Mindfulness Meditation: A Quick Guide for Beginners
Mindfulness. Meditation. Moment to moment awareness. What comes to mind?
If you're picturing Tibetan monks in red robes, you're not far off the mark. As a matter of fact, the practice of mindfulness originated in ancient Buddhist tradition. But don't let that intimidate you. Nowadays, the practice of mindfulness is more accessible than ever. It can be done anywhere, at any time, and it's easy to learn.
What is Mindfulness?
The word itself is derived from the Pali word sati, which means awareness or memory. It finds its roots in Buddhist tradition and is a deeply embedded facet of their belief system.
Today, the practice of mindfulness has grown in scope and popularity. It is practiced around the world by people of all ages, walks of life and belief systems. However, understanding mindfulness in theory isn't enough. In order to grasp it best, one must delve into the experience of it first hand.
Mindfulness is simply the practice of becoming aware. Aware of thoughts. Aware of bodily sensations. Aware of sensory perception. It is a non-judgmental way of seeing and experiencing all that is happening in the present moment—your present moment.
It is the reduction of reactivity. Sometimes we fall into habits of impulsively reacting to difficult situations. We respond rashly with charged emotions that we later regret.
Mindfulness is a way of stepping back and observing. Of allowing ourselves to have the experience we are having without judging it, or ourselves. This means not holding onto or pushing our experiences and emotions away. It is simply observation; moment to moment awareness.
How Mindfulness Affects the Brain
Alright, so you've got a better idea of what mindfulness is. But what happens when you actually do it? How does the brain respond? Here's a quick breakdown of how the brain reacts to the practice of mindfulness.
The field of neuroscience has been studying the effects of mindfulness on the brain for many years. Thanks to neuroplasticity (the brain's ability to adapt, change and grow), mindfulness practice can have a deep and lasting impact on us.
Certain regions of the brain have been shown to respond and strengthen when repeatedly exposed to meditative practice. For example, mindfulness directly affects the limbic system, the part of the brain that regulates emotion. Mindfulness also affects the amygdala—the section that responds to fear, stress and anxiety. Mindful practice not only reduces stimulation in the amygdala, it can actually reduce the size of the amygdala itself. This means that meditation not only changes how your brain responds to stress but helps eliminate anxiety before it even begins.
Mindfulness also increases the power of your pre-frontal cortex—the area of the brain responsible for decision making, regulating emotional response and abstract problem solving. How long until you start seeing these results? With regular practice, your brain will start changing and improving in less than 8 weeks.
Practicing Mindfulness On Your Own
One of the easiest ways to dip your toes into the mindfulness pool is to try a few guided meditations.
Many wonderful meditations can be found on Youtube. I will include a list of some of my favorites in the links below.
After you get the hang of practicing mindfulness in a guided setting, you can start trying it entirely on your own, without guidance. Formal practice can be done seated in a chair or on the floor, spine aligned, shoulders relaxed and hands placed where they are most comfortable.
You can also practice lying down—just be aware that this position can easily lead to unplanned nap sessions! (I've been caught a few times.)
How Do I Practice Mindfulness Meditation?
Sound intriguing? Want to give it a try? There are a multitude of ways to practice mindfulness.
One of the most popular methods is observation of the breath. This approach focuses on becoming aware of each breath as it enters and exits the body. Thoughts will come and go. Your job is to simply notice them when they arise, and then gently, non-judgmentally, return your attention to your breath.
It can be beneficial to label thoughts and bodily sensations as they arise in order to more readily release them. If you find your mind wandering to that evening's dinner plans, you could internally say: "planning" or "thinking." If your nose itches or your back is stiff, you could say: "sensation."
How Long Should I Meditate?
With guided meditations, your time for practice is predetermined. If you're practicing on your own? It's entirely up to you.
If you're just starting out, 5 minutes is a good mark to shoot for. With regular meditation, you may find the practice becomes easier and that you wish to sit longer. There really is no limit—10 minutes, half an hour, 40 minutes—practice all day if it suits you!
Set aside the amount of time that works best for your schedule and comfort level. This is your practice. Your time for you. Do what feels right for your body and mind. Every day will be different. The key is to remain consistent. One day you may only be able to sit for 5 minutes, the next you may enjoy a 20 minute session.
Let your practice be flexible to meet the changing elements of your day to day—just keep at it. Do the best you can for however long you can. Every time you sit down to listen to your thoughts, you're progressing.
And you will feel the difference.
Good luck and happy meditating!
Mindfulness Meditations to try:
Adams, Juliet. What is Mindfulness. www.mindfulnet.org/page2.htm#intro
Bergland, Christopher. How Do Neuroplasticity and Neurogenesis Rewire Your Brain? https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201702/how-do-neuroplasticity-and-neurogenesis-rewire-your-brain
Ireland, Tom. What Does Mindfulness Meditation Do to Your Brain? https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/what-does-mindfulness-meditation-do-to-your-brain/
Farb, Norman A.S., PhD, Anderson, Adam K., PhD, Segal, Zindel V., PhD. The Mindful Brain and Emotion Regulation in Mood Disorders. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3303604/
Wilson, Angela. Mindfulness Meditation and the Brain. www.huffingtonpost.com/kripalu/mindfulness-meditation_b_3238677.html