Do your thoughts feel messy, clouded by conflicting moods, stuffed full of beliefs that no longer serve you? If so, it’s time to tackle the clutter in your mind with mindfulness meditation. While meditation was once dismissed as “spiritual woo-hoo”, the rise of the positive psychology movement has led to a spate of scientific studies that offer compelling proof of the psychological – and physiological – benefits to mindfulness meditation.
The body benefits
Regular mindfulness practice has been shown to improve blood circulation, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, strengthen immunity and slow the rate of cellular ageing.
Mindfulness is also used as an adjunct therapy for a range of different conditions such as cancer, psoriasis and heart disease, explains Linda Kantor, co-founder of the Cape Town Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme and director of the Institute for Mindfulness South Africa (IMISA).
“More recent studies of an elderly group participating in an eight-week mindfulness programme found a reduced expression of genes related to inflammation,” adds Kantor. Just two months of MBSR training also leads to a thickening in a number of different regions of the brain – those connected with learning and memory, emotion regulation, and the sense of self and perspective, she says.
In addition to these brain changes, meditation sets off the release of the feel-good hormone oxytocin, and endorphins, bringing a sense of inner peace and well-being. This helps us prioritise nurturing ourselves over driving ourselves to the point of exhaustion, says Jenny Canau, a director of Mindfulness Africa, a network of mindfulness practitioners.
The mind benefits
“People who learn mindfulness are more able to catch their ruminations and worries, come back to the present moment and find more creative ways to deal with stress,” explains Kantor.
This paying attention to the present is what MIT-educated scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn, the pioneer of MBSR, says is all-important. As Kabat-Zinn points out, in an online video by the University of California’s Greater Good Science Centre, we spend huge amounts of time preoccupied with the future and past – worrying, planning or being upset about what happened or what didn’t. As a consequence, we tend to blast through the present moment in pursuit of something better – like the weekend or a holiday – where we expect everything to fall into place. Meanwhile, in the present, we’re irritable, unfocused and unable to see the beauty of our surroundings, he says.
If you’re one of the many who wait for the holidays to de-stress, consider the research by US leadership training company Fierce Inc, which showed that 58% of workers felt no less stressed after their vacation (Holidays can get rained out, the kids can be cranky!).
So, it seems, the present moment really is the biggest gift there is… if only we would clear our minds in order to see it.
Attain mindfulness in minutes
While the best way to learn to meditate is to go on an eight-week mindfulness training course, we can start by consciously living each day moment by moment. Here are three tips:
1. Brush your teeth mindfully – really notice the taste of the toothpaste, and the sensation of the bristles, clearing your mind of rushed thoughts.
2. At a red traffic light, spend a few moments noticing the rise and fall of your breath.
3. Download an app or visit a website to remind you to be mindful. For free 10-minute meditations, visit www.headspace.com
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