Last week I taught a class about “The Mindful Life” at my college. Mindfulness is rooted in the Buddhist philosophy that only the present moment exists. The future does not yet exist. The past no longer exists. Therefore, we should focus our energy and attention on that which is real, the present moment.
Personally, I think Jesus would approve. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:34) Jesus was incredibly present to the people he loved and served.
I had a good turnout for my class. Lots of people are interested in meditation these days as a way to help them cope with anxiety and stress. But mindfulness meditation offers more than a sense of calm. New research is coming out about how meditation actually changes the way your brain performs.
A recent study by Harvard University revealed that meditation rebuilds the brain’s gray matter in eight weeks. An article on this new research states:
Previous studies found structural differences between the brains of experienced meditation practitioners and individuals with no history of meditation, observing thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration. But those investigations could not document that those differences were actually produced by meditation. Until now, that is. The participants spent an average of 27 minutes per day practicing mindfulness exercises, and this is all it took to stimulate a major increase in gray matter density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.”
Did you catch all those benefits of meditation? Let’s run through them again:
- Better Attention
- Emotional Integration
- Reduced anxiety and stress
Of all these benefits, I most value the self-awareness I have gained from the time I have spent practicing mindfulness meditation. I have learned a lot by sitting with myself in meditation. I think of it as time spent observing, even honoring, the thoughts and emotions that pull me away from the present moment. This new awareness, or self-knowledge, helps me control those thoughts and emotions better, rather than allowing them to control me. Knowledge definitely is power.
At the end of my class I led the group in the following meditation. I invite you to find a quiet spot and a comfortable place to sit and practice it yourself. More books and meditation resources are listed at the bottom of this post.
Sit comfortably. Sit up straight with your shoulders back. Open your chest area and heart space. Close your eyes.
Notice the sounds in the room. What do you hear?
Notice the smells in the room? What do you smell?
Feel the clothes on your body. Feel the fabric stretching along your arms, back, chest, legs. Feel the socks on your feet. Feel the warmth your clothes hold close to your body. Feel the way your clothes shelter you from the chill of the room. Are your clothes comfortable? Feel this comfort. Do your clothes pinch? Feel this discomfort.
Feel the weight of your body on the floor (or in your chair.) Feel yourself on the earth. Feel the gravity pulling you down. Feel your stability. Feel grounded.
Notice your breathing. Pay attention to your inhale and your exhale. Notice how the air is cool on way in and warm on way out. Picture the air moving in and out of your lungs.
Focus your mind on your breathing for the next few minutes. If you get distracted, that’s okay. Just notice the distraction. Smile at it in your mind. Acknowledge it. Then return your mind’s focus to your breathing.
Conclude your meditation at any time.
More Good Resources on Meditation:
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience by Sally Kempton
The Freedom to Choose Something Different Online Class by Pema Chodron
Headspace by Andy Puddicombe