MIND — FULL — NESS
How to expand awareness for a beautiful life.
The human brain is extraordinary. Through human thought and creativity we have constructed a world that our ancestors never could have imagined. With each generation, our intelligent contributions to this world become more complex and life altering. When I think of what this world will look like when my child is the age I am now, it is almost overwhelming. At times, it also makes me feel a bit timid and fearful. While human cognition has been evolving for tens of thousands of years, consciousness is not evolving at the same rate. You may be the most proficient driver in the world, but if you cannot control your speed or see where you are going, driving could be dangerous.
There was a time in my life when I had very little emotional intelligence. Once I started to grow emotionally, I really valued building compassion for other human beings. Due to my experiences and early childhood conditioning, it was not something that came naturally for me. So I created a number of practices to help grow my compassion, one of which was to observe others. I have spent years watching other people and how they react to life. What I have noticed is that we are a world driven by mismanaged emotion and spontaneous reaction. My practice worked, I am able to move through this world with compassion for others, because I can remember what it is like to be controlled by an untethered thought process.
Most humans are driven by their minds at a very high speed, unable to control their destination. The easiest way to regulate this system is to develop mindfulness. Mindfulness can also be describes as present moment awareness, consciousness, presence or responsibility — the ability to respond.
Being mindful in everyday life is not easy. For most, it requires daily practice and an intense willingness to change. Those of us who have managed to advance our consciousness are screaming from the mountaintops, hoping and praying that humanity will hear us. I have made some pretty incredible realizations and positive changes in my life but nothing compares to the life-altering effects of mindfulness.
There are many reasons why we resist change. Perhaps the uncertainty is just too uncomfortable, or we fear loss of control. Comfort zones are so very difficult step away from. In my experience as a wellness coach, I believe that my clients tend to cling to a belief system. Mindfulness and other words associated with it conjure up thoughts of eastern religion or monks sitting crosslegged in a temple. I have never had a single client that, in some small way, I did not advocate for the benefits of present moment awareness. I tell them to forget everything they know about the subject and erase all images from their mind. Think of mindfulness as a Jedi mind-trick that allows you to train your brain. It is a practice that affords you the ability to control your thoughts and creates a moment of pause in your life. I have difficulty expressing in language the value of this pause, it is that potent. Pause is the greatest gift I have ever bestowed upon myself.
As a registered nurse, I am driven by evidence based practice. When I first began to cultivate mindfulness in my own life, there wasn’t much data to scientifically prove the value of deepening ones consciousness. Increasingly, we are seeing scholarly articles and studies that provide confirmation, cultivating present moment awareness improves health in every aspect of life — mind, body and soul.
Benefits of Mindfulness
Stress reduction — Mindful-based stress reduction has earned its very own abbreviation — MBSR, and is being taught and used in the clinical setting, schools, sports teams and even the military, to help individuals lower overall stress. It is a healing process that is becoming the central focus of more and more studies everyday. Gaining more control over the thought process allows you to limit the ruminating in cortisol-releasing thoughts. If you want to learn more about cortisol and the body’s stress system, read here.
Anxiety and depression relief — It is widely known that our thoughts create our feelings. Debilitating depression and anxiety were the driving forces for me to begin a mindfulness practice. I was so desperate to escape the torment, I would have tried anything. Present moment awareness is literally the antidote for anxiety and depression — both of which have you linked closely to your thoughts, escape feels impossible. When you are in the midst of the doom and gloom, telling yourself to stop worrying is not effective. However, training yourself to release the worry and rumination can be. Studies have shown that meditation rivals pharmaceuticals in the alleviation of mood symptoms associated with anxiety and depression. If you would like to read a detailed study click, here.
Boosts memory, learning and MOTIVATION — As a nurse and lover of science, there is nothing more validating than seeing actual changes in brain structure in response to stimuli. The hippocampus is an area of our brain with a really funny name. This region is responsible for memory, learning and motivation. Brain scans have shown that practicing mindfulness for only eight weeks can increase the density of the hippocampus. More grey matter? Yes, please! You can read more on this study here.
