Have you ever felt the chaos in your mind? The questions that will keep on coming when all you want to do is catch some hours of sleep? Or anxiety taking hold of your being?
For sure I have felt all of the above.
And the way I have dealt with these confusing and sometimes terrifying emotions has varied. From drinking to taking Xanax, going out to be surrounded by people, partying until the morning, going to therapy sessions, reading motivational quotes and inspiring stories and writing my struggles for endless hours, I had tried them all. But no mindfulness.
Because mindfulness for me was like kale, a popular fancy solution rediscovered by some charlatans to sell you another recipe in three steps for wellbeing and happiness. And I was — and still am — a skeptic, but this time, I was on the wrong side. At least in certain regards.
Mindfulness and the science behind it
Although the definitions of mindfulness may slightly vary, they all converge to the same viewpoint: the ability to focus on the present moment, to be aware of your body, feelings, sensations, surroundings.
Mindfulness has been used for thousands of years, especially in the Buddhist traditions, but it has become popular in the Western culture in the 1970s after Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
According to the American Association of Psychology, mindfulness has been proved to help reduce rumination and stress and there is also evidence that it helps memory, focus, cognitive flexibility, and psychological distress.
With a growing number of people suffering from mental disorders, especially anxiety and depression, researches have tried to find if and how mindfulness technics can help patients suffering from these diseases. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy has been proven to reduce relapse. A study from 2010 shows that MBCT is just as effective as pharmacotherapy in avoiding relapse for patients with recurrent depression. Another study from the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology shows that adults with depression had significant increases in positive emotions and wanted to engage in pleasant activities after following MCBT.
However, the benefits of mindfulness are not limited to patients suffering from depression. Mindfulness is not only a way to cure existent issues but is a method to improve our minds. In a study from 2005, expert Sara Lazar proved through magnetic resonance imaging that people who practice mindfulness meditation have a thicker prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula, the regions associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing. These findings had been seen before in monks who had practiced mindfulness for very long periods of time, but in their case, other factors might have been involved in the final results. In Lazar’s study, the participants were from local communities, and except two full-time meditation teachers, three part-time yoga teachers, the remaining fifteen participants were typical Western people who practiced mindfulness for 40 minutes per day on average.
Another important study from 2012 proves that mindfulness is beneficial for people suffering from PTSD and that mindfulness meditation has the ability to reshape our brain. The study who was led by Desbordes G., shows through fMRI tests that the activation of the amygdala can be reduced by mindfulness. The amygdala is very much associated with flight or fight response and being able to control reduce its activation through mindfulness is an important discovery.
These studies prove that mindfulness can reshape our brain and behavior and bring impactful positive changes to our lives. But they do not prove that mindfulness has a magical solution to our problems or that installing a yoga app will bring any significant changes to our brains’ plasticity.
Mindfulness and the world we live in
How do you reach the state of mindfulness?
There are many methods that help you reach a state of awareness and inner focusing: breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, puzzle, games, etc. There is an entire industry trying to help you find inner peace. There are books you can buy with so much theory that will explain to you how the ancient people did it or how modern people do it. You can find advice on how you can achieve mindfulness in ten minutes or on how you can actually do it effectively. There are traveling agencies selling you trips to distant places so you can find people guiding you through the process. For sure, there is no lack of sources promoting the idea of mindfulness.
A few years ago I bought The Mindfulness Puzzle Book, a very popular game and puzzle book created by Dr. Garreth Moore. From labyrinths to word games, coloring and logic puzzles, I have truly enjoyed the book. For a person like me, often disorganized and mostly overwhelmed by many tasks and questions, it meant learning how to focus on one thing. Taking one small task and letting myself get captivated by an activity did not necessarily mean relaxation, but it certainly brought a beautiful feeling of accomplishment. I never was and probably will never be one of the persons who will perfectly color the empty places without crossing the small lines, but trying to do that, has helped me develop my attention skills. And that happened at a time when my thoughts were flying in all possible directions, usually towards negative ones. Being able to redirect my thoughts from negative ones and to find concentration was essential for my wellbeing. But what I now find even more interesting is that I was managing to control my terrible rumination effortlessly, by finding focus and channeling my attention towards exercises that developed the cognitive functions of my brain.
But mindfulness is mostly defined by being able to focus on the present, on sensory experiences, and not necessarily on rechanneling your activities. Mindfulness is a state of awareness, one in which we try to listen to our bodies and our world.
Focusing on our breathing, listening to our body’s pain and pleasure is essential for our physical and mental health. This method helps us change our perspective and to take a step back from the chaos. Being aware of where we are, of our sensory perceptions, of what we hear, smell, feel, taste might be pleasurable, painful or odd. Irrespective of that, through mindfulness we reach a state of calmness, one where we can distance ourselves from the spinning thoughts and from the background noise from which we can no longer distinguish our voice.
As a skeptic, I still think that mindfulness is not the only answer to all our problems. It might change the brain profoundly for those practicing it since childhood in monasteries, but there are other factors involved in that process. Mindfulness is no magical solution, or at least, not for the majority of us. But as numerous studies have shown, it does have many benefits for people who start practicing it later in life.
Because from time to time it is essential to quiet our mind in order to listen to what our being and our universe are trying to communicate to us.