What used to be considered strange until about a decade ago is now trending both on social media and in scientific publications:
Mindfulness consists in a conscious direction of our awareness on the present moment, while acknowledging the thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations that arise in the background without engaging in them.
Over the last few years, scientific studies have demonstrated the benefits of a regular mindfulness practice:
- Physiological: mindfulness strengthens our immune system and decreases the sensation of pain.
- Emotional: mindfulness reduces depression and anxiety, and increases wellbeing and contentment.
- Developmental: mindfulness increases our ability to be open to others and to new experiences.
- Relational: mindfulness improves our ability to have healthy relationships with others.
- Spiritual: mindfulness leads to the investigation of the nature of consciousness.
All of these benefits are possible because mindfulness practices positively alter the structure of the brain. As reported in this Scientific American article, "after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s 'fight or flight' center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress. As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker. The 'functional connectivity' between these regions – i.e. how often they are activated together – also changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger. (...) In other words, our more primal responses to stress seem to be superseded by more thoughtful ones."
Mindfulness practice is indeed now widely recognized as a great method to deal with stress and pain. For me, beside its grounding and calming effect, the most remarkable outcome of my own practice has been the progressive development of the ability to choose to respond rather than react when triggered by an internal or external event.
When our nervous system gets activated by physical pain, a difficult emotion, another person's comment or action, any kind of event really, our inner automatic pilot reacts instinctively, and this automatic reaction is based on years of strenghtening the same old neural pathways established by our genetics, early life experiences and personality patterns.
When we develop our mindfulness through regular practice, we become able to notice the activation of our nervous system - eventually before it is even a formed thought - and we develop the ability to use the tiny gap of time that takes place between arousal and reaction to make a choice in how to purposefully and authentically respond to the stimulus we are experiencing.
This ability to choose how to respond to an internal or external stimulus is true freedom, and our response chosen by integrating all of what is happening in the moment is true authenticity.
Because it's this inner freedom and authenticity that leads to personal fulfillment and happy and healthy relationships, practicing mindfulness is not a luxury; it's a necessity if we care about our wellbeing and relationships.
But how do we get started?
Stay tuned till next week for a few ideas on how to embark on your mindfulness journey!