What's the Big Deal With Mindfulness?
I have been doing yoga on a fairly regular basis for about 15 years and began getting into meditation almost 5 years ago. Yoga is amazing but a good mediation session takes it to the next level (and good doesn't always mean "feels good" but rather "good for you"). For a long time, I really thought meditation and mindfulness was about sitting and training your mind to have no thoughts and perhaps no feelings. I couldn't do it! Impossible! No way! Well, the more I've learned about meditation and mindfulness, I now realize that goal really was impossible! I've spent more time studying and practicing mindfulness over the last year and want to share some of the key insights I've gleaned along the journey so far. I've studied the fascinating book How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist, took a local class on "Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction" (MBSR) based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. and various other lectures and sessions along with deepening my own mindfulness meditation practice. A few brief insights:
1. Mindfulness Defined. Jon Kabat-Zinn says "fundamentally, mindfulness is a simple concept. Its power lies in its practice and applications. Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally." I believe the part of the definition about "non-judgmentally" is the hardest part for most people in being truly mindful . So it's not about emptying the mind after all, but about being aware without judgement.
2. The Concept of Touch and Go. Mindfulness is about paying attention to what is coming up for you, truly feeling it and moving into the comfort or discomfort but not attaching to that one thought. When a thought or feeling comes up touch it and then let it go, even if it is a tough one, a trigger or something that is weighing heavily on your mind. The real trick is also doing this with positive feelings.
3. Positive Feelings Are the Tough Ones. Our positive feelings are sometimes the hardest ones to detach from. We don't want them to go away and because of that our positive feelings can cause us the most pain if we are unable to "touch and go".
4. Stress Can Be Transformational. What? Don't we always hear that stress is bad? Typically, we are problem-focused (what can I do to fix this and make it go away?) when managing stress. We are much less emotion-focused (becoming aware, accepting and able to make sense of emotions) or meaning-focused (turning tragedy into triumph as written by Viktor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning). Putting focus in these other two areas changes how our brain responds to stress and mindfulness is a path to get there. Kelly McGonigal has a great TED Talk on this subject.
5. Mindfulness Leads to Emotional Intelligence. Just 8 weeks of daily mindfulness practice (say a sitting meditation for 15 minutes a day) will shrink our amygdala. The amygdala is that tricky little part of our brain that signals "DANGER - fight or flee now!" and has been the culprit for many misunderstandings and interpersonal issues between humans.
6. Sample Mindfulness Practices. Sitting meditation is one of the more common forms of mindfulness practice. While not the only way to practice, I've come to realize that a brief sitting meditation practice is an important part of the mindfulness journey. Other practices are body scans, mindful yoga and intentional yawning (that's right, yawning is a form of meditation and has positive impacts on the brain). Here is a short article I wrote that expands on how to practice sitting meditation.
My mindfulness practice is a journey. I don't always meditate every day as I desire. I still have thoughts and feelings I touch and then can't seem to let go. I do know I'm paying more attention, I see things more clearly, my kids are more adorable and yes, sometimes the pain is much deeper but I'm moving through it all lighter and with less judgement. The shift is subtle yet profound.
Do you want to be an emotionally intelligent leader? Do you want to manage your stress better? Do you want to improve your health? If so, I highly recommend embracing mindfulness and starting your own journey.
"He who faces himself, finds himself."
- Star Wars: The Clone Wars