Thursday, February 7, 2013

How Does Mindfulness Work

Mindfulness is a very specific kind of mental exercise for our brains. Each area in the brain has a specific function. Some areas are dedicated to vision, hearing, our sense of touch, our movements, emotion, and so on. Since each little bit has its own unique function, we target specific functional areas and get predictable results from mindfulness exercise.
Our brains, like other organs in our bodies,  are built to adjust to changes in demand. Our muscles are a classic example of a structure in our body changing from demands. When we exercise the muscles of our body, they make tremendous adjustments based on the demands such as lifting more weight--specifically, the muscles get bigger and stronger. When our brains adjust to demands, though, they don't bet bigger, because swelling inside the head is a very bad thing. So instead of swelling, our brains adapt in a unique way -- they restructure their connections.
The number and strength of the connections between our brain cells determine a lot about how we behave and think. (The chemicals present in our brains play a large role in behavior too but we'll have to get into that some other time). Each brain cell (neuron) communicates to the cells it is connected to. And like our social connections, our brain's connections can change, even in adulthood. We call that ability to change connections "neuroplasticity," and its discovery is something relatively new in science. Contrary to previous beliefs, we can learn and change even into old age.
By practicing or rehearsing something, we strengthen connections in our brains and that function becomes more efficient. It makes sense, right? You train to do something over and over, and it becomes faster and easier to do.
The areas that are exercised when we practice mindfulness have to do with what we call ''direct experience.'' When we're experiencing something directly, we're fully enveloped by whatever we're doing. We are not thinking about the past, the future, or even about ourselves. Of course, direct experiences happen in our lives whether or not we practice mindfulness, and you can probably recall a time when you experienced this feeling of being completely enveloped. We sometimes refer to this as "being in the groove."
But studies have shown that people who practice mindfulness, even irregularly, have direct experiences more often. They also tend to have higher levels of happiness. How is that possible? When you intentionally practice thinking good, pleasing, or positive thoughts, the brain builds neural pathways to support that attitude. Consequenlty, you have more positive, pleasing and good thoughts. It works the other way to so be careful what you spend time thinking about.
In my experience with mindfulness, life circumstances don't need to change outwardly to see the improvements in our quality of life. We tend to appreciate, and become more grateful for the way things are. By noticing more of what's happening right now, we disengage from what happened in the past, and what might happen in the future. Our experiences feel enriched and have more meaning.
It makes sense why mindfulness interventions are being tried and investigated for a variety of conditions, like addictions, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. A common symptom in these illnesses is that the person experiencing them has difficulty feeling connected to the current moment. Often, their past or worries of the future consume their thoughts, leading to strong negative emotions that influence their behaviors. With this in mind, the advantage of being connected to the current moment makes sense.
Of course, a mindful practice won't just benefit people who are struggling with mental or psychological illnesses. The implications for people who are otherwise well are that they too will be more and more connected to the current moment, letting go of what already happened and what is yet to happen.
Many people new to meditation mistakenly think they are going to change their mood or way of thinking right away. And when they practice and are not feeling an improvement in their moods afterward, or cannot help from noticing distracting thoughts, they assume they are doing it incorrectly, or that it's not working for them. A mindfulness practice isn't about being in a blissful mood all the time, it's about being in touch with reality, and accepting that reality. Accepting isn't the same as liking. Accepting simply means that it is part of your reality and it is healthier to recognize that it is so. 
Before I leave the subject of unrealistic expectations, let me say that no matter how much experience you have practicing mindfulness, there will always be distractions and you will never control your thoughts. Accept it.
As our practices strengthen, we become better at simply noticing our judgements of liking/disliking that can skew our thoughts and actions. Then we are more likely to have patience between our emotions and our reactions. Our behaviors slowly become more rational, beneficial, and compassionate as we understand ourselves and our tendencies. We gain a greater sense of what we can and cannot control, and prevent much of the conflict that comes from confusing these things. As this happens, life flows and things just make sense.


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