Increased emotional regulation — For a couple of decades, rage was my go-to emotion. I though for a while that I was born angry. It was a large part of my conditioning growing up, my mother gifted it to me and she inherited it from her father. I knew that this was not something that I wanted to hand down to my child, I knew I had to heal — find a solution. Meditation gave me the pause that I needed to be able to choose how to react in each situation. I credit present moment awareness with the development of my emotional intelligence. When we are driven by thought and emotion, what we are feeling is less discernible and is likely to present as anger and rage. I was never able to say “oh, this is fear” or “this just feels like disappointment.” Every negative emotion that I experienced presented as anger. Meditation allows space for you to make friends with negative emotions. We will not escape feeling bad at times, it is common ground for every human. When we accept and learn how our emotions affect us, we become more active in how our behavior is displayed in our external environment.
Decline in cell aging — To explain this, we have to go back to high school biology. The human body is made of cells that are constantly dividing to create new cells. In the center of these cells are chromosomes made up of DNA, the code that dictates who we are. Chromosomes are strands that have protective end caps called telomeres. With each cell division, telomeres get shorter and shorter and once they are gone, our cells no longer divide. This is aging. There are human behaviors that have been linked to increasing the rate at which our telomeres deplete such as: chronic stress, the foods we eat, sedentary lifestyle, poor sleep habits, smoking and other carcinogens. Telomeres have been a central focus in studies on slowing down the aging process. Every day there are more and more studies coming out that point to the meditation slowing the degradation of telomeres. These studies are in their infancy but are very promising. Meditation just may be tapping into the fountain of youth. If you want to read more, you can do that here.
Better physical health — Anything you do to lower the daily stress response, cortisol and other stress hormones, is going make you more gainful in health. Mindfulness practices have been shown to lower blood pressure and heart rate which combat heart disease, the leading cause of death in the US. Our immune systems protect us from disease and infection. Recent studies have shown that mindfulness practices have had an impact on our immune systems. Trials have shown an increase in t-cell activity, the military-style attack cells. Also, an increase in telomerase action on immune cells has been noted, an enzyme that keeps our immune cells young. You can read more about that here.
Overall increase in life satisfaction — I feel like this benefit goes without saying. If you are experiencing improvement in physical health, lowered stress, emotional regulation, decreased anxiety, better memory, and more motivation, you are experiencing a more balanced life. Being in a state of balance invites more moments of happiness, joy and calm.
How to Cultivate Mindfulness
Meditation — Developing a daily mediation practice is the easiest answer to cultivating mindfulness. It is all the rage, and rightfully so. Even just a few minutes a day can have huge impacts on your overall health and wellness. With each day you practice, slowly you will start to find space between your thoughts. We should all be able to sit with ourselves in stillness. If you find it difficult to sit, that is a clue that you are an individual who could most benefit from this practice. Begin by sitting for a few minutes, following your breath. Or by doing a body scan, relaxing each body part one by one. Thoughts will come, just notice them. Acknowledge that you have followed a stream of thought, then return to your body. Whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself lost on a tangent. This will signal to your brain that you are doing something wrong and that is just not the case. With practice, the tangents will become less and less.
Set reminders — Set reminders on your phone to bring you back to the present moment. It is simply a form of training oneself. When I first started my mindfulness practice, I wore a bracelet. Every time I noticed the bracelet, I would pause what I was doing to take a few breaths, center myself and notice what was going on around me. Day after day, it becomes a habit. Your brain re-wires itself to behave differently, this is called neuroplasticity. It may help to remember one of these acronyms:
S — stop what you are doing.
T — take a few deep breaths.
O — observe what is going on around you.
P — proceed.
R — recognize what is happening.
A — allow life to be as it is.
I — investigate how you are feeling in this moment.
N — nurture. Remember that you are more than your thoughts and feelings.
Pick three — Pick three daily activities that you will complete in the present moment. For me, I chose cleaning the kitchen, eating and laundry. These are three activities that are repeated frequently. At dinner time, I remind my family that we are getting through the meal in mindful, present awareness. Making a point to taste everything on our plate, even putting the fork down between bites as to not rush trough. This practice increased our consciousness as a family. When I am cleaning the dishes, I feel the water flowing over my hands. I take great care in cleaning everything. Paying attention to mundane tasks not only translated to better present moment awareness on a larger scale, but also helped me to not avoid these tasks. I mean, what is the point in being opposition to something that must be done? If you’re bored, you’re not paying attention, life is bursting forth all around you.
When we are able to step out of the cyclical, ruminating mind, we make room for intentional living which leads to more joy, creativity and calm. Too many individuals are speeding through this life, not having any control over where they are going. Life is too short to not live with engagement. Cultivating a meaningful life takes practice, daily. Developing a mindfulness practice is not one you are likely to regret.
Originally published at https://www.harmonygarage.org on January 20, 2022.