By Have you ever left your house and gotten half-way to your destination and wondered, ‘Did I lock my door?’ only to return home to find the door locked. Have your ever not remembered where you put the keys you had in your hands just a few minutes ago?
You most likely were operating on automatic – your mind was one place and your body was in another place. “Most of the time our minds are somewhere else,” explains Ronald Siegel, a clinical psychologist and professor at Harvard Medical School. “Yet, the moments that matter to us are all situations in which the mind shows up. We spend an inordinate amount of time lost in memories of the past and fantasies of the future.”
Practicing mindfulness can greatly reduce those seemingly absent-minded times. Mindfulness practice can also help everything from anxiety and depression to the challenges of intimate relationships, aging and raising children.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness practices have been around for thousands of years. We have well-documented testimony from monks and nuns who have successfully used these practices to find peace, fulfillment and happiness. Yet the practices didn’t become mainstream until scientists began researching and finding changes in brain tissues or shifts in EEG activity in people who practice mindfulness regularly.
According to Dr. Siegel, mindfulness is awareness of present experience with acceptance. He says many people wrongfully that involves developing a blank mind. Nor is it sitting in lotus and chanting ‘Om’. “It is, however, about developing a different relationship with our thoughts so we can observe them coming and going and not believe in or identify them so much.”
Dr. Siegel lists in the Great Course titled, ‘The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being, three skills we need to develop: First, focused attention which helps us observe things clearly. Second is what neurobiologists now call ‘open monitoring’ which is used to see how the mind creates suffering for itself. Finally, is acceptance and loving-kindness, which is used to soothe and comfort.
His course, which can be taken on line or on DVD, has 24 half-hour lectures. The amount of scientific research about the effects of mindfulness is overwhelming. Dr, Siegel’s lectures include topics about the science of compassion; seeing sadness and depression in a new light, transforming chronic pain; overcoming traumas large and small, and placebos, illness and the power of belief. It also includes a lecture on how mindfulness modifies brain structure and function. Dr. Siegel includes exercises for students in several of his lectures.
Who Can Benefit from Mindfulness?
Everyone from children through seniors can benefit from practicing mindfulness techniques. A long-distance runner is competing in a race. It’s important that she keep her pace and stay ahead of the pack. A fierce competitor pulls ahead of her. She thinks, ‘Oh no, I’m going to lose.’ Her thoughts continue, ‘My coach is going to be so disappointed I didn’t win.’
Her negative thoughts make her more likely to lose the race. “If athletes are worried about making a mistake, that worry is pulling their attention away from what they are doing in the present, and they are more likely to make a mistake” said Tim Pineau, clinical psychologist practicing in DC and Virginia. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and creates a cycle that takes them away from the present moment.”
Dr. Pineau and two colleagues have authored a book, Mindful Sports Enhancement: Mental Training for Athletes and Coaches that presents an empirically supported program rooted in the traditions of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. The book emphasizes incorporating mindfulness practices into workouts, practices and competitions as well as everyday life.
“Being mindful can help people see an event as it is happening and pull themselves out of it. If they recognize that they have a choice to come back to the present moment and see the event for what it is – an anxious moment and not reality,” said Dr. Pineau. The reality for the runner was another runner passed her. She did not lose the race.
“Mindfulness provides people a different way to experience their world. It’s a way of being and interacting,” said Dr. Pineau. “I think so much of our stress and anxiety is worrying about the future and ruminating about the past. We spend so little time in the present.” Being mindful actually opens you up to being more spontaneous. When you see events with awareness and acceptance you are more open to an array of options available at any moment. When you approach something with expectations you limit what you will see. If you are non-judgmental to whatever the moment brings it actually encourages spontaneity.”
How to Get Started
The best way is through meditation. You can begin meditating as little as five or 10 minutes a day. Use a timer. Download an app. I like the Insight meditation app but there’s plenty other free ones available. Experiment with different ways of meditating.
- Breathing – Your breath is always available. Carve out some time to observe your breathing. Inevitably your mind will wander. That’s ok. Bring your thoughts back to your breath. If it helps say to yourself, ‘In’ as you breathe in; and ‘Out’ as you breathe out.
