Meditation and yoga the key to mindfulness

By Derek Luk

Part of being a student is learning to deal with everyday stress in a healthy manner. Constantly feeling frazzled is accepted as the norm in our culture. Life often seems rushed, and the desire for quick fixes can lead to the development