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Mindfulness: What Is It, Really?

Author: NeuroGym Team | October 25, 2016

Picture this: a group of elementary school children, first thing in the morning. They're all bright-eyed, and bushy-tailed, and each of them wiggles like a battery that contains the energy of 5 adults. Now, imagine trying to get this bubbly bunch to calm down and quietly work on a workbook... 

Sounds pretty challenging, right? A school in Canberra, Australia, found a technique that seems to work just like magic.  

Giralang Primary School introduced a program that taught children to practice mindfulness. The results were amazing! Each morning when the students arrived, they went for a short run followed by 10 minutes of guided meditation. After the meditation, students spend another 10 minutes reflecting on their experience while writing or drawing.

Students said things like " I feel calm, relaxed, and I feel like today's going to be a good day," and "It helps me to stop getting annoyed with most things." 

Teachers were also thrilled with the results: "I would highly recommend it," said one teacher. The school principal Belinda Love said "Students are producing a lot more work now in the mornings. It's all about students' focus, breathing, getting in and just being centered before they start their day of academic work." 

That's just one example of "mindfulness" at work. 

What Exactly Is "Mindfulness"?

According to Merriam-Webster, it's defined as "the practice of maintaining a nonjudgemental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis"

In a recent interview with John Assaraf, Ron Siegel defined "mindfulness" in two parts: awareness and acceptance. 

Awareness

Our senses are constantly bombarded with stimulation. There's no way we can always be attune to every possible sensory experience, so we only notice a fraction of the possibilities. 

Take your toes, for instance. I bet you don't give much thought to them... until you stub them on a sharp corner. In mindfulness training, you're taught to notice the suble feelings, such as the sensations in your little toes. 

Whatever you turn your attention to gets amplified -- that's why it's so important to be aware of what you're amplifying, so you can consciously choose what to focus on. 

When you first start mindfulness training, it may be uncomfortable at first, because you start to notice both pleasant and unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and emotions. If some unpleasantness starts to bubble up, don't worry -- you're totally normal. 

Once you start noticing all of the sensations in your body, and your thoughts and feelings, then it's time for the second part of mindfulness training: 

Acceptance 

This one is a little ironic, but effective. If you start feeling angry, or afraid, or any other negative emotion, just accept it. Don't try to fight it. 

It may sound a little counter-intuitive, but if you accept your distress, you'll feel less distressed. When you try to resist an emotion, it becomes a lot more distracting, and it has more power over you.  

 When you notice a negative thought or emotion, all you have to do is casually observe it, like a cloud floating by in the sky. If you can watch it pass without getting attached to it, you're doing great. 

We all have unpleasant thoughts sometimes, but as long as you don't identify with any of them, they're just thoughts. 

Mindfulness training helps you increase your capacity to handle your negative emotions. Instead of being crippled by fear, or acting out of rage, you can distance your response from your emotion.

Mindfulness and Stress 

A study published this year in Biological Psychology revealed the neurological changes that take place when people meditate and practice mindfulness, as opposed to simple relaxation (which was used as a placebo).  

Here's what happened:

Thirty five unemployed men and women were recruited for the study. All of the participants were actively seeking work, and under a lot of stress. The participants had brain scans and blood drawn before the study. 

Next, half of the participants were taken to a formal mindfulness retreat training center, and the other half was taken to a "sham mindfulness meditation that was focused on relaxation and distracting oneself from worries and stress." 

For example, both groups did a series of stretching exercises, however "the mindfulness group paid close attention to bodily sensations, including unpleasant ones. The relaxation (placebo) group was encouraged to chatter and ignore their bodies, while their leader cracked jokes." 

At the end of the three days, both groups reported that they felt refreshed and better able to handle the stress of the job search. However, only the mindful group showed changes in their follow up brain scans. They exhibited more activity in the areas of their brains that process stress, and other areas that help you focus and remain calm. Additionally, the mindful group had lower levels of inflammation in their blood samples a whole four months later, though very few of them continued meditating.  

To deal with stress effectively, you have to do more than just relax. A week-long tropical vacation sounds nice, but it doesn't help you over come the obstacles that caused you stress in the first place.

How to Build Your "Mindful Muscle" 

Mindfulness isn't a natural talent that some people have and others don't. It's just a skill, that anyone can learn and practice. 

Here are  examples of activities that increase your ability to be mindful:

Meditation

This can be done alone, with you simply focusing on your breath, or noticing sensations in your body. You can also try a guided meditation, where another person leads you through a thought practice. 

It may seem intimidating to sit still for long periods of time, but it doesn't have to be a challenge. 

Start out with just five minutes a day, and you can gradually add time. 

Yoga

Yoga is a practice of mindful movement. It's a chance to check in with your body and notice what feels good, and what feels bad. Sometimes yoga is very slow, and sometimes the movements are faster, but it's always very deliberate. 

If your body isnt looking or feeling the way you want it to, yoga can help you get back in touch with your real physiological needs. Then,  you'll be less likely to eat too much, or the wrong things. 

Innercise

Innercise is a "scientifically proven methodology to train and strengthen your mental and emotional skills." Just like you train your muscles with exercise, you can train your brain with innercises. They're activities that help you work on overcoming limiting beliefs, bad habits, and anything else causing your self-sabotaging behaviors. 

Instead of trying to avoid or get rid of your problems or negative emotions, you're better off learning to deal with them. 

You may want to work on your self-esteem, overcoming your fear, understanding your health set point, or turning off negative thoughts . . . all of those can be understood and acheived through retraining your brain.

 

When else can you be mindful? 

The truth is that you can always be mindful. When you're driving in traffic, when you're eating lunch, when you're arguing with a partner, when you're ordering coffee... 

Being aware of your thoughts, feelings, and emotions . . . and letting them pass without judgement leads to less stress, more productivity, and more life satisfaction overall.

Why would you not want that?

We'd love to hear from you! 

Please leave your comments and/or questions in the space below. 

 

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About The Author

NeuroGym Team

NeuroGym Team: NeuroGym’s Team of experts consists of neuroscientists, researchers, and staff who are enthusiasts in their fields. The team is committed to making a difference in the lives of others by sharing the latest scientific findings to help you change your life by understanding and using the mindset, skill set and action set to change your brain.

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