There is no doubt that “mindfulness” is important for our wellbeing, happiness and ability to cope with the overload of information and stress of modern life. There is also no doubt that meditation is the key to being able to still our minds, obtain some inner peace and experience love, joy and happiness. I have been reading relevant insights from some of the world leaders in this field and want to share what I have learned.
Sarah Lazar is a researcher in neuroscience at Harvard University. Her research has focused on the impact on the brain of yoga and meditation practices on sensory perception (awareness of internal sensations) and the regulation of emotion. She has shown that yoga and meditation practices for even 8 weeks, produce a profound change in the brain that flows into all aspects of our lives and enriches them significantly. The posterior cingulate regulates your sense of self and minimizes the wandering of the mind, the hippocampus gets bigger with a corresponding improvement in memory and learning, and the amygdala decreases with resulting reduction in stress.
“To see what is in front of ones nose requires constant effort”
Rick Hanson is an author and meditation teacher from the Buddhist tradition. He promotes meditation as the way to come home to the inner core, and avoid a sense of inner homelessness. He says that it is the best way to get to know yourself and increase self awareness, so that you own more of yourself and have a better insight into patterns of reaction. Meditation also cultivates liberating insight with resulting release from negativity, and an opening out into a full sense of allness.
By understanding about how the brain works, Rick says that you can use the mind to change the brain for the better, and stimulate and strengthen the neural circuits for happiness, love and wisdom. Changing the brain requires a three stage process. First you have to experience positive states of mind, by recognizing and activating positive feelings such as love, gratitude, and joy. Then, you must mark these states by staying with them, for example the moment of gratitude or joy. Finally you must take them in, and internalize the state. Gradual accumulation of these states will allow for them to be transformed into traits, change your mind for the better and result in inner strength.
“The mind takes its’ shape from whatever it repeatedly rests upon”
Rick points out that mindfulness is the primary tool to achieve happiness and wellbeing but only the beginning of this journey. This enables you to be with the mind, like walking through a garden. You must also engage in deliberate and effortful practice to reduce, release, and prevent negative thoughts and feelings- you must let go, to be able to pull the weeds from the garden. You must also be able to grow, preserve and increase the positive thoughts and feelings,- let in, to be able to plant new and beautiful flowers in the garden.
These steps require the cultivation of resources-the capacity to observe, tolerate, and have inner allies. These will enable the installing of positive experiences, the tolerance of negative feelings, and steadiness of mind (the capacity to pay attention to the present without getting caught up in it).
“There is no weapon more powerful in achieving the truth than acceptance of oneself”
Susan Piver is an author and very experienced meditation teacher who runs the Open Heart Project. She promotes meditation as a way of developing better coping strategies, introducing you to your authentic self, and to be able to relax with yourself as you are. When you do so, she promises that you will discover you are so much more than you believed yourself to be!
Susan describes how mediation promotes an ability to find your path in life, to discover the purpose of life, to figure out who you are, and live that passionately and fully. If the person you are interacting with is present and aware, you will find them to be a more trustworthy person which will promote richer relationships. You are also likely to have a greater tolerance for discomfort, to be able to take measure of feelings, and to have emotional honesty.
Meditation will give your mind a chance to rest from the constant chatter of sensory stimulation from modern life, an ability to relax with your mind as it is, and to establish a different relationship with your thinking. By placing your attention on a thought that you need to conquer or pacify, by relying on your power to allow the experience to be, you can turn toward your experience rather than away from it.
“Common sense is not that common”
Tal Ben-Shahar teaches positive psychology at Harvard University. He says that happiness is a combination of meaning and pleasure that arises from the mind/body connection. This requires regular exercise, mediation for perception and resilience, and relationships for social support. He promotes gratitude as a positive quality to be experienced, activated and internalised, regarding what has happened in the past as well as what is likely to happen in the future. Those who practice this daily, have been found to be less pessimistic, less depressed and happier.
Tal sees the main barrier to happiness as being the expectation that you should be aiming to be happy all the time. This does not allow for permission to be human and experience the full range of emotions. Perfectionism gets in the way of being happy, as nothing is ever going to be good enough. This is the opposite mindset of mediation which promotes an acceptance of things the way they are. A perfectionist interprets failure as a disaster, whereas the optimalist will see this as on opportunity for learning and growth. They will not be looking for what is missing, but be grateful for what they have!
Mindfulness is the disciplined effort to quiet the mind, to look beyond the external and have the courage to see ourselves as we really are. To seek out positive experiences, hold them within us, be grateful and translate such wonderful states into personality traits that benefit us and colour our connections with all those around us.