Mindfulness and meditation produce changes inside our brains. The new science of brain imaging shows how critical networks in the brain become activated. The parts of the brain associated with positive emotions like happiness and compassion become more active as we meditate regularly. So it’s not just a question of feeling peaceful whilst practicing as the benefits carry on beyond. It seems we can literally rebuild the brain’s gray matter and increase our wellbeing and the quality of our lives.
1. Slowing Down and Creating Space for Ourselves
Speed has assumed god-like proportions in our age of acceleration. From the moment we wake up in the morning we’re rushing. There seem to be so many tasks to squeeze into the day, whether we’re single or part of a boisterous family, and the to-do list never seems to grown any shorter. While our personal circumstances and responsibilities will vary, most of us seem to be overwhelmed, distracted, short on sleep, and unable to determine how we spend our time. Where did the day go? we ask ourselves, when it seems to have gone by in a blur. We talk about trying to get more balance into our lives and of having some time to relax, relate in a meaningful manner, or just chill or dream. Sadly we seem to find this difficult to achieve, with the result that our lives seem contracted, and we’re not in touch with how we really feel, and we’re only superficially in touch with others in our lives.
Why is it that we get so busy, filling our diaries with events and commitments that seem to come round with astonishing rapidity? The answer is far from obvious. We need to get to know ourselves better to understand why. It may be because we want the excitement of living a full life; we’re greedy for experiences. Or it may be because we want to surround ourselves with people because we’re afraid of being alone and feeling empty. It’s possible that we’re driven by ambition for recognition or wealth, or even by someone else’s expectation of our success. It could be that we’re adrenaline junkies and have gotten used to riding the roller coaster and are afraid to try something different.
Whatever the reason, we’re not going to be able to fathom it out and make changes unless we get to know ourselves really well. To do this we need to slow down and create a little space and quiet time that is ours alone. As Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century French theologian, claimed, “All men’s miseries derive from being unable to sit quiet in a room.” The twentieth-century writer and poet, May Sarton, wrote lyrically in her memoirs about the need for time alone—a full life for her was not her “real life” unless she had time alone to “taste it fully,” to discover and explore what is happening, or has happened.
When we pay attention and train our minds to be focused, things are different. Periods of quiet are essential to our wellbeing. They help us think straight, sort out our feelings, digest what is going on, and dream of other possibilities. Sitting quietly helps us sort out our confusion and recharges the batteries.
2. Paying Attention
Sometimes our lives feel out of control. We’re overwhelmed by the information coming at us from all directions—the thoughts, emotions, and sensations from inside us, and everything that is happening outside in the world around us. Connectivity may now be more of a curse than a blessing as we spend so much of our time on our phones and tablets that we fail to connect with people in the flesh. Is it any wonder we end up feeling drained and exhausted?
We use very little conscious attention in our daily lives. We get out of bed, shower, dress, prepare breakfast, take the children to school and ourselves to our place of work—all this automatically, without really needing to think about it. Our brains are so adept, we can even make judgments, adopt attitudes, make choices and decisions, remember things, and set goals without really concentrating. Paying full attention requires more work and energy.
The word “attention” comes from the Latin verb, attendere, meaning to stretch toward. When we pay attention to something, we stretch toward it, focus on it, excluding everything else that might distract us. As a result we begin to see it more clearly, hear it more distinctly, feel it, smell it, and taste it.
Paying attention is an art. When we slow down and pay attention, everything changes. Controlled focus becomes like a laser beam, and with that focus the mind becomes peaceful and joy wells up from deep within us.
I’m reminded of my experience of learning to paint flowers. My teacher kept telling me, “If you can see, you can paint.” You have to look closely at a flower—its petals, stamens, stem, and leaves, its colors and composition, the way the light falls, the relationship of one part to another, and, most importantly, the spaces between the parts. Painting a picture, playing the piano, gardening, flower arranging, or making a loaf of bread all require focus and attention. There is no place for distracted thoughts. When we focus, everything else is forgotten except the task at hand. Our troubles are left behind, and we feel a sense of deep peace.
3. Taming the Unruly Mind
If we are busy, our minds are even busier. There’s an incessant flow of thoughts running through our brains. The average person is estimated to have in the region of 60,000 thoughts in a day. It’s hardly surprising we feel tired!
If we remain still and quiet for any length of time, without any distractions, we become aware of this endless stream of thoughts. The trick is not to allow them to besiege us and get caught up in the maelstrom, but rather to learn to accept them and let them go. We can learn to control our minds and train our attention through the practice of mindfulness, meditation, yoga, tai chi, and other numerous disciplines and techniques.
“To know that you are a prisoner of your mind is the dawn of wisdom,” claimed the Indian sage, Nisargadatta Maharaj. Taming our minds requires that we remain still and be present. Focusing on the breath is the most natural and simplest of ways to begin training. Our breath is always with us, we don’t need anything else, and we certainly don’t have to have any particular beliefs. By paying attention to the breath as it goes in and out of our nostrils, and watching how even with this simplest of exercises, the mind constantly wanders, we begin to see just how much we are in the clutches of the mind. However, as we bring our attention back to the breath, our breathing rhythm begins to change, gradually slowing as each inhalation and exhalation lengthens, and we notice that the thoughts begin to subside. Over time we begin to become more self-aware, and we can use attention to empower our lives and to get to know ourselves better.
