Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. While mindfulness is something we all naturally possess, it’s more readily available to us when we practice on a daily basis.
Whenever you bring awareness to what you’re directly experiencing via your senses, or to your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions, you’re being mindful. And there’s growing research showing that when you train your brain to be mindful, you’re actually remodeling the physical structure of your brain.
Mindfulness is available to us in every moment, whether through meditations and body scans, or mindful moment practices like taking time to pause and breathe when the phone rings instead of rushing to answer it. If we don’t train our mind to be mindful right now, the brain will continue to chug along in autopilot — nobody knows about potential lifelong benefits until you take the first step. It’s like getting a new car. Without the training wheels, you’re going to be off on a wild ride. Mindfulness is the foundation for an abundant life. Do we train our minds and bodies well enough to have this kind of control? Or will we continue living shallow lives — driven by short attention spans and stuck inside?
Below, I’ve outlined the science behind the benefits of practicing mindfulness on both the physical and mental health levels. It’s not rocket science, but it’s practiceable, and I promise it will literally transform your life, if you commit to strengthening your mind. Be brave, and start servicing your mind right now. Mindfulness is what allows you to experience a heightened level of awareness. Your brain is like a muscle. If you want to grow and strengthen it, you need to practice various types of exercise to stimulate and strengthen neural pathways related to memory, learning, emotions, and meditation. Our moods are always subconscious, so it’s hard to actually notice the impact that our experiences have on us. If we want to alter our moods and behavior, we have to notice those changes.
One way to start noticing these changes is through a few mindful minutes every day. Research shows that during these moments, a person’s brain activity changes dramatically. They gain enhanced mindfulness, attention span, heightened emotions, and even feelings of oneness with the world. Also, research demonstrates that when we’re in a mindful mind frame, even when faced with stress, we tend to experience fewer negative emotions. In fact, you can activate this emotional impact within minutes.
The benefits of increased mindfulness aren’t reserved for meditation or mindful meditation. When you experience mindfulness on a regular basis, you experience the same benefits in everyday life and everyday activities — like eating a nutritious meal, walking in nature, or making love.
“If practice is rooted in truth, mindfulness is truth.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
According to the Buddhist concept of “emptiness,” which means “to be completely present, completely still”, there is no kind of separation between mind and reality. Being present with the flow of the present moment, flowing with the experience, is the new superpower of the 21st Century. And it can literally transform your health, relationships, and your everyday life. What’s more, when you train your brain to be more mindful, it lends itself to experience and insight; it becomes a much more accurate, informed, and open observation of what’s going on around you.
Allowing yourself to be only alert for the end of your session, instead of reacting to what surrounds you, feels like entering an entirely new and more powerful state of being. Like when you’re riding a bike and using the handlebars as a vehicle for control, or riding a horse and tucking your body into the tight, supportive bonds of the harness. The same way that riding in each of these activities, works its way into your body and mind, so too will being fully present with practiced mindfulness.
Mindfulness is about tuning in to what your body and mind are experiencing and transforming, instead of reacting. This is the domain of meditative and yogic practices, such as Vipassana, or Sama Vritti, which encourages you to become fully aware of what’s happening “in you” or “through you.” When you’re watching a movie with heightened awareness, not feeling things, or your sadness becoming amplified through seeing other characters’ pain more deeply; it’s a beautiful type of mindfulness, a heightened awareness that’s sharp enough to redraw the map of our reality, and to actually alter our past, and our future.
Your happiness and well-being are directly dependent on the way your mind and body feel, so letting that whimsical, playful mind free-ride on the back of the calming, compassionate, and centered body is a big part of training yourself to be more mindful. “Mood is how happy your brain is feeling,” explains researcher Ramon Solhkhah of the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. “And your brain is happiest when it’s relaxed and at rest.” Solhkhah published his research on mood remodeling — or meditation training — in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. He wanted to understand what changes in our brain correlate with feeling happier. “What works for one person may not work for another,” he explains. “But what we really want to know, for research purposes, is whether mood training increases the resilience of the brain. Because if you can train your brain to have less reactivity, sooner, or be less anxious, that’s going to mean you’re less anxious and more resilient.”
Solhkhah and his team scanned the brains of 40 people, some of whom participated in mindfulness meditation training, and some of whom did not. He then compared the scans to a group of 40 people who didn’t show differences in their brain activity. “After four months of mindfulness training, there was a significantly larger hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a key role in processing emotion,” he says. “Total retraction of the stress response.”
The hippocampus is crucial for emotional regulation. It’s where memories and learning begin, and it plays a significant role in the development of depression and anxiety. “We know from neuroscience that when we develop anxiety or depression, this region in the brain underlies the neuropathology, the maladaptive brain function. That’s the scientific explanation. It’s not a big surprise to us. We showed this in our research at the University of Hertfordshire. But there’s another component going on, which is the stress response, the fight-or-flight response, is strongly Reduced [or even absent].” Solhkhah says that this basically means that the nature of your mindfulness training alters the structure of your brain, and this change is associated with changing your response to stress. The reduction in cortisol activity that accompanies mindfulness meditation training is exactly what you want: a stress-reducing practice. Solhkhah tested this in two ways: first, by reducing people’s cortisol levels following a stressful event, and second, by measuring the amount of time it took people to fall asleep after they took a short nap. The increase in time needed to fall asleep correlated with the decrease in cortisol — a sign that mindfulness training reduced reactivity to stress. “We believe that the sense of mindfulness — the nonreactivity — is what has a moderating effect on stress.” Mindfulness is a proven technique for happiness, stress relief, and improving mental clarity.