Brain Health for Beginners: Happiness Practice
This article is intended to be shared with those you think can benefit from an introduction to mindfulness, as these notes are focused on what fellow slackers, insolents, and undisciplined-yet-earnest seekers need to know. We know who we are!
When people are first introduced to the idea of mindfulness, it’s often met with a polite nod of agreement and some unstated reluctance (or worse, the internal eye roll). While many have heard of mindfulness meditation as a trend in therapy or social media, in truth it can be intimidating and even off-putting when someone is evangelizing its benefits. Don’t worry though, we are going to make this painless.
First off, a relationship with Buddha is not necessary as mindfulness doesn’t have to be about any spiritual practice, and neither incense nor chanting are required. Also be assured that you don’t even have to sit in those awkward criss-cross, applesauce poses from childhood that most adults don’t naturally fold into.
In truth, meditation isn’t a recent trend at all and does deserve the utmost respect, as it has been around for thousands of years and is finely honed discipline with multiple lineages and sub-sets, depending on your teacher and training – Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Tibetan etc. But, going more in that direction can be intimidating and alienating to some beginners, so let’s move back to the basics.
In plain-speak, what is it?
Mindful awareness is about being more awake and present in life. This is achieved through specific exercises called mindful awareness practices (MAP) that help us pay attention to details in the moment, inside and outside ourselves, without judgment. The basic idea is that if you do this regularly you can literally reduce depression, anxiety, and the reactivity that may be affecting your relationships.
As a matter of fact when scientists study happiness moment to moment, it turns out people are substantially happier no matter what they are doing if they are in the present, focusing on the task at hand. Even while engaging in an unpleasant activity and allowing your mind to wander – even if you are thinking distracted yet pleasant thoughts – is substantially less-satisfying than keeping your mind on what you are doing at hand. Surprising, but true, it turns out “Be Here Now” actually works!
However, we humans are notoriously very bad at this.
Mindfulness meditation is one example of a mindful awareness practice for those who want to strengthen the “muscle” of the mind, be more in charge of their thoughts and actions, maintain a calmer state of holistic well-being and, you know, just have that attractive glow that regular practitioners seem to maintain. It seems to be the modern elixir for well-being, and believe me, I’m not easily sold… but the science is there and convincing to even us skeptics.
For example, within 8 weeks of meditating for 30 minutes a day, measurable predictable results have been witnessed in fMRI studies, so this is literally a way to improve the hardware of your brain.
How to get started for skeptics and doubters:
You might be thinking, sure, of course it would be good for me to mindfully meditate for 30 minutes a day – but only monks and super healthy people actually do that, right? A version of this is what I often hear – others can do this but not me. Yes giving up sugar is good for me, but I’m not doing it… that sort of thing.
Well I have good news – mindfulness meditation is ridiculously simple at its core and the benefits far outweigh the costs.
This is all it is:
Take a slow breath and notice how the air feels hitting the back of your throat.
Viola! That’s all it takes! You are practicing mindfulness!! See, it’s that simple.
Another simple example of mindfulness meditation:
Get your smartphone (I actually downloaded a beautiful – and free – mediation timer) and set the timer for… let’s say, five minutes. Sit or lay or stand for all that it matters, because at this point the goal is just to be alert and comfortable. You don’t have to look serious or anything. Alert and relaxed, so probably you want to sit.
Now decide to focus on something, ANYTHING, and no matter where your clever mind tries to take you (and it will!), just lovingly and gently return it to your target thought. The most important thing is that as your mind wanders you return gently to the target thought or experience, because that is the “mental muscle” exercise that makes this work.
To clarify, this is not relaxation, its mindful attentiveness, and practicing managing your own mind. Most of us are rather undisciplined when it comes to our mental process, more like the moth flying straight at the blinking light over and over. Our minds will take us to any distractions and keep going at it, unaware, until we lovingly and gently redirect that crazy moth-mind to what we are intending to think about. This practice is how you take charge of your “mental muscle,” be in the present and thereby more satisfied overall.
Beginners appreciate ideas of what to target thinking about to get started, so consider simple words — Aim, Cool, Peace, Nothing, Love, Let Go, I am Enough, say what your need to hear. I’ve noticed some very active people prefer to focus on a sound you make, some call this a mantra, but really a sound can give your busy mind something to anchor on.
Most simply, keep the focus on your breath going in and out. That seems to work for many people. Simple is good.
When you are ready for your mental work out, just press the timer on your smart phone (remember, timer is set for 5 minutes), breath naturally, (your eyes can remain open or closed) think of the target thought, keep redirecting your attention to the target thought or experience, corral the wayward moth-mind if it gets distracted by an attractive flashing light (other thoughts or sensations), soon the timer will ring and BOOM you just successfully completed a mindfulness meditation!!!!! It’s THAT easy. Even if your moth-mind was all aflutter!
Realistically, many use smartphones apps to get started, I recommend Calm and Headspace (see below for link).
Why this brain science works:
It’s not too good to be true, you actually have to work for it. You are working out the “muscle” of your brain, and neuroscientists believe the central circuits of emotion are particularly affected, expanding flexible response by improving neuroplasticity.
Think about it. If you keep practicing noticing a distraction and not responding, you will improve in your capacity to contain the impulse and stick with your intentions.
But most of us are all aflutter when we slow down and begin to think about our thinking. That’s why it will take practice. Mindful (not mindless)… Awareness…. (oops there goes my moth-mind all aflutter, notice my breath, listen to the leaves in the tree, etc.) Practice… (we have to repeat and repeat to get better in order to get the benefits). Mindful Awareness Practice. Get it??
The only other very important friendly suggestion to remember is this – you can’t beat yourself up – that would just be rude. Curious is good, compassion is good. Trust me on this. If you stick with it you will understand why I say this, be kind and curious and you will probably need some help staying off your own back because although this is simple, it’s a super hard struggle to do this simple exercise consistently. But that is why it works, because exercising the mind is hard, and the more you work out the stronger you will become.
Just breath, notice, and be kind.
If you want to pursue this, in-person sitting with others at classes or retreats can’t be beat (try the Zen Center or the Austin Shambhala Center, and look for mindfulness mediation sessions provided by local practioners, they pop up all the time.) However, since you may be just getting started or are just rebel-minded, here are some selected free apps for your smartphone to help and online MP3 and articles to keep you interested and going with this, which I hope you do! Let us know how it goes!
This post appeared in Therapy Matters on Medium.com
Recommended smartphone mindfulness meditation app (free to download, small fee if you stick with it and later subscribe):
Calm (your mind)
Headspace, (Get Some)
Free guided meditations to download (MP3’s):
Complete, free online course: