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Mindfulness Practice and Meditation

If someone were to take a snapshot of your thoughts at any moment in the day what would they see?

For many of us, it would be a stressed and scattered mind. You might be worrying about giving a presentation later that day at work, remembering to reply to an important email, wondering what you’ll cook for dinner, formulating a shopping list and reminding yourself to pick up the dry cleaning. Maybe you’re agonizing about something you did wrong last week, thinking about a past relationship, or wondering what you’ll be doing a year from now.

Fretting about something that happened in the past or worrying about something you can’t control happening in the future is particularly bad for us.

When your mind is bouncing around all over the place, it’s difficult to live in the present and to pay attention to what is going on, but it can also leave you feeling scattered, overwhelmed, and stressed.

Fortunately, there’s a technique you can learn to help you better manage your mind and your emotions. It’s known as Mindfulness.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness refers to the practice of deliberately paying attention to what’s happening now. While it seems simple, it is surprisingly difficult to keep your attention focused on what you are sensing and feeling right now.

When you are mindful, you practice paying attention to your senses and being fully present and engaged in the moment. Of course, thoughts will continue to pop into your mind, but you learn to let them pass without becoming distracted, carried away or judging yourself harshly.

Mindfulness in the formal sense is meditating which usually involves finding a quiet spot to sit and breathe while not being overly reactive to or overwhelmed by the thoughts that enter your mind.

Some of those thoughts might have strong emotions attached to them. The key is to let thoughts pass and flow freely through your mind without getting hooked by them.

Easier said than done! But with the right instruction anyone can practice mindfulness. You can watch a 2-minute animation on ‘What is Mindfulness’ here.

What Does Mindfulness Look Like?

When you imagine someone practicing mindfulness, you might picture them sitting cross legged or doing yoga. But mindfulness doesn’t always look like this.

Mindfulness could also look like going for a quiet walk in the woods. You turn off your phone, so you aren’t distracted by notifications and you walk slowly, paying attention to the crunch of leaves under your feet, the scent of pine trees and the crisp chill of the air.

Since mindfulness is a state of mind, it’s something you can practice anywhere, not just when meditating. You can practice mindfulness while standing in line at the supermarket, while having a conversation, or when you’re eating dinner.

Any time you focus on being aware of what you’re sensing and experiencing in the present moment, without interpretation or judgement, you’re practicing mindfulness.

To find out more watch this 1-minute animation about the various types of formal and informal mindfulness practices from Awakened Mind.

How Meditation and Mindfulness Enhances Your Life and Career

Mindfulness not only helps us feel calmer, focused, and centered, it has a profoundly positive effect on our health and wellbeing. The following are just a few of the ways that meditation and mindfulness enhance your life and career:

Brain Development and Cognitive Function

Many studies have linked meditation and mindfulness practices with improved brain development and cognitive function. Researchers in a Harvard Study observed a visible difference in MRI-recorded brain activity during meditation, and these changes held steady even when the subject was not meditating.

In another study, subjects showed improvements in sustained attention, visuospatial processes and working memory after only four days of 20 minute mindfulness training. Research has also shown that mindfulness helps to generate new brain cells and improves memory and executive function. It can also reduce amygdala activation, otherwise known as the fight or flight response which is important for managing our response to challenges.

Increased Compassion

Mindfulness can improve your compassion for others and make you more likely to act ethically. In a study on the effect of mindfulness on ethical decision making, researchers found that individuals high in mindfulness were less likely to cheat and more likely to act ethically and uphold ethical standards when making decisions.

Being more mindful can encourage you to slow down and pay more attention. This act of slowing down also creates an opportunity to think about the impact of our actions on others.

Improved Physical Health

Numerous studies have observed the positive impact of mindfulness and meditation practices on physical health. For example, as this study shows, meditation helps to remove accumulated stress, increase energy, and reduce both physical and psychological pain.

Mindfulness has also been shown to boost immune system function, assist in controlling pain, decrease depression, improve sleep patterns and sleep quality, curb binge eating and improve heart health.

It can also decrease cortisol (the stress hormone) reduce inflammation and provide benefits for patients suffering from cancer, fibromyalgia, coronary artery diseases, depression, obesity, anxiety, and chronic pain.

More Happiness

Research also suggests that mindfulness meditation can increase positive emotions and improve happiness.

According to a study by a team of psychologists from Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts, the amount of happiness you experience isn’t entirely based on the events that happen to you. In fact, it’s largely based on your “happiness set point,” which is determined by the natural amount of activity in the front portion of your brain.

Happier people generally have more activity in this part of the brain. No matter what negative setbacks happen to them in life, their brain chemistry will eventually shift back toward being joyful within a few months.

Studies show that meditation has the power to reset this “happiness set point” and to rewire your brain, making your default setting more calm, happy and positive. Neuroscientists have also seen a “thickening” in areas of the brain associated with joy and pleasure and a “shrinking” of the amygdala, the area which controls fear and anxiety.

