Archive for January, 2011
Mindfulness Can Change Your Brain: improvements in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking
Most people come to learn mindfulness meditation with the hopes of improving their well-being and quality of life. However, one of the challenges of undertaking a commitment to mindfulness practice is that the changes you experience may be gradual and subtle. The benefits are not always obvious to the practitioner as they develop over time. Therefore, it can be helpful to receive reinforcement for your on-going practice.
Here’s some reinforcement for you. Encouraging results were released in a study published in the January 30th issue of Psychiatry Research: Imaging. In this study, MRI images were obtained from 16 participants before and after taking an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program and compared with a control group of 17 individuals who did not take the program. The MRI images from those who practiced mindfulness every day found increases in gray matter concentration in the left hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. Increases in other areas of the brain were also identified in the MBSR participants as compared to the control group. “The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.”
Take these affirmative results to heart and have confidence that your mindfulness practice may improve your memory, emotional regulation, empathy and perspective in life. Let this be encouragement for you to continue to practice mindfulness, return to your practice if it has waned, or begin a practice if you have not tried it yet. And as more research is performed, I look forward to sharing more information on the positive effects of your mindfulness practice.
“Meditation is training for life. If we want to be free, it is important to learn how to directly experience the unbroken chaos and impersonal confusion of our own minds without being disturbed by any of it. Only if we can bear it will we be able to take responsibility for it. If we cannot calmly endure our own minds, others will inevitably suffer the consequences. If we cannot handle our own thoughts and emotions while we are simply being still and paying attention, then how are we ever going to be able to make the appropriate choices when we are walking, talking, and engaging with others? Meditation is training for life.”
Meditation is training for life. And, as one responder to this quote asserted, “Life is training for meditation.” Most of us undertake mindfulness practice with the intention of improving well being in our active day-to-day life. However, to do so, it takes significant effort grounded in a consistent practice, just sitting on a cushion or in a chair with ourselves.
Gil Fronsdal, the primary teacher for the Insight Meditation Center, likens our formal meditation to practicing mindfulness with training wheels on. He suggests that when we carve out this time to practice, we give ourselves the ability to meet experiences in this protected setting that are more challenging for us to address in active daily life. It is a safe place for us to explore complicated feelings, sensations, judgments and reactions that are an essential part of being human.
With training wheels on, in a mindfulness meditation practice session, you can try to reach beyond your current comfort zones and you have the freedom to make mistakes without dire consequences. Here, you have the opportunity to invite and explore your own experiences of pleasure and pain, avoidance and desire. In a meditation practice, you can take risks to see yourself more honestly, to allow yourself to be more vulnerable, and to become more familiar with those things that trigger you along with your habitual reactions to them, gaining insight as to whether they serve you or hinder you.
And then, there is a time when it is valuable to get off of the cushion and extend mindfulness into your active daily life (where the rubber hits the road, where you are likely to get triggered into reaction). Take off the training wheels! Try living your life more mindfully. You may fall down; you may get bumps or bruises. Nevertheless, this is where life becomes training for meditation. This is where we learn to balance better.
Most of us have no other choice than to be engaged in daily life. However, it can be tempting for some people to hide out in their meditation practice, safe from the impacts of daily life until they think they are ready to face it. Yet, as an unknown source pointed out, “If you wait until you are sure you will never take off the training wheels.” The point of our mindfulness practice, ultimately, is to maximize our well-being within the challenges of everyday life; to live fully. If you fall down, or lose balance, you can get up again and know that you can always come back to your cushion and put the training wheels back on.
In the end, with mindfulness practice, it is important to put the training wheels on regularly to cultivate, maintain and maximize equanimity in your day-to-day life. Accordingly, develop your skills and confidence by working with your training wheels on for some time every day!