the practice of mindfulness.
Okay, so you know all about the benefits of regular mindfulness practice, but what exactly is it? Well, it’s basically all about training your mind to work in ways it usually doesn’t in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Let’s break it down into three key cognitive skills – think of them as the pillars of mindfulness.
The first pillar is focused attention, the ability to maintain concentration on a specific task or object and block out background noise. You’ll have experienced this the last time you found yourself immersed in your work or if you’ve ever practised playing an instrument.
The second pillar is open awareness. That’s a way of tuning into your environment and being open and receptive to everything that’s going on around you without honing in on anything in particular.
Finally, there’s intention. That’s about cultivating a positive, compassionate attitude toward the world and the people you encounter in it, including yourself.
Together, these three pillars form the basis of mindfulness – a state of mind that can be reached by different routes. One of those routes is mindful breathing. This practice is designed to focus your attention on the present by directing your attention to your breathing cycle. The aim is to keep your mind’s eye centered on the movement of air through your body, returning to your breathing every time your mind begins to wander.
Open awareness is another means of achieving mindfulness. The object here is to become fully receptive to, say, the sounds around you and resist the urge to judge them positively or negatively.
Finally, there’s compassion meditation, a meditative practice that focuses on cultivating kind and generous thoughts about others.
Become more focused by understanding the different types of attentiveness.
Picture the display of a digital camera. When you point your lens at an object or landscape, you can bring different parts of the image into focus, highlighting some aspects and blurring others. Attention is just like that: it can be directed and “focused” on particular things.
Indeed, there’s even a name for this deliberate focus – it’s called focal attention. All you need to do to experience it is to take a walk around the room you’re reading this in. Pay close attention to the objects around you, noting their colours, shapes and details. That’s focal awareness – a deliberate, conscious registering of your surroundings.
Now compare that to an average morning routine. You get out of bed half-asleep and go through the motions of showering, getting ready for the day and making breakfast. Chances are, you won’t have taken in a single detail of the world around you by the time you leave the house. That’s a great example of the second way the mind apprehends the world: non-focal attention. It’s a pretty nifty skill, since it allows you to complete humdrum tasks without wasting too much cognitive energy on them.
But there’s a catch. Once routines take over, it’s all too easy to switch off entirely.
That’s a problem if you want to be more mindful. When you’re running on autopilot and experiencing the world in a non-focal manner, your mind tends to drift away from the present moment. That’s when you begin dwelling on negative thoughts and scenarios instead of paying attention to the decisions you’re making in the here and now. Focus on the present, however, and you’ll quickly begin noticing all the positive choices you can make. Why not make today the day you finally speak to that colleague you usually ignore? Do that and life becomes a whole lot richer!
Meditation can teach us how to become more aware of the world.
Awareness is about being receptive to the world
There are four different ways of tuning in by paying attention to specific things. First off, the five senses: hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and touching. Next come bodily sensations – think of the rumbling of an empty stomach or the way your heart beats faster when you’re excited or scared. Then there are mental activities like feeling, thinking and remembering. Finally, there’s your connection to the things and people outside your own body.
Meditation is a great way of focusing on these ways of experiencing the world and becoming more aware of them.
Take this simple exercise
What you’ll need is a comfortable place to sit and half an hour of peace and quiet. Start by closing your eyes and focusing your mind on your senses and perceptions, beginning with the five senses. Pay close attention to the sounds you can hear before moving on to what you can see (you’ll need to open your eyes for this part!), taste, smell and feel. Stay with each sensation for around half a minute. Just take it in and try not to judge anything you perceive.
Now move on to your bodily experiences, noting how your muscles and organs feel. Spend about 15 seconds on each body part. After you’ve done that, focus your mind on your thoughts. Let them come and go as they please without trying to interrupt or redirect them. Finally, take a couple of minutes to connect yourself mentally with the people in your life – your friends and family, your colleagues and even strangers, making sure to send them your love.
Open your eyes and take stock. You might just feel a whole lot more peaceful and connected!
Compassion is better than empathy, and it’s also good for your body and mind.
We all want to feel a sense of meaningful connection to others, but we often go wrong when trying to establish that. The reason? Well, it’s all too easy to confuse empathy with compassion. While closely related, they aren’t quite the same thing. Let’s have a closer look at why that’s the case.
Compassion is all about identifying yourself with another’s suffering, asking what you can do to help and – most importantly – taking steps to relieve that suffering.
Empathy is the first part of that triad: empathising with someone, after all, means putting yourself in that person’s shoes. But that’s not enough. Understanding the suffering of others without trying to do anything about it is a recipe for unhappiness – it simply means that the empathetic take on more suffering. If you take the next steps and actually help others, on the other hand, you’re actively reducing suffering.
