Former Buddhist nun Diana Winston is the director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA Mindful Awareness Center, and the author of several books on mindfulness and meditation. With more than 20 years in the study and practice of mindfulness, Diana explains how routinely taking the time to be in the moment can have a profound impact on our everyday lives and relationships.
Mindfulness is a concentrated state of awareness that can help us see and respond to situations with clarity and without getting carried away by emotions or the constant chatter in our heads. Mindfulness enables us to:
· Better manage tension and stress
· Enhance objectivity, mental focus
· Communicate and make decisions more effectively
· Improve productivity
· Quiet’s noise in the mind
Meditation is the tool we use to cultivate mindfulness. With meditation, you intentionally pay attention to a particular object as a way to strengthen concentration. There are thousands of meditative techniques: Tai Chi, yoga, focusing on the breath and using a mantra are all examples. People often think that meditating “correctly” means clearing all thought from the mind. This is a myth. The mind never stops thinking – it’s when we get caught up in our thoughts that we lose mindfulness. By witnessing thoughts, allowing them to pass, and returning to your chosen object of focus, you can actually build the muscle of concentration. Think of meditation as a fitness routine for the mind.
Are there other benefits to mindfulness?
In addition to boosting brain power, numerous research studies have shown significant physical benefits including:
· Reduced blood pressure
· Lowered cholesterol levels
· Enhanced immune function
· Reduced headache, migraine, back pain
· Improved respiratory function
Mindfulness does not require a particular set of beliefs in order to learn and practice – it is a quality of mind, accessible and available to all.
Mindfulness allows us to live every moment fully without the filters of bias, judgment or emotional reaction.
Mindfulness helps the body cope with physical challenges such as headaches, back pain and even heart disease.
Mindfulness keeps us from reacting too quickly – it helps increase the gap between impulse and action.
I have been practicing meditation since the mid-70’s and started a mindfulness meditation practice in the mid-90’s. Mindfulness has to do with the quality of awareness that we bring to what we are doing and experiencing, to being in the here and now. It has to do with learning to focus on being in the present, to focusing our attention on what we are doing and what is happening in the present.
Many of us are distracted by images, thoughts and feelings of the past, perhaps dissociating, worrying about the future, negative moods and anxieties about the present. It’s hard to put these thing away and concentrate on the task at hand.
I started teaching mindfulness to patients a few years ago and often used the following as a hand out:
Mindfulness has to do with states of mind. Reason Mind, Emotion Mind, and Wise Mind. Reason Mind is your rational, thinking, logical mind. It plans and evaluates things logically. It is your “cool” part. Reasonable Mind can be very beneficial. It is easier to be in Reasonable Mind when you feel good. It is much harder to be in Reasonable Mind when you don’t feel good.
You Would Use Your Reasonable Mind To:
Build a bridge
Figure out how to double a recipe
Balance your checkbook
Figure out the fastest way from point “A” to point “B”
Emotion Mind describes times when emotions are what influence or control your thinking and behavior. Emotional Mind can also be very beneficial. Emotions are what motivate us to action. Emotions are what keep us attached to others and building relationships.
Emotion Mind can be aggravated by:
Illness, Lack Of Sleep, Tiredness, Drugs, Alcohol, Hungry, Overeating, Poor nutrition and/or lack of exercise, Environmental stress and threats, not taking your meds.
Both Emotion and Reasonable Mind Are Equally Important And Valuable
Reasonable mind gives you a way to solve your problems.
Emotion mind gives you a reason (motivation) to want to solve them.
Wise Mind is the integration of emotional and reasonable mind. Wise mind is that part of each person that can know and experience truth. It is where the person knows something to be true or valid. It is where the person knows something in a centered (balanced) way. It is almost always quiet and calm in this part of the mind.
Everyone Has A Wise Mind!
Some people have simply never experienced it.
No one is in Wise Mind all of the time.
Wise Mind – An Analogy for Wise Mind is like a deep well in the ground. The water is at the bottom of the well. The entire underground is an ocean called Wise Mind. But on the way down, there are often trap doors that stop progress. Sometimes the trap doors are so cleverly built that you actually believe that there is no water at the bottom of the well. The trap door may look like the bottom of the well. Perhaps it is locked and you need a key. Perhaps it is nailed shut and you need a hammer. Perhaps it is glued shut and you need a chisel.
A study of students in California universities showed that those who practiced a bit of meditation in their personal lives performed better on tests. This applied to students who practice the art of Zen, as well as those who simply meditate for a few minutes before class.
The research, published in the journal Mindfulness, showed that meditation worked best for first year students, which led researchers to speculate that younger students tend to struggle with concentration more.
