As hinted in a previous post, I have been musing on mindfulness. I see mindfulness as the act of paying attention and striving to be present, at any given moment of our day. This can be difficult to do 100% of the time. In fact, a Harvard study found that almost 47% of our waking hours are spent thinking about something else! (1.) Sometimes I find myself purposefully trying to multi-task, thinking this is way more efficient than doing one thing at a time. The result is often that the tasks are not fully completed and I’m left feeling more than a little frazzled. It helps when I realize that mindfulness is an approach that can be practised at any time. The alternative could be called mindlessness or being on auto-pilot. We are all familiar with times filled with regret and “should haves” when we are lost in thoughts of the past. Or filled with worry and “what ifs” when we are constantly thinking of the future. Not so desirable, if we really consider these all-too-common mindsets. Mindfulness meditation is an alternative to multi-tasking that increases our resilience to stress.
One exercise to try to activate our mindfulness receptors: choose a regular, run-of-the mill daily activity you participate in frequently. Then consciously try it out, this time engaging as many of the senses as you can. So if you are washing your hair, for example, feel the sensations of warmth as the water runs down your head and neck; really breathe in the scent of the shampoo; listen to the different sounds the water makes as it splashes on the tile; the tingling sensation on the scalp; the look of the rising steam and mist. In this way, we discover the experience of being fully present and mindful, rather than lost in thought a thousand miles away.
Meditation is an intentional, often formal, practice focusing our attention inward to help increase our sense of calm, concentration and emotional equilibrium. Meditating usually incorporates mindfulness, hence the term Mindfulness Meditation. We may be focusing on our breath, a sound or mantra (“Om” or “peace to all beings”), and a visual aid such as a candle. I often find it helpful to listen to a guided meditation, which gives clear calm instruction, telling us where to direct our attention. (2.) Practicing stillness even when feeling discomfort can be helpful to increase one’s resilience to stress.
The act of being still can be challenging for many of us, so finding a way to meditate that suits each of us can require some trial and error strategies. For some, combining meditation with a regular yoga practice or class is very effective. My own experience showed me that once my body was adequately tired out and relaxed from a period of stretching and movement, my mind was more easily able to release its hold on whatever thought loops were repeating. T’ai Chi has been described as a form of gentle moving meditation, while the practice of Chi Gung involves conscious use of the breath in coordination with movements.
There is scientific basis for the beneficial effects of meditation when we look at the levels of consciousness and the different brain waves involved. (3.) In our normal awake conscious state, we experience beta brainwaves (12 – 30 Hz, or cycles per second), where logic and critical reasoning prevail. However, with higher beta levels, we are in states of stress, anxiety and restlessness. This is where we can see beneficial effects as mindfulness meditation increases stress resilience. With alpha brainwaves (7.5 – 12 Hz), we experience deep relaxation. This can be achieved through meditation, when we are in a detached and aware state. As this is the gateway to the subconscious, here we can access imagination, creativity and visualization. Theta brainwave frequencies (4 – 7.5 Hz) are experienced in deep meditation and light sleep, including REM dream states. Delta (0.5 – 4.0 Hz) is the level of deep, dreamless sleep and the unconscious mind, where deep healing and regeneration are possible.