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Mindfulness Practice: What Is It, Exactly?

Author: NeuroGym Team | 2017

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 bunny that contains the energy of five adults. Now, imagine trying to get this rowdy bunch to calm down and quietly practice their math skills . . . 

Sounds challenging, right?

Remarkably, a school in Canberra, Australia found a technique that seems to work just like magic. Giralang Primary School introduced a program that taught children how to practice mindfulness. The results were amazing!

Each morning when the students arrived, they went for a short run followed by ten minutes of guided meditation. After the meditation, students spend another ten 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." 

The school's principal Belinda Love said, "Students are producing a lot more work now in the mornings. It's all about students' focus, breathing, and getting centered before they start their day of academic work."

Mindfulness Practice: What Is It, Exactly?

“It’s about knowing what is on your mind,” says Jon Kabat-Zinn—professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. 

Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Basically, a mindfulness practice teaches you to maintain a nonjudgmental state of heightened awareness of your thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.

A growing body of research has shown that this practice changes subjective and physiological states of being. And with daily practice, the immune system gets stronger, as reflected by in an increase in the number of cells fighting infection.

Being a mindful person allows space for the mind-gut relationship to grow healthier and happier, too.

Among long-time meditators, gray matter (the tissue containing neurons) is thicker in specific brain regions. People who meditate regularly show a decrease in symptoms of stress and depression. Overall well-being improves, and relationships with self, others, and the planet are healthier when you establish a mindful daily routine. 

What might be a mindful experience?

Sitting quietly in meditation counting each inhalation and exhalation isn’t the only way to experience a mindful state of awareness. Can you remember a time in your life when you were in the present moment? Strolling in the park . . . where you visual field came alive or listening to your favorite music, for example. In these moments, you were most likely being mindful of the sights and sounds.

Maybe it happened to you when you were running that second mile, cycling, or during a swim. Perhaps this is the sense you had listening to your child tell you a story.

All evidence indicates that a mindful mindset can be learned like any other skill and a regular mindfulness practice can be a powerful way to affect neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to form new connections, change, and heal.

In an interview with John Assaraf, Ron D. Siegel, author of The Mindfulness Solution, defined the practice in two parts: awareness and acceptance.

Mindfulness.jpg

The Awareness Aspect 

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

Take your toes, for instance. You probably don’t give much thought to them . . . until you stub one on a sharp corner. During mindful body awareness training, you're taught to notice the subtle feelings, such as the sensations in your little toes.

Whatever you dwell on will expand . . . 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 practicing, it may be uncomfortable because you'll begin to notice both pleasant and unpleasant sensations in your body, thoughts, feelings, and emotions. This is totally inevitable and happens to everyone.

Once you start noticing all of the sensations in your body, thoughts, feelings you're having, then it's time for the second part of the training: non-judgmental acceptance.

The Acceptance Part

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, that's great!

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

Being mindful 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 the emotion you experience in the moment.

What Does Stress Have to Do with It?

A study published last year in Biological Psychology revealed the neurological changes that take place when people meditate and practice being mindful, as opposed to relaxation—which they 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 went to a retreat training center, and the other half went 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 help process stress and 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 overcome the obstacles that caused you stress in the first place.

How to Effectively Build Your "Mindful Muscle"

We can dispel the notion that building your mindful muscle is time-consuming. In fact, it's time-enhancing and can be practiced anywhere, in the blink of an eye.

Being mindful isn't a natural talent that some people have and others don't. It's just a skill that anyone can learn and practice. It's the art of observing your physical, emotional, and mental experiences with deliberate, open, and curious attention. 

Here are some examples of ways to exercise your mindful muscle.

1. Eat with mindful awareness.

First things first, notice if you tend to eat when you’re stressed.

Maybe you feel a lot of pressure to complete work-related tasks in the afternoons, so you grab a cookie or two to get your through. Perhaps you had a bad day, so in the evening you scarf down your favorite Thai take-out while binging on the final season of Narcos.

Now think about being mindful when you eat. The objective of nourishing ourselves is to connect the body and mind lovingly. Our bodies are continually sending signals to our brains . . . so if we want to get better, we need to start paying attention to what's communicated.  

Mindful eating is one of the best ways we can get our mind and body to communicate what we really need. Here are some guidelines to get you started on the path to mindful eating.

  • Take a moment to honor the food you’re about to eat.

What is the life cycle of your food? Where did it come from? Who made your meal possible? You!

And think back to the earth, the animals, the farmers . . . the grocer, and the chef. Give thanks to all those involved in the process. And if it's not prepared perfectly . . . oh well! Instead of complaining, be grateful.

  • Eat slowly.

Count how many times you chew before swallowing (25-30?), set your fork down between bites, and notice when your stomach feels about 80 percent full. That's the best time to stop eating because it takes the brain about 20 minutes to relay the message that you've overeaten.

  • Savor each flavor.

Take in the sights and smells . . . and as you taste the food, try to identify the herbs and spices. What vegetables are in the dish? Is that radicchio?

  • Don’t talk with your mouth full.

This one should be an ingrained behavior by now, but if it’s not . . . practice eating in silence—chewing quietly with your mouth closed.

  • Nurture your body.

Are you eating for your health or your emotions? Mindful eating won’t get you results if you continue eating poorly. The idea is to listen to your body and take care of it, by feeding it the right nutrients and minimizing unnecessary stress.

mindfulness practice2. Meditation

This can be done simply by focusing on the quality of your breath or noticing sensations in your body. You can also try guided meditation, where another person leads you through it. 

It may seem intimidating to sit still for long periods of time, but it's not impossible. 

Start out with just five minutes a day, and you can gradually increase the time you spend in meditation. 

3. Yoga

Yoga is a powerful ancient science and healing art. It will enhance your mindfulness training as you begin to notice your breath, emotions, and body in motion. And as you move with keen awareness, each yoga posture (asana) or breathing exercise (pranayama) gives you the opportunity to check in with your body and discover what feels best for your body, mind, and spirit.

Sometimes the practice of yoga is restorative, and sometimes it's challenging, but this ancient science is always very deliberate.  And if your body isn't looking or feeling the way you want it to, yoga can help you reconnect with your physiological and emotional well-being. 

4. Daily Innercise

Innercising daily will greatly benefit your mindfulness practice. Innercises are scientifically proven methodologies 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 achieved through retraining your brain.

When else can you be mindful?  

The truth is, you can always be mindful. Try it when you're stuck in traffic, ordering your lunch, walking through your neighborhood, having a heated discussion with a loved one, or exercising . . .

brain training program

When you're aware of your thoughts, feelings, and emotions . . . and let them move through you without judgment, you'll experience less stress, more productivity, and more life satisfaction overall. 

What's next?

Now that you know how to practice being mindful . . . would like to learn more about how to train your brain for success and master your mindset? If so, check out our brain training program by clicking the button below.

How to Master Your Mindset [Training Program]

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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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