People come to mindfulness for many different reasons. Sometimes they are looking for ways to manage a chronic health condition, such as pain, depression, or anxiety, or they may want to learn to meditate or simply be more present in their life.
Certainly the evidence suggests that we are all more distracted, with many of us leading complicated lives, perhaps juggling family demands with work, which can be physically and emotionally draining. Whatever the reasons, it seems that people get out of mindfulness what they most need, as it helps each of us to find a better balance in our lives.
Mindfulness is not a magic cure-all that will make all our problems go away. However, it can help us to relate to our problems differently. Studies have shown that physiological changes take place as a result of practicing mindfulness meditation, and these include changes in the brain as well as blood pressure and an improved immune system.
It is common for people to report feeling less stressed after mindfulness meditation. The level of stress we feel is determined by whether we believe our resources are sufficient for the demands placed on them. Therefore, if we can change our perception of whether we are able to cope, we will feel less stressed. This is supported by the neuroscience that shows that the amygdala (the area of the brain that activates the stress reaction) is less active in those practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness also activates the body’s internal calming response, which is the antidote to the stress reaction activated whenever we feel threatened.
Waking up to life
Although mindfulness can have a therapeutic element, there are other benefits too. It can help us to reconnect with being alive. Many of us operate on automatic pilot. We zone out from an unpleasant commute or dull household chores, for example. However, this can quickly become our default mode of living.
When we are on autopilot, we operate from the more primitive parts of the brain and so we are more likely to be reactive, because the higher, executive functions of the brain are not engaged. Since we are not alert, we are also more likely to miss things—both internally (how we are feeling) and externally (our environment and how others are feeling). We are no longer present; it is as if we are sleepwalking through life.
When we pay attention to our experience, we become more aware of the senses: taste, smell, touch, sound, and sight. As well as making daily life richer, this can have a major impact on the food we eat. When we eat mindfully, we savor each mouthful, exploring textures and noticing aromas and tastes, and the experience is made richer because of it. Similarly, if the food we are eating is processed, we will notice how it actually tastes, rather than just swallowing it without awareness. This may influence the choices we make going forward.
When we eat more slowly and are attuned to the body, we pick up physical cues when we have had enough. Mindfulness brings unconscious behaviors, such as reaching for another cookie or an extra glass of wine, into our awareness so we can make a choice about what we really want.
NOW TRY THIS...
When we visit somewhere new, we are alert—finding our way, looking up as well as around in case we miss something. We may pause to stop to take in the view or linger, say, in the market. We notice smells and scents, try local specialties. Perhaps we slip into a church or museum to see a work of art.
Being a tourist wakes us up to our everyday environment.
For more mindfulness activities, check out the new book and card set by Anna Black, Mindfulness on the Go.