Mindfulness Meditation has existed for over 2,500 years however over the past few years it’s popularity has exploded with people and organisations curious to know what the practice is and how it can be of benefit. As a mindfulness meditation teacher and doctor I created a global campaign, Mindful in May, five years ago to teach people mindfulness exercises for wiser living, while also having a positive impact in the world through raising funds for clean water in developing countries. As part of this one month program that has taught thousands of people around the world how to meditate, I interviewed leaders in the field of mindfulness meditation who shared powerful insights about how to bring mindfulness meditation into daily life. Here are some of the highlights of their interviews.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness meditation is a powerful tool that can help us upgrade our inner technology – the mind, to keep up with demands of our increasingly complex world. Just like our bodies, our minds need training to function at their best. Mindfulness meditation is a form of mental training that supports the mind to be more focussed, clear and effective. It’s often described as the practice of bringing your full attention, in an open, non-judgmental way to the present moment. Our minds are so often planning or worrying about the future or reflecting on the past, we miss the place where life is actually happening, here, in this moment.
Just like playing an instrument, the mind needs tuning in order to function at its best. Meditation can be likened to tuning up an instrument. Its purpose is to train the mind to be able to disconnect from distraction and consciously bring attention to what is happening in the present moment. This is a useful skill which enables you to respond more effectively to what is happening from moment to moment in your life.
Many people starting their meditation practice can wonder how a practice which from the outside seems to be very passive, could possibly support more powerful doing. Tara Brach, leading meditation teacher and writer shared her perspectives with me on mindfulness meditation and reflected on the relationship between mindfulness meditation and how it can support more effective action and impact in the world.
“Mindfulness is a way of paying attention on purpose to exactly what’s happening right here and now. The quality of it is non-judgmental, that there is a quality of friendliness and a quality of interest in how life is from moment to moment. I actually think of mindfulness and meditation as the grounds of really impactful activity that can really make a difference. I sometimes think of Gandhi who took a day off each week, no matter what, to pray and meditate. So, he’d get in touch with, what he said, was his wisest self. So, all his actions would spring from his most clear and compassionate inner life. In the same way, I feel like if we take time to pause and reconnect, we are actually more in touch with our intelligence and with our heart. And then whatever activity it is, whether its creative and in the arts or serving other people or mathematical, whatever we are doing, we are more aligned and more effective.”
What impact does Mindfulness Meditation have on our body?
There is now compelling evidence supporting the fact that mindfulness meditation when practised regularly, can lead to:
- Structural changes in the brain associated with enhanced mental performance
- Reduced stress and it’s negative impact on the body and mind
- Improved physical and mental well being
- Reduced genetic ageing through it’s protective impact on gene expression and degeneration
- Increased happiness.
- Enhanced immune function
Richie Davidson, is one of the leading researchers in the field of mindfulness and the brain. His studies have revolutionised the way we understand the power of mindfulness to reshape the brain for the better. In my interview with Richie, he shared some of the compelling findings of his latest research.
“Some of the most striking outcomes that we’ve discovered in our research are several, one is simply the fact that mental training practices, such as Mindfulness, can actually change our brains both functionally and structurally. So, this in and of itself is something important and something that we should step back and reflect on. Through the use of our own minds we can actually transform our brains in really beneficial ways. The changes can be beneficial in cultivating resilience in developing improved capacities for regulating emotions and also in developing refined skills of regulating our attention. Those are all systems that have been found to be changed by different kinds of meditation practices. In some very, very recent work which just appeared, we have recorded for the very first time ever, that a day of intensive mindfulness meditation practice can actually change genetic expression. It can actually influence the expression of a set of genes that are implicated in inflammation and other systemic health issues and provide the beginning of an understanding of the mechanisms through which meditation can actually improve not just our wellbeing, but also have an impact on our physical health.”
Sara Lazar, a world leading neuroscientist in the field of Mindfulness and the brain shared her results of a study with me in which she looked at brain changes that occur for people who were new to mindfulness and participated in an 8 week mindfulness course. She explained the impact of mindfulness meditation on changing structures of the brain.
“The first region that we found to change over the course of eight weeks is a region called the posterior cingulate (PCC). The posterior cingulate is important for the sense of self and mind wandering. When you’re on a task and then your mind starts to wander, it’s because of the PCC. The other region we find changes in is a region in the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is very important for learning and memory. We found that that got bigger and that suggests that this is helping improve memory and learning. Another region we found is called the Amygdala, which is the main stress and fight/flight part of the brain, and it got smaller. The change in the Amygdala correlated with the stress. So, the more stress reduction there was the smaller the Amygdala got.”
Sharon Salzberg, one of the first meditation teachers to bring the teachings from the East to the West, described how meditation supports real happiness and emphasised the importance of regular practice.
“I’m a giant advocate of daily practice, even if it’s just a few minutes a day, I think there’s something about interrupting the momentum of our lives and just sitting down. A lot of times people say, ‘I can’t do that, or I’m so busy or selfish’ but really, it’s so helpful. We usually talk about say, twenty minutes a day and it’s quite genuinely hard for a lot of people to sit or do mindful walking, whatever it might be for twenty minutes. And, so, whatever helps you do it, whether it’s finding a group that you could sit with at least now and then, or ritualising it, like ‘When I wake up in the morning then I’m gonna practice; and then I’m gonna go to my computer’. Finding a way that will help you make it real, because that’s the hardest thing and that’s the most important thing. Meditation has been the very foundation of my experience of happiness, because it’s been the means by which I’ve learnt to not be so distracted, to be able to experience joy and pleasure without that extra thing we sometimes do, trying to grab on, and keep everything from changing and being so afraid it’s gonna change only to find that it does. And, of course, it’s been a means of sort of waking up to all those ordinary undistinguished times that make up a lot of our day and therefore of our lives, so meditation is completely, for me, directed to supporting this idea of real happiness.”
Rick Hanson, world renowned psychologist and meditation teacher, shares how meditation can change the brain through the process of neuro-plasticity.
“Our thoughts and our feelings, what’s streaming through our consciousness moment to moment, are continuously sculpting our brain – that’s what scientists mean by experience-dependent neuroplasticity and the take away for me is that a little bit of understanding about how the brain works gives you the power to start using your mind to change your brain to stimulate and therefore strengthen the the neurocircuits of happiness, love and wisdom. We know that if you stimulate them, you strengthen them because of this famous saying, “Neurons that fire together are wired together”.
For more perspectives on Mindfulness Meditation listen to this interview on Australia’s ABC national radio where Sara Lazar, Van Riper (Google), Willem Kuyken (director of Oxford Mindfulness Centre) and I, talk further about the benefits and practice of Mindfulness.