Life seems ever more complex and demanding these days. We seem to be pulled in multiple directions at the same time and at record speed. Work and family, finances, and even trying to stay healthy and fit, can be stressful. Finding the time to slow down, really slow down, can seem almost impossible. Perhaps that’s the reason “mindfulness” has become such a popular topic.
As the creator of the respected Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, Jon Kabat-Zinn, likes to say, “Stress isn’t going away any time soon. You might as well roll out the welcome mat.” His message points out that it’s how we respond to the stress in our lives that makes the difference. That’s where mindfulness comes in.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is "paying attention to present moment experience with open curiosity and a willingness to be with what is." (Jon Kabat-Zinn)
The core of mindfulness is quieting the mind's constant chattering—thoughts, anxieties, and regrets. You learn to keep your attention focused on whatever you’re doing at the present moment, whether it's eating, exercising, or even working.
The most basic mindfulness practice is sitting meditation: You sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and focus your awareness on your breath and other bodily sensations. When thoughts come, you gently let them go without judgment and return to the focus on the breath. Over time, this practice helps people connect with a deeper, calmer part of themselves, and re-train their brains not to get stuck in pointless, neurotic ruminations about the past and future that leave them constantly stressed, anxious, or depressed.
Does it work?
Scientific research has shown that mindfulness appears to make people both happier and healthier. Regular meditation can lower a person's blood pressure and their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone produced by the adrenal gland and closely associated with anxiety. Meditation can also increase the body's immune response, improve a person's emotional stability and sleep quality, and even enhance creativity.
What does science say?
A growing body of research suggests that our brains don’t stay the same after childhood, but change and adapt throughout our lives. A 2011 Massachusetts General Hospital study found that those who meditate regularly for as little as eight weeks changed the very structure of their brains. MRI scans showed that by meditating daily for an average of 27 minutes, participants increased the density of the gray matter (which holds most of our brain cells) in an area that is essential for focus, memory, and compassion. It's now clear that even relative beginners at mindfulness can quickly rewire their brains in a positive way.
How do you get started?
Anyone can learn to incorporate mindfulness into everyday life. It is best understood through practice. Here are some tips for living mindfully:
- Informal mindfulness practice: Bring awareness to a routine activity in your day, like brushing your teeth, walking to your desk, or eating a meal. See if you can be fully present to the experience without thinking about something else.
- Formal mindfulness practice: Try sitting quietly in a comfortable position and bringing your attention to your breath. Notice how the mind wanders and gently bring it back to the breath. This training will help to strengthen your focus and quiet the mind.
You can learn more about mindfulness and the eight week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program offered through the MaineHealth Learning Resource Center, by going to our mindfulness page.