We all know that exercise is a proven game changer. It boosts our health, wellbeing, confidence, focus, performance and ultimately our lives. However science has only recently caught up to the specific benefits. In the early 20th Century, science struggled to prove that endorphins fill your body during exercise and that your hearts capabilities multiply phenomenally. It was a relatively new research area. Those who exercised relished the benefits, those who did not were none the wiser.
Mindfulness in recent times seems to be where exercise was in the early 20th century. Science is only recently proving the remarkable benefits. These benefits of which are only experienced by those who practise it. In the same time span it took for exercise to be universally understood as revolutionary, mindfulness as a practise will flourish.
In the relatively near future, mindfulness will become universally accepted as a silver bullet of stress relief and performance enhancement. Quite simply, mindfulness changes the structure of your brain.
Researchers from the University of British Columbia recently studied data from more than 20 studies to understand how practicing mindfulness affects the brain. The researchers found significant changes in eight brain regions, two of these regions are particularly important.
In these brain regions, the simple act of practicing mindfulness increased both brain activity and the density of brain tissue.
1. The Prefrontal Cortex is responsible for our self-control. It enables us to focus on what we want when we want, hence avoiding distractions and making better decisions.
2. The Hippocampus has many functions but its primary one is its resilience in the face of adversity and failure. The hippocampus is damaged by stress and hence is a development area for all of us.
Mindfulness is a form of meditation that changes the structure of these brain areas. Remarkably, science has proven that it only takes 10 minutes a day for 6 weeks to begin this process.
Mindfulness is a simple form of meditation that allows us to observe our thoughts, feelings and behaviours and ultimately gain control of them. It is a skill that once developed allows us to be more focused even when we are not meditating. Mindfulness reduces stress as it develops the skill of gaining control over our thoughts and stopping our minds ruminating to the negative.
In a similar way that muscle exercises develop muscular strength, mindfulness develops mental strength. It develops this mental strength in specific regions of our brain that make a remarkable difference. It is perhaps the greatest form of mental training that we can engage in and its benefits have a multiplier effect.
It develops our ability to be present and fully engaged without judgment at each moment of our lives. Hence, we become more productive, engaging and empathic to others, truly experiencing life in a state of presence. This list represents only a few of the observed benefits of meditation according to science. Psychology Today has compiled a much longer list of the benefits of meditation here.
Thankfully, mindfulness doesn’t have to be practised in a certain position or in a monastery. It can be incorporated into your daily routine with just a few minutes every day, anywhere, at any time. Here are 4 simple ways to begin the process.
Practical Ways to Develop Mindfulness
Connect With Nature
We can meditate by simply going for a walk. Find a location that fits your lifestyle and desires. Mindfulness can be practiced on a busy street just as it can be on a secluded beach. Begin by focusing on your steps. Feel each point of contact on the ground as you stride. Move your awareness without judgment and engage all your senses. What can you feel in the rest of your body as you move? What can you hear? What can you see? What can you taste? What can you smell? When your mind wanders bring it back to a single point of focus. When we connect with nature – the fresh air, the beautiful scenery and the sounds of the birds can have a beautiful impact to take us away from the many stresses of modern day life. The result is renewed energy, optimism and a greater capacity to control our thoughts.
Focus On Your Breadth
Sit on a chair upright in a comfortable position. Allow your feet to sit flat and parallel on the floor. Place your palms in a comfortable position on your thighs. Relax your shoulders. Allow your focus to begin by following your breath. Observe your diaphragm expanding and contracting with each inhalation and exhalation. Feel the air travelling through your nose or mouth and follow its course down your windpipe to your lungs, observe the feeling in the core of your stomach. Then feel your body as it pushes the air back up through your lungs and releases it calmly through your mouth. If you get distracted, don’t worry, calmly let the distraction pass and bring your attention back to your breath. With practise your ability to focus on your breath for longer and refocus on your breath after distractions will greatly improve.
Take a Power Breath
When you feel overwhelmed by a strong emotion entering your body, you can follow a simple 4 step process scientifically proven to dissipate its power (C.A.B.A). Firstly, ‘Call’ the emotion your feeling (i.e., Anger). ‘Accept’ that’s what you are feeling (I am angry). ‘Breathe’ deeply using a power breath, inhaling deeply through your nose into your lungs and then releasing the air back up through your mouth. Finally, ‘Action’ a positive strategy to take your mind away from the negative emotion. This can be a simple refocusing strategy by wiping away the feeling with your hands or repeating a more positive mantra such as ‘I am in control’.
Some of the early research on focus started diligently during World War II. Early research studies on fatigue and concentration levels unearthed fascinating conclusions. It was found that although ability to focus was reduced with lack of sleep, participants in extremely challenging circumstances could maintain their focus at a high level for longer than 24 hours.
Although this research was conducted in life or death environments the message still holds true. If we are challenged by an activity we often become more focused and hence present to it. In this space we enter a mindful state, completely absorbed in the activity. This can often be found true for athletes who perform in the moment, totally immersed in an activity of great challenge.
In this space we often find our most content moments in life. As Bulgarian Psychologist Mihayli Csikszentmihayli stated in his fascinating book on ‘Flow’, “Our greatest moments in life are not the passive relaxing ones but the ones where our body or minds are stretched to their absolute limits.”
Therefore, when we have optimum amounts of challenge in our life we are naturally brought to focus in complete immersion on the task at hand. The feelings from which flood our mind with 5 of the most potent endorphins imaginable. In this mindful state we become 500% more productive. In practical terms if we could maintain this flow for a day we could work on a Monday and take the rest of the week off!
Mindfulness is a simple exercise we can all develop into our lives. When we understand the why of mindfulness, we can overcome the how with these simple strategies that can be integrated seamlessly into our everyday lives. Mindfulness changes the lens in which we live our lives. It underpins our ability to focus on what we want, when we want. We learn how to de-stress at will, observe our thoughts and change them, immerse ourselves in our everyday experiences and build remarkably deep connections with others. For something so simple that changes the structure of our brains and has a multiplier impact on our lives, what’s stopping us starting today?!
What forms of meditation have you tried? What impact has it had on your life? Please share your experiences in the comments section below. We learn together.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shane O Sullivan is a Performance Psychology Consultant and Executive Coach to some of the best in Ireland, training the mindset skills essential to revealing ones potential. He has a passion for high performance and has worked in the trenches of high stakes environments throughout his sporting and business career. He is a member of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council and the Coaching and Mentoring panel of Enterprise Ireland.