Better Leadership Skills

Many business leaders meditate to improve productivity and mental clarity and to be better organizational leaders. Mindful leaders are generally more open to feedback and less prone to interpreting information in self-serving ways. They demonstrate greater empathy in times of challenge.

In this study, leaders completed a 10-week workplace mindfulness training. The researchers measured an improved impact on mindful task management, self-care, and self-reflection. They also saw an improvement in the ability to relate to others and to adapt to change.

Improved Work Engagement

Mindfulness also has the power to improve workplace performance, especially if you are in a leadership role and you can instill mindfulness into workplace culture. When employees are challenged by demands and challenges at work, they need to expend effort to overcome them. This results in the depletion of the employees’ physical, cognitive, and emotional resources, which brings down their overall health and well-being.

According to this study, being mindful helps employees to obtain, retain and protect the resources they need to continue being enthusiastic, energetic and immersed in their job.

Boosted Productivity

Mindfulness meditation helps us to regulate our thought processes and focus on what’s important. This is extremely helpful when it comes to maintaining our attention on a single task and ignoring distractions.

Practicing mindfulness at work can help you to get better results, manage your time and prioritize your tasks.

Higher Creativity

Many studies have revealed how mindfulness improves creativity and the ability to innovate. In one study, researchers found that after only 10 minutes of mindfulness training, participants were better able to solve “insight problems.” These problems involved a high level of creative thinking and innovation.

Another study looked at the effect of mindfulness meditation on “cognitive rigidity.” Those who practiced mindfulness meditation had lower “cognitive rigidity” and were more flexible in their thinking. This ability to “think outside the box” allowed them to access novel and adaptive solutions to problems.

Self-Awareness and Emotional Regulation

When we are stressed and overwhelmed, it is more difficult to process and regulate our emotions and we often take our emotions out on the people around us.

Numerous studies, such as this one, have shown the positive effects of mindfulness meditation on emotional self-awareness and regulation. The study showed that after mindfulness meditation, participants had a less intense response to emotional stimuli and were able to stay focused and peaceful.

Stress Reduction

Finally, mindfulness meditation will not only make you feel less stressed out, but it also has the power to reduce physiological stress reactions in your body. Cortisol is the stress hormone that is released by the brain to signal danger and excess cortisol levels lead to neurological symptoms such as insomnia, depression, fatigue and memory loss.

Several studies, such as this one, show that mindfulness meditation can actually reduce the level of cortisol in the bloodstream and may decrease the risk of diseases associated with stress such as migraine and peptic ulcer.

“But I’m Too Busy to Meditate!”

I hear what you’re saying. Sometimes your schedule feels so packed that squeezing in a new meditation habit can seem impossible. However, when you’re feeling too stressed and busy to meditate, that’s exactly when meditation will benefit you the most.

Taking a moment to slow down and be mindful will give you the boost you need to get through your busy day. It will also help you feel more grounded, to think with more clarity and be calmer. Even a short daily meditation session will have a huge impact on your stress levels.

Myths About Mindfulness

There are a few myths and misconceptions about mindfulness that are generally based on a lack of knowledge about what mindfulness really is. Here are some common mindfulness myths, and the actual truth:

  • Myth: There is one ‘correct’ way to practice mindfulness.
  • Truth: There are many ways of practicing mindfulness. If you are attuned to the present moment without judgement, then you’re doing it right.
  • Myth: When you meditate, you should be able to clear your mind of all thoughts.
  • Truth: You will naturally have thoughts when you meditate and that’s okay. The key is to observe your thoughts without reacting to them, holding onto them, or getting carried away. Let them pass by like clouds floating across the sky.
  • Myth: Mindfulness meditation is a religious practice.
  • Truth: Mindfulness is not associated with any one religion or belief system - it is secular and can be practiced by anyone.

Never Tried Meditation Before? Here are Some Tips

If you’re just getting started with meditation and feeling a bit intimidated, don’t worry. Here are some helpful tips for beginners.

  • Start small. Meditating for 5-10 minutes a day is a great place to start. You can always add more time. Try out this 5-minute practice mindfulness meditation practice from Awakened Mind.
  • Set a routine. Meditating at the same time every day will help you build a habit that sticks. For example, it could be first thing in the morning, on your lunch break, or before you go to bed at night.
  • Let go of expectations about how it should feel or what you should be achieving. Learning mindfulness takes time and effort, so be patient with yourself.
  • Create a designated space to meditate. It will help you wind down more quickly, especially if it is cosy, clean and decluttered.
  • Always start your mindfulness meditation practice with a few deep breaths to put your body completely at ease.
  • Go easy on yourself. Some days will be harder than others. Treat yourself with kindness and remember that it’s not always going to be perfect.
  • Try a guided meditation app or a class. It can give you a helpful structure to follow along with while you learn how to practice mindfulness meditation.

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Awakened Mind is an app designed to help you start and develop a mindfulness practice. It’s a comprehensive portal of knowledge that contains everything you need to build this positive habit, improve your wellbeing and sharpen your leadership skills.