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The Benefits of Mindfulness

I have been talking a lot about mindfulness in this blog and I decided it was time to explain why I am so enthusiastic and determined about developing this skill.  Mindfulness involves  focusing on the present moment, non-judgmentally, with acceptance and compassion. This can be done informally, as we go about our daily activities, and in formal mindfulness meditation practice. So the question is: what are the benefits of becoming more mindful and accepting of our present experience?

iStock_000002128470XSmallAccording to Ron Siegel in The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems, “a wealth of scientific evidence” shows that mindfulness can have a profound effect on our lives. Researchers have demonstrated “changes in both inner experience and outward behavior” and have recently been able to show changes in “brain functioning and brain structure” due to advances in  brain scanning technology.

Richard Davidson, a researcher at the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teamed up with Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, to study the impact of mindfulness training on brain activity. They recruited stressed workers in a biotechnology firm and taught half of them mindfulness meditation 3 hours per week over  8 weeks.  The other workers served as a control group who were not taught mindfulness meditation.  At the start of the study, all the participants had significantly more activity in the right prefrontal cortex, a pattern found in people who are anxious, depressed or hypervigilant (frequently scanning the environment for danger). At the end of the study, the group who were taught mindfulness meditation had significantly more left prefrontal cortex activation than the control group, which is the brain activity pattern for people who are generally content, with fewer negative moods. Additionally, the group of meditators had a greater immune response, indicated by more antibodies than the non-meditators after receiving the flu vaccine.

Sara Lazar, a biological researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, studied MRIs of long-term meditators and non-meditators. She discovered that the meditators had thicker cerebral cortexes than non-meditators in the prefrontal cortex, sensory cortex, and anterior insula. Thicker areas of the brain are indicative of enhanced capabilities in those areas. All three areas are involved in paying attention to sensory input and the prefrontal cortex is also involved in working memory–which helps us keep thoughts in our minds long enough for reflection, problem-solving, and decision-making. Research also showed that the degree of thickness was proportional to the amount of meditation experience and the differences were even more pronounced in older participants.  In another study, Lazar found increased density in a part of the brain stem involved in the production of the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin after 8 weeks of mindfulness practice. The most pronounced changes in density occurred in the brains of those who practiced the most. These individuals were also the ones who reported the greatest increase in their sense of well-being.

A school-based program of mindfulness awareness practices (MAPs) for second and third graders, ages 7-9, was studied by Lisa Flook and her colleagues at UCLA. The program was provided to students two times per week, for eight weeks, for a total of sixteen 30- minute practice sessions.  Children with self-control problems who received the mindfulness training showed greater improvement in their regulatory abilities than children who did not receive the mindfulness training.

To summarize, research has shown significant reductions in anxiety and hypervigilance, improvement in mood, attention, emotional regulation, working memory, and immune response, and promising findings with regards to cognitive functioning as we age.  I am most interested in improving my self-discipline, working memory and ability to shift attention from distractions, which will hopefully also help improve my time management skills. What benefits of mindfulness would be most helpful to you? 

 


A 3-Step Process for Shifting Attention and Regaining Focus

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I am noticing a pattern in my efforts to develop healthy habits.  When I add a new habit to my routine, it causes a temporary setback in the habits that I already established. 

I recently started doing regular brain training exercises to enhance my memory, attention and flexibility through Lumosity. This coincided with an unanticipated change in my work schedule that caused me to have to leave 1/2 hour earlier in the morning, which  affected my meditation and exercise routine.  The first week, I played the brain training games on 6 out of 7 days but did not meditate or exercise at all.  The second week, I did brain training 4 times and also succeeded in meditating several times. Now in the third week I am continuing brain training and meditation and also getting more serious about exercising again. 

I decided to add brain training to my routine because:

  •  I have been watching people I care about struggle with memory loss as they get older and my memory has  never been great to begin with.
  • While I have greatly improved my ability to stay focused over the years, I still have difficulty shifting my focus when I am absorbed in something compelling and need to get other things done.

 After the first two weeks of brain training, I have already seen significant improvement in my working memory and selective attention and more limited improvement in flexibility through the task switching and response inhibition games.  Hopefully, doing both brain training and meditation will have a synergistic effect that helps me improve my mental flexibility since that has been the hardest skill for me to develop.

Mind wandering is an expected part of meditation.  Bringing my attention back to the focus of my meditation, whether it be my breathing, body sensations, sounds in the environment or my emotions, helps me to develop mental flexibility.   Wendy Hasenkamp and her colleagues at Emory University studied mind wandering and attention during focused concentration meditation and identified a 3-step process for resuming focus: awareness, shifting, and focusing.

