Six Compelling Reasons to Start a Mindfulness Practice
Mindfulness or mindful awareness is about becoming aware by intentional focussing of your attention, on what you are experiencing – your thoughts, feelings, sensations – in any particular ‘present’ moment. There are a huge variety of practices from formal meditation, yoga, tai chi or simply 10 minutes of breath awareness every morning. In this article I want to give you a short overview of some of the emerging research on mindfulness. This identifies some very compelling reasons why it can significantly improve your life – professionally as well as personally and most importantly your relationships with others.
So first a little brain science for which I am drawing on the work of Daniel Siegel, author of ‘The Mindful Brain’. Our brain consists of three main areas: the brain stem and the limbic areas which go from the top of the spinal chord up into the centre of our brains and work together to regulate basic bodily functions, the fight/flight response to danger, emotions and memories; and then the cortex, the higher part of the brain that allows us to think and reason.
At the front part of the cortex, just behind the forehead, lies the middle pre-frontal cortex which plays an important role in regulating and balancing the brain stem and limbic areas. This means that when we feel tired or triggered by something that annoys us we are able to respond in a balanced and flexible way rather than ‘losing it’.
When the circuits of the middle pre-frontal cortex aren’t working very well, then we are more likely to allow the emotions and impulses that arise from the lower and mid brain to dominate our behaviour. How well these connections work is influenced to an extent by our experience growing up where the initial ‘wiring’ of the brain circuitry takes place. One of the ways we can improve these connections or ‘rewire’ our brain is by developing a regular mindfulness practice. Research from a number of neuroscientists is demonstrating that developing a regular mindfulness practices actually changes and rewires the brain. These changes can be seen on fMRI brain scans and occur even after a short time of regular practice. Siegel refers to this process as ‘neural integration’.
So let me list out some of the benefits for you:
1. You will manage stress and negative emotions more effectively in your life. Regardless of how harmonious and supportive our workplace or family environments are, we inevitably encounter events and people that provoke the usual gamut of unwlecome emotions such as irritation, annoyance, fear, hurt etc. Mindful awareness practice helps you to regulate your body’s energy levels and emotional states more effectively. So you are less likely to ‘flip your lid’ or become overly anxious in a way that causes you to be less effective in how you make decisions and deal with situations or difficult people in your life.
2. You will have greater flexibility in how you respond to your external environment, be less impulsive and more given to pausing before you act. So when someone does something that upsets or annoys you, you will be less likely to respond reactively e.g. get angry, withdraw and foster an ability to have a more thought-through response.
3. You will get to know and understand what Daniel Siegel terms the ‘architecture’ of your own mind and be better able to relate to and understand other people’s less-connected brain circuitry. You are better equipped therefore as a coach, mediator, counsellor, teacher or even manager to support other people’s ‘neural integration’. Not only that but research in the area of ‘mirror neurons’ is demonstrating that when we interact with others, there is a constant resonation between the internal states each of us is experiencing. Bonnie Badenocktells us that connection with others is another way the brain gets rewired so your mindful state of mind in itself has a beneficial impact on the people you work with.
4. You will develop a more non-judgemental approach to other people. Our brains are actually hard-wired to make judgements all of the time. According to Bonnie Badenock, the single most important factor in therapeutic (and I would include in this term many interventions such as mediation, coaching, counselling, informal support sessions) efficacy is non-judgemental acceptance. She defines this as being able to hold someone with a non-judging mind and heart. Think of how much more effective all of your interactions would be if you could ‘hold’ people in a calm and mindful way in how you are present to them.
5. You will be more resilient in meeting new challenges that arise. The work of Jon Kabat Zinnhas demonstrated that following a number of weeks of mindfulness practice a “left-shift” in the brain activity of participants was noted, in which the left frontal activity of the brain is enhanced. This electrical change in brain function is thought to reflect the cultivation of an “approach state,” in which we move toward, rather than away from, a challenging external situation or internal mental function such as a thought, feeling, or memory.
6. ….It’s free! There is no VAT, no levies…it costs nothing but your time and committment. Why not read some of the research yourself or even better, try it out. You can find some introductory exercises right here. Let me know you you get on!