Mindfulness 101: What it is, how it works, and why your brain will love it!

I began my meditation practice about 30 years ago. It’s easy for me to remember when I started practicing mindfulness because it was one year before my daughter was born. When she was about three years old, she would frequently find me when I was meditating and fall asleep in my lap. This was a delightful meditation perk! 

Jon Kabat-Zinn has been a pioneer in bringing mindfulness into mainstream medicine. He developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an eight week program that I have had the honor to teach to hundreds of my students. I like his definition of mindfulness:

Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges
through paying attention on purpose,
in the present moment, 
and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding
of experience moment by moment.

Is your mind full or mindful?

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It’s all too easy for our minds to be full - full of thoughts and feelings from our past and future. Meet Indy. A couple years ago, I started raising dogs for The Seeing Eye. Dogs, with their simple minds (their brains are the size of a walnut), are naturally mindful. They pay attention to the present moment - what’s right in front of them, right here and right now.

Humans, with far more sophisticated brains, have the capacity to think (and feel) about the past or future and sometimes miss out on our present moment experience. As we practice mindfulness, we increase our ability to be aware of what’s going on in any given moment.

The benefits of scientific, evidence-based mindfulness practices help to:

  • improve mood and energy.
  • increase focus and mental clarity.
  • improve communication in relationships.
  • manage difficult situations and emotions.
  • increase enjoyment and appreciation of life.

Practicing mindfulness is relatively simple and there are techniques that can be easily incorporated throughout the day. The challenge is getting ourselves to practice. The reason the practices work is because of a brain characteristic called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to how the structure of the brain changes in response to how we use the mind. Mindfulness techniques focus on present moment awareness. As we practice returning our attention to the present (again and again), we literally change the structure of the brain. Research is clear on the many benefits of mindfulness. For example, the part of the brain responsible for anxiety gets smaller and the region of brain responsible for present moment awareness gets larger! 

Here’s a simple practice to get you started. This is done in bed before you fall asleep:

  1. Get comfortable, adjusting your body so you can remain relatively still for about five minutes. 
  2. Place one hand on your heart and the other over your navel.
  3. Bring attention to your breath, focusing on the rise and fall of the belly as you inhale and exhale. 
  4. When your attention wanders (this is normal; it may wander a lot) just redirect it back to the breath … again and again. 

Give it a try for a month. Your brain will love it!