  1. AWARENESS:  Becoming aware of mind wandering during meditation helps me to practice monitoring conflicts between my intentions and my actions, my goals and obstacles to achieving them. This is believed to be a function of the salience network of the brain, which helps distinguish between relevant and distracting stimuli, according to Wendy Hasenkamp and her colleagues.
  2. SHIFTING: The most challenging skill for me to apply in my daily life is to be able to shift or reorient my attention as needed.  This skill involves the executive network of the brain, which is thought to activate attentional disengagement and redirection skills for the purpose of following through on tasks deemed relevant to goal achievement.  The flexibility games in Lumosity appear to develop the same skills; the response inhibition games seem to be designed to promote attentional disengagement and the task switching games seem to be excellent practice for redirection of focus.
  3. FOCUSING: The focus phase is what I have been practicing the most, both through meditation and persistent  choosing to prioritize practicing new habits. Hasenkamp and her colleagues believe the focusing phase involves executive system working memory. This involves keeping goals in mind through repetitive selection, or active rehearsal, to achieve sustained attention.    I suspect that the development of my focusing ability is the reason why my working memory and selective attention skills in Lumosity are showing so much improvement and why I have been able to get back on track so quickly when obstacles interfere with my routine.

 Does your mind wander a lot?  Do you have difficulty with awareness, shifting, and focusing skills?  Have you tried anything that has helped you to improve these skills?  Please share your thoughts below.  


Seeking the Middle Way

iStock_000002128470XSmallIt is the ninth day of the Real Happiness 28-Day Meditation Challenge.  I meditated 5-10 minutes every morning and 20 -30 minutes at night on work nights as planned, except for one night when I came home late.  My initial intention was to shut off the TV and computer at 11 PM to meditate and I came close to this goal.  There were a couple of nights that it was more like 11:30 or 12, but overall, I was still winding down and going to sleep earlier than usual. 

At night I was doing both the breathing meditation and meditation on emotions from the CD in Sharon Salzberg’s book, Real Happiness.  During the 14 minute breathing meditation, I noticed that I was able to maintain concentration without difficulty.  I encountered problems with two aspects of breathing: the first was that focusing on the breath led to breathing a little heavier than natural, and the second was that I couldn’t just focus on one aspect of the breath, like the air flowing through the nostrils or the rising and falling of the abdomen. My struggle was to decide when to just be mindful of my breathing exactly as it was without trying to change it and when to try to change my breathing to try to make it lighter and to try to improve my single-minded focus.

In reading Real Happiness at Work, I discovered some wisdom to help guide me in this.  In chapter 1, there is a balanced breathing meditation that focuses on cultivating both tranquility and energy by striving for a balanced state of mind that is both calm and alert. Finding this balance involves finding the middle way between being too relaxed and falling asleep and too intensely focused and breathing heavily, as I was doing.  Sharon suggests using the image of holding delicate, fragile glass in our hands; if we hold it too loosely it will fall out of our hands and break and if we hold it too tightly it will shatter in our hands.

I decided that it made sense for me to set my intention before I start the breathing meditation each night to focus either on balanced breathing or mindful acceptance of my breathing as is.  For the next week of the meditation challenge, I am going to focus on balancing my breathing and then decide where to go from there.  Mindfulness will still be an aspect of this practice because I will still need to mindfully accept the quality of each breath once I make my best effort at balance.

The instruction to focus on one aspect of the breath created a different challenge for me.  I thought I was having trouble with it when I not only focused on the air flowing through my nostrils, but also noticed my abdomen rising and falling. Sharon’s analogy of looking for a friend in the crowd was helpful to me in understanding how to approach this.  My new understanding is that I do not have to block out all other aspects of the breath.  It is ok to notice the crowd even though I am looking for my friend. I can still notice other aspects of the breath in the background, even while concentrating on the aspect of the breath that I choose to focus on.

In what ways do you need to work on balance in your meditation practice or your life?  What can the lesson I learned teach you about seeking the middle way?


Honest Reflection and a Meditation Challenge

In reflecting on my first month of daily meditation, I realized that the morning is not an ideal time for me to meditate.   In some ways it fostered procrastination; it became a way to delay starting my work day.  I realized that meditation would serve me much better at night when I need to wind down. So, for the second month,  I am making a commitment to shut off the TV and computer at 11 PM and meditate every night, Sunday thru Thursday.  I plan to continue doing a brief 5-10 minute meditation every morning, but the longer 20-30 minute meditations will be reserved for nighttime.  I have carried out this plan three nights in a row and did not even feel tempted to turn the electronics back on when I finished and also went to sleep earlier than usual, so I think I am on the right track.

iStock_000002128470XSmallIn the book Real Happiness at Work, Sharon Salzberg describes procrastination as willingly deferring something even though we expect the delay to make things worse. Avoiding what we don’t want to do in favor of something more pleasurable is a common way of dealing with performance anxiety, perfectionism, fear of failure, and/or a history of  deprivation. It is also common for people who have attention deficit disorder and other problems with executive functioning skills, such as organizing, prioritizing and perceiving how much time it takes to do things.  In Real Happiness, Sharon points out that meditation helps us strengthen and direct our attention through the cultivation of concentration, mindfulness and compassion.  Our capacity for focused, stable attention can then be harnessed, so we can sustain and shift our concentration as needed, without giving in to distraction and procrastination. 

During the month of February, Sharon Salzberg is inviting people to participate in a 28-Day Meditation Challenge based on practices found in her books: Real Happiness, and Real Happiness at Work. The meditation challenge begins on Saturday February 1.  I have made a commitment to participate in this 28-day challenge. I hope you will join me by making your own commitment to 28 days of meditation practice. 

For further information on the meditation challenge go to: http://www.sharonsalzberg.com/realhappiness/blog. Also, please leave a comment below to let me know if you plan to participate.