Professor Robert Youmans, of George Mason University in Virginia, co-lead the study with University of Illinois doctoral student Jared Ramsburg. According to Professor Youmans:
“One difficulty for researchers who study meditation is that the supposed benefits of meditation do not always replicate across different studies or populations, and so we have been trying to figure out why. This data from this study suggest that meditation may help students who might have trouble paying attention or focusing. Sadly, freshmen classes probably contain more of these types of students than senior courses because student populations who have difficulty self-regulating are also more likely to leave the university.”
The researchers said that coaching students on proper meditation could improve academic results. Ramsburg’s own personal experiences inspired him to undertake the study (he is a Buddhist).
“I think that if mindfulness can improve mental clarity, focus and self-discipline, then it might be useful in a variety of settings and for a variety of goals.”
For anyone uncomfortable with meditation (even though it is not necessarily a religious practice), Ramsburg says that taking long walks in the morning before you start your day could inspire the same outcome.
“Basically, becoming just a little bit more mindful about yourself and your place in the world might have a very important, practical benefit – in this case, doing better in college.”
In mindfulness, you learn to see thoughts as just thoughts rather than as facts or situations you must react to. Thoughts commonly come and go in the mind, and if you treat all thoughts as true and assign them all the same level of importance, you’re more prone to feel down in the midst of negative or self-judgmental thoughts and highly elated in the midst of positive thoughts. This rollercoaster ride of emotions and energy often seems to trace the same path as bipolar disorder’s ups and downs.
By practicing mindfulness, you notice that both types of thoughts are just thoughts, and you don’t need to react to them or even give them your full attention. After all, thoughts arise merely out of your perception of reality or are borne out of your own thought process. You’re not required to give them the full status of being true. Mindfulness involves watching thoughts and stepping back from them – like watching clouds passing through the sky. This enables you to become a disinterested observer, and thoughts lose some of their control over your emotions.
Switching modes of mind
Mindfulness also emphasizes learning to switch modes of mind. Normally you operate in “doing mode,” which is all about setting goals and trying to achieve them. Many people get stuck in this mode and never realize they have the option of shifting to “being mode,” which is all about allowing and accepting things just as they are, rather than working hard to change them.
Being mode is particularly helpful in the realm of emotions. If you’re feeling sad and don’t accept it, you can end up fighting to change the experience. This can lead to a deeper feeling of sadness and trigger a negative thought cycle. By being with the experience and mindfully accepting the emotion, you allow the feeling to dissipate in its own time.
Mindfulness looks like a potentially effective way of managing bipolar disorder, especially the depressive pole, which may be the most difficult to treat with medication alone. Mindfulness exercises and meditations are useful for people with bipolar disorder (manic depression) because mindfulness:
- Decreases the relapse rate for depression.
- Reduces stress and anxiety, which contribute significantly to the onset of both mania and depression and may worsen the course of the illness.
- Improves a person’s ability to manage thoughts and feelings and increases awareness of the way the person tends to internalize external stimuli.
Mindfulness exercises include guided body scan meditation, mindful walking, mindfulness of breath, and mindfulness of thoughts and feelings.
For most of us, a typical day begins when we get out of bed, wash, and then start our activities. At some point, we get a bite to eat, walk somewhere, and talk to someone. Often, by the end of the day we find ourselves stressed out and physically exhausted. It doesn’t have to be that way!
Everyday activities can be an opportunity for a meditation moments; bringing mindfulness, clarity, and peace into your day while energizing yourself and reducing stress.
A study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition found: “Brief meditation training reduced fatigue, anxiety, and increased mindfulness. Moreover, brief mindfulness training significantly improved visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning.”
These brief mindfulness meditations can be done anywhere or anytime …well using common sense. Just like you should not text and drive I would not meditate and drive either.
Here are two examples of how to add meditation without taking time out of your schedule.
- When you get up in the morning, you usually wash. Let’s use washing your face for our first meditation opportunity. Feel the temperature of the water on your hands. Focus on the temperature as you add a little soap. Notice how the suds feel on your hand. When a thought comes in, think of it as someone else’s phone ringing. You hear it, but you don’t have to answer it. Next, feel your soapy hands or the washcloth on your face. Focus on that sensation as you wash your face. Next, feel the rinse water on your face — how does it feel? Is it too cold? Too hot? Just right? If your mind wanders, there is no need to judge, just go back to focusing on the feeling of the water on your face. As you towel off, feel the sensation of the air on your face. It’s that simple, you just meditated.
- As you go about your day, you are most likely waiting in line or in traffic, so take a moment to breathe. Everyone has to breathe, and there is no way the person in front of you in the coffee line will know you are meditating! Sense the breath coming in and out of your nose or mouth. Don’t worry about thoughts; you know what to do, think of your thoughts as someone else’s cellphone ringing. Some people like to label their thoughts as “thought” and then let them go. The important thing is returning to sensing your breath coming in and out of your body. You will feel your shoulders relax and your patience returning