Gradually we are able to regain that deep sense of peace that the inspirational self-study course A Course in Miracles aims to help us achieve:
There is a silence
into which the world cannot intrude.
There is an ancient peace
you carry in your heart
and have not lost.
4. Adopting Mindfulness
Mindfulness is about being awake. It’s not a practice that requires adherence to any particular religious or esoteric belief, but it is a universal way of becoming more aware. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, who has pioneered the research on the subject, “Mindfulness is the art of conscious living.”
We tend to live our lives in an unconscious manner much of the time, preoccupied with the past or the future, and not living in the present moment. When we are mindful, however, our automatic patterns of thinking and behaving begin to break up, and we start to see things in a new way. Our perceptions shift and we experience the world as we first did in our earliest years before we were conditioned to experience fear and limitation. Mindfulness helps make us more aware. We can choose to take responsibility for our lives by taking responsibility for our thoughts. The Buddha claimed: “What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.”
So how do we become mindful? There are two approaches. One is by thinking in a more flexible way, by actively keeping the mind open to both uncertainty and possibility. Ellen Langer, Professor of Social Psychology at Harvard, pioneered this approach and advocated avoiding all automaton-like behavior where we are basically “mindless.” Instead, increasing mindfulness, breaking loose from old mindsets and paying attention, and staying open to intuition, enables us to see clearly and deeply. In the following lines from “Tintern Abbey,” the poet William Wordsworth’s “quiet eye” shows how intuition and mindfulness are reached by escaping the usual single-minded focus of life lived on autopilot:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
we see into the life of things.
The other approach to becoming more mindful is one that is becoming increasingly fashionable. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the UMass Medical Center pioneered the practice of mindfulness, drawing on the practice of Buddhist meditation. Professor Mark Williams at the University of Oxford has popularized a non-religious mindfulness as a method of training the mind. The idea is that we can meditate anywhere, for a few minutes or longer. Stopping, sitting, and becoming aware of the breath are suggested as a daily practice. This enables us to have a more mindful awareness as we go about our daily lives and encourages us to break our unconscious habits of thinking and behaving. When we bring our awareness to breathing, the shift in attention reminds us that we are here now, and we feel connected to the life force as the breath goes in and out of the body. The idea is to carry over mindfulness into everyday life while we’re cooking, eating, ironing, cleaning, etc. It helps us see things as they are, not as we expect them to be, or how we want them to be, or how we fear they might become.
Both forms of mindfulness result in a greater overall wellbeing when practiced regularly. They have been found to lower blood pressure, slow down the release of stress hormones, and increase the levels of the neuro-hormones dopamine, melatonin, and serotonin. They appear to aid the immune system to function better, helping us fight illness and slowing down the aging process. In addition, mindfulness helps us live with greater awareness, have a different perspective on life, and a greater appreciation of the world around us.
5. Practicing Meditation
If we want to be in touch with who we really are and to find the Source of joy within ourselves, meditation is an important tool. Although there are many techniques and practices, the essence of meditation is the training of our mind to settle into a state of calmness and clarity.
The simplest of all meditations is to focus on the breath. We sit in an upright but relaxed posture, we close our eyes, and we watch the breath as it goes in and out of our nostrils. The breath connects us both with what’s inside us and the current of life that flows through everything that exists. As we focus on the incoming and outgoing flow of our breath, not only does our breath slow down, but also the rush of thoughts begins to subside as we gently acknowledge whatever thought has arisen and then let go of it. It’s not complicated, but it’s also not easy to stay with the practice. It requires effort to remain focused. The sound of a lawn mower reminds us that the grass needs cutting, and then we remember that we meant to get the mower serviced. We like the man who owns the service shop but his wife was definitely a bit discourteous with us the last time we met her. We wonder what the reason for that was; maybe she’s not happy. Our sister isn’t happy because her husband’s just left her—must go and see her . . . and so it goes on, our mind wanders all over the place, one thought leading to another, until we realize we’ve digressed from our simple practice of focusing on the breath.
However, we keep returning to the breath, bringing our awareness gently back to the practice. If we can just observe what’s happening rather than reacting, or labeling, or judging, then we will find that we have moments when the chatter ceases. Gradually we come to see how the mind behaves, and over time we begin to understand ourselves better. We start to see our patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior, what’s actually going on under the surface. We also get to access the deep well of joy at the center of our being. Meditation does require us to be disciplined. We have to find the time and space, we have to make a commitment to sit regardless of what is going on, and we have to stay with the breath. Over time we begin to reap the benefits of practice—our health and wellbeing, our energy levels, our ability to relax, our capacity for joy, our creativity, our relationships, all are improved with practicing meditation on a daily basis.