In this space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our power and freedom.”—Viktor Frankl
With practice, we can improve our ability to choose our responses. We begin by inviting an attitude of curiosity, non-judgement, acceptance and compassion as we meet each moment. We take a deep breath and turn our attention to what is here and now—the sensation of a cool breeze against our face, the sadness or fear we feel after an argument or the release of tension in our body when we are close to our beloved.
Even when we experience more challenging emotions, we can bring a sense of mindfulness to the event. For example, if we experience anger frequently, then this emotion may come out easily. We do not need to judge ourselves. Instead, can we mindfully explore how anger feels in the body and mind? Where do we feel anger? How does our speech and behaviour change?
As we drop into this moment with our awareness, our “power to choose” becomes available to us. Autopilot, fight-or-flight reactivity, is replaced with mindful response. In the light of present-moment awareness, we may see that our anger is really about being afraid, or perhaps about not being heard. Once we understand this, we can choose how to proceed.
The following exercises are easy to practise as part of your daily routine. Invite them into your life with curiosity, openness and commitment, and see what unfolds.
The relaxation breath, also known as yoga breathing, is an effective tool to help release tension in the body and mind and gently bring our attention to what is here and now. It is often practised by breathing in through the nose and then slowly out through the mouth; however, you can also breathe in and out through the mouth or nose only. Either way, maximize the air entering and leaving your body while keeping the breath gentle.
Begin the relaxation breath by allowing your belly to expand first, gently and fully, on the inhalation. Continue breathing in by expanding the chest until the inspiration is full. As you exhale, release the chest first and then the abdomen until the exhalation is complete.
As you breathe in, notice any tension or resistance present in the mind or body. As you breathe out, release and soften this tension in whatever way you can: drop the shoulders, soften the jaw, unfurrow the brow, release tightness in the chest, and so on. Repeat the relaxation breath at least three to five times.
The relaxation breath can be practised anywhere, whenever you feel tension rising, or when you are feeling upset, overwhelmed or affected in a negative way by an event or interaction. It is often useful to first remove yourself from the situation that is provoking you, but the relaxation breath can also be practised in the midst of a challenge in order to settle the body and bring more mindfulness to the moment.
Three-minute breathing space
Traditionally offered in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), the three-minute breathing space is almost like a mini-meditation. It can be done anywhere: formally as a daily sitting practice or informally as you move through your day.
Begin with three to five relaxation breaths as above, maximizing the air entering and leaving your body. Once you have completed these, allow your breath to take on its own rate and rhythm, and perhaps allow your eyes to gently close. Invite your attention to notice what is here and now—in the body, in the mind and in the heart. What sensations do you notice? Are there sounds present in your surroundings? Do you have strong thoughts or feelings? Are they pleasant or unpleasant? Allow whatever is here and now to be just as it is.
Now gather your attention, noticing the movement of the breath in the body. Follow the breath along its entire movement. If your attention moves to thoughts of future or past, or sensation or sound, simply notice this and then return to the breath. Can you notice the beginning, middle and end of each inhalation and exhalation, and the brief space between the out-breath and the in-breath? Be curious.
Begin to broaden the attention again, allowing the breath to drift into the background and inviting a more spacious awareness to the whole body and your environment. Notice the sounds in your surroundings. Notice the touch points of your body against the floor or chair. Let there be a gentleness in your noticing. When you are ready, open your eyes.
With practice, we learn to stay here and now with ourselves and with others, whatever blessings or challenges are before us. We are wakeful, we gain the capacity to turn off the autopilot in our lives and be present, alive as each moment unfolds.
At its core, mindfulness is the practice of living fully. By inviting our attention back to this breath, this step and this moment, we see our environment with new eyes and learn to love ourselves and those around us with new awareness.
Mindfulness Myths and Facts
As the popularity of mindfulness increases, misconceptions can arise as to what mindfulness is and what it might offer. Some of the most common myths about mindfulness are addressed below.
Myth: People who practise mindfulness and meditation are running away from reality.
Myth: Being mindful and meditating are about cultivating a trance-like state or having a blank mind.
Myth: Meditation is about relaxing the body and the mind.
Myth: You must be spiritual or practice an Eastern religion (like Buddhism) to use mindfulness or meditation.
Myth: Mindfulness is difficult to achieve and beyond my capabilities.
About the author
Dr. Sherman is a Vancouver Island family physician and Executive Director of the BC Association for Living Mindfully (bcalm.ca), dedicated to education and research on mindfulness in daily life. He is also co-creator of the Art of Living Mindfully, a publicly funded stress management course for people with various health challenges
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