And that’s a win-win situation. Not only will those you help be better off; you will be, too! Recent research shows that even taking a little time out to send loving thoughts to others can boost your mental and physical health. That’s because practising compassion tends to integrate your brain, bringing about a better balance between its different parts. Compassionate meditation, where you focus on compassionate thoughts and feelings, has also been shown to reduce inflammation and stress, as well as improve overall heart function.
Best of all, compassionate thinking has a way of translating into action. The more time you spend thinking about the welfare of others, the more likely you’ll be to remember important occasions like birthdays or notice when people are in need of help.
The brain serves the body.
More than two millennia ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates claimed that the brain was the source of all human experience. That ancient idea is now being revised as the latest scientific research uncovers a startling truth: it’s not only that the body serves the brain, but the brain also serves the body. Today, scientists are increasingly taking that insight to its logical conclusion: the brain is the servant of the body!
In fact, we all have multiple “brains,” each of which developed earlier than the organ in our heads. These include neural systems like those surrounding the intestines known as the “gut brain” as well as those around the heart, which can be referred to as the “heart brain.”
These other, less civilised brains, are something mindfulness and meditation can help us get back in touch with.
Worrying often leads to self-obsession, but meditation can help restore balance.
We’ve all worried about whether or not we’re truly likeable, and everyone, at some point, has feared that reaching out to others might end in rejection. But once such thoughts start whirring through your mind, it’s easy to retreat and concentrate on nothing but yourself and your own life. In the end, everything becomes about you. This is natural enough – the latest neuro-scientific research even suggests it’s hardwired into the human brain. But it can get out of control and lead to self-obsession.
Let’s dig into the research a little. Here’s how it works. When certain parts of the brain – above all the posterior cingulate cortex – are activated, humans begin thinking about themselves and how others view them. These parts of the brain are mostly located in its middle portion; they’re part of what neuroscientists call the brain’s default network, and they kick into action when you’re not doing anything in particular. If you’ve wondered why an idle moment sitting on the sofa ends in all sorts of worrisome ruminations about whether your neighbours or colleagues like you, well – that’s why!
From an evolutionary perspective, this kind of behaviour makes a lot of sense. Self-awareness and attentiveness to what other people are doing is how your brain assesses dangers and makes sure that you aren’t about to be attacked by someone. The problems start when this part of the brain is overstimulated and you become overly anxious about your standing in the world.
That’s where meditation comes in. It’s a great way to restore a sense of balance and work against the negative effects of your brain’s default setting. Why? Well, as we saw in an earlier blink, meditation helps integrate the brain’s different parts. As the default mode becomes more integrated, you start developing empathy and compassion. That ultimately shifts your attention away from your own self to awareness of others and their needs.
Meditation is a great way of breaking out of the cycle of addiction.
Addiction can make you feel powerless. If you’ve ever struggled with addiction, then you know it makes you feel as though you have no choice in the matter – you simply need the thing, be it cigarettes, television or a sugary snack. But that’s not how it really works. In fact, addiction is nothing more than an illusion created by your brain.
Before we move on to how meditation can help you break your addiction cycle, let’s take a closer look at addiction itself.
Essentially, it’s a product of your neural wiring’s reward system. When humans experience pleasure, the body releases dopamine – a substance that induces feelings of happiness. The dopamine trigger can be anything from chocolate to racking up “likes” on social media to a glass of red wine. Unfortunately, modern society gives everyone ever-greater access to these things, making it more tempting to reach for them again and again. The sense of craving you feel is your brain’s way of triggering behaviour that results in dopamine being released.
The problem is that it’s easy to overdo pleasure-giving things. And the more you do that, the less intense the reward becomes. That can quickly create a vicious cycle: because, say, eating chocolate or spending time online no longer gives you the same hit that it used to, so you eat more chocolate or spend even more time online.
Here’s where meditation can help. Recent studies have shown that meditating can break those addictive behavioural patterns by helping you understand what you need as opposed to what you’d like to have. When that distinction is clear, the dopamine reward triggered by that glass of wine is much smaller. Knowing that you don’t really need something means you’re much less likely to become addicted to it.
Distinguishing between wants and needs ultimately gives you a more realistic view of the world. Overindulgence, whether in drugs, sex or social media, simply won’t lead to fulfilment.
So why not give meditation a try? In addition to giving you a richer experience of the world and improving your well-being, it’ll help you connect to others and gain an understanding of those negative patterns that hold you back from achieving your full potential for happiness.
Ref D. Siegel
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