The mindful way
Mindfulness is direct awareness of whatever's happening as it happens. But what is mindfulness and how does it affect our health?
Our Homo sapiens ancestors had to survive sabre-toothed tigers and mastodons the size of small houses. Their brains constantly scanned for what might be wrong, and now ours do too.
But neuroscientists are discovering that a technique called mindfulness can rewire our gloomy brains for less stress and more happiness.
Take a moment to feel the pages of this magazine in your hands.
What is the texture of the paper? Slippery? Cool?
What about your hands? Try closing your eyes and focusing on the sensations in your hands for a few seconds.
You have just practised mindfulness.
Mindfulness is direct awareness of whatever’s happening as it happens. It brings bare attention to body sensations, sounds, thoughts, and emotions.
The health benefits of regular mindfulness meditation have been shown in many studies and include relief from chronic pain, anxiety, and skin ailments, as well as enhanced weight loss, immunity, and stimulation of the calming parasympathetic stress system.
How does it work?
The learning brain
“The brain is like Velcro for bad experiences and Teflon for positive ones,” says Richard Mendius, MD, a neurologist and co-author with Rick Hanson of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom (New Harbinger, 2009).
On the telephone from his office in Santa Rosa, California, Mendius explains the brain’s negativity bias. “The brain’s programmed to detect negative information faster than positive. It’s also an amazing simulator and constantly makes mini-movies of limiting beliefs that are very convincing.”
But the brain also learns, Mendius points out. “The wiring diagram of the brain can change as a consequence of experience.”
One of the most significant examples has been found in the brains of those who meditate. In one study the left prefrontal lobes of meditators lit up on a functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine before and during meditation, indicating positive emotions and mood.
Another study published in the journal Emotion (2010), showed that meditators with only eight weeks of training used more areas of their brains than non-meditators when coping with sadness. These areas indicated an additional awareness of the body sensations of sadness, along with the shared ability to think about the emotion. This may explain the meditators’ ability to restore balance—to tolerate sadness but also recover from it, two hallmarks of mental health.
With mindfulness we can allow our habitual reactions to rise up, play out, and disappear in the mind. “This can feel like being suspended over the Grand Canyon,” says Mendius. “But when I meditate, I can see that my mind’s full of momentary constructs that are just learned reactions to negative perceptions.”
To make our brains remember good experiences better, he says, all we need to do is “sustain the signal to amplify a neural circuit.” It’s easier than it sounds—see the sidebar “30 seconds to a happier brain.”
To gear down stress and gear up awareness, see the sidebar “Three breaths to mindfulness.”
The second arrow
Mindfulness was first developed in India over 2,500 years ago by a man called Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) who is reputed to have said that when we are ill or unhappy, life has shot an arrow at us. But when we compound that hurt with repeated negative thinking and reactivity, we shoot the second arrow ourselves.
“When I took up [mindfulness] meditation,” says Adrianne Ross, MD, “I saw that a lot of my own suffering was made worse by my reactions to it.”
Working as a physician, Ross treated many people whose illness was stress-related. She started to teach a six-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course to her patients, and later took formal Buddhist-based training to lead mindfulness classes and retreats.
“Mindfulness trains us to see cause and effect,” she explains. “‘When I think this way, I feel like this.’ It trains us to notice the body’s response to what the mind is saying.”
Because of the negative bias of the brain and the resulting stress on the body, Ross says, “We have to recruit neural pathways in the brain to look for what’s positive.”
Students in her class make lists of pleasant experiences, but the practice of mindfulness—meditating for a set period of time each day—also leads them to notice the positive. “Students who had chronic pain,” she says, “hadn’t realized they also had pain-free periods until they practised mindfulness.”
A little kindness
Our negative brain leads to judgment of ourselves and others, and fear of others’ judgment. Ross notes this comprises a lot of stress.
When a judgment occurs in our mind, she suggests reflecting on it with three questions:
The same reflection before we speak to others can lead to more positive relationships. “Eventually,” says Ross, “as trust grows, difficult patterns of judgment start to release on their own.”
Protection from depression
Mindfulness meditation can prevent relapses of depression just as effectively as medication, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, 2010.
Over the telephone from the University of Toronto’s Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Clinic, Zindel Segal, PhD, a co-investigator of the study, explains. “We taught mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) to people who were not currently depressed, but had previously experienced two episodes of depression.”
As well as training in mindfulness, participants were given Segal’s book, The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness (The Guildford Press, 2007), which includes CDs to use at home for daily 40-minute meditations.
The next step was to learn to be mindful with difficult emotions, such as those triggered by an argument with a friend. Participants were taught that rumination—repeatedly dwelling on a problem—can trigger depression.
“Using mindfulness of breath and body to ground themselves first, they were able to see when rumination was at play, be aware, then let go and focus attention elsewhere,” says Segal. “They also used another exercise to reflect on events that gave them a sense of mastery.”
For those who prefer not to use antidepressants, MBCT is an option, says Segal. For those in an active depressive episode, however, he recommends psychotherapy.
With regular practice, mindfulness increases our resiliency to the ups and downs of life. Our brains and bodies will thank us for it.
Three breaths to mindfulness
1. Sit down. Bring your attention to your body.
2. Gently close your eyes.
3. Inhale to the count of three as you visualize yourself as a large urn filling from the bottom up.
4. Exhale to the count of six as you visualize the urn emptying from the top down.
5. Do steps 3 and 4 twice more.
6. Repeat in one hour.
30 seconds to a happier brain
Step one: bring your awareness to the positive experience as it’s happening.
Step two: replace thoughts such as “this is okay” with “this is really great” to amplify the experience so the brain can learn.
Step three: let go of negative thinking.
Step four: feel the body sensations of the positive experience.
Step five: continue for 30 seconds.