- Count your Breath – Any time you lose count you can go back to one. The number’s not important
- Walking – There are several ways: walking deliberately and feeling the sensations of the ground as your feet touch, feel the air on your face as you walk through it, listen to the sounds around you. I often do walking meditation with my dog. It’s a great way to start my day.
- Showering – Be present as you cleanse every part of your body. Notice how the water and soap feel on your skin.
- Exercising – Many talk about the ‘zone’ while running which becomes form of meditation. Any type of experience can become a mindfulness practice.
- Eating – Be aware of how the food you put into your mouth feels, tastes and smells. How does it feel to chew, to swallow?
- Yoga – Feel your way through poses instead of thinking about them. Release comparison to others.
Another Approach to Mindfulness
Karin Edgett, artist and nutritional cook, has been practicing mindfulness for years. While in Mexico last fall, she attended a seminar sponsored by the HeartMath Institute. “HeartMath studies the synchronicity among our hearts, brains, bodies each other and the rest of the world,” she explained. “HeartMath research has shown that when people are in a state of meditation that involves breathing from the heart, they become ‘coherent’ or in a higher vibration, and their heart rhythms become even. They see a positive impact in how they navigate through their lives.”
HeartMath developed tools to help you connect with your inner guidance, and technologies to help you be still enough to listen. One of the tools, the inner balance app and sensor, showed me how I could shift my mood in the moment. With a sensor attached to my ear, I breathed deeply from my heart for five minutes. “Once you are relaxed you can evoke a feeling of joy, gratitude, love or any other uplifting thought and hold for as long as you can,” explained Karin. “The goal is to train yourself to stay in that higher vibration of state of ‘coherence’ longer and longer. Eventually you will be able to get into it anywhere in order to improve all areas of your life.”
According to the HeartMath website, the Institute which was founded in 1991, conducts research and scientifically-based tools that bridge the connection between the heart and the mind and deepen people’s connection with the hearts of others. This empowers people to greatly reduce stress, increase resilience and unlock their natural intuitive guidance for making better choices. Studies conducted with more than 11,500 people have shown improvements in mental and emotional well-being in six to nine weeks using HeartMath training and technology.
You can bring mindfulness into any activity. The more you practice the more your benefits grow. However, Dr. Pineau says even a brief exposure to mindfulness can have an impact. “My sleep got better after meditating for a few months,” he said.
People come to mindfulness for the benefits – lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, improve sleep, reduce suffering and chronic pain to name a few – but, “When you begin to understand it’s the non-striving, letting go of the anxiety, it makes the anxiety go away. It helps you navigate life better,” said Dr. Pineau. It’s not unmindful to have goals, but become aware of how you approach those goals. Practicing mindfulness doesn’t mean you give up your goals. Instead you free up mental space to focus on what you care about right now.”
To learn more about HeartMath long onto: heartmath.com. and heartmath.org.
Many articles and books focus on the connection of science with mindfulness. The following are a few that have resonated with me, but the list is by no means complete.
Into the Magic Shop by James R. Doty, M.D.
All is Well: Heal Your Body with Medicine, Affirmations and Intuition by Louise L. Hay and Mona Lisa Schulz, M.D., Ph.D.
The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles by Bruce H. Lipton, M.D.
E Squared by Pam Grout (any of Grout’s books)
The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being, given by Professor Ronald Siegel, a clinical psychologist who is a professor at Harvard Medical School and author of the Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems.
If you’d like free audio recordings of variations of the practices presented in the Great Courses Mindfulness lectures log onto: mindfulness-solution.com.
To learn more about the course on mindfulness log onto: thegreatcourses.com.
To learn more about how Dr. Pineau and his colleagues work with athletes log onto: Mindfulsportsperformance.org.
If you want to contact Dr. Pineau: [email protected] or call: 202-670-9636.
Pattie Cinelli is a writer and holistic fitness professional who has been pursuing the practice of mindfulness for many years. Pattie incorporates mindfulness practices into her class instruction and private training sessions with her clients. To learn more long onto: pattiecinelli.com or email her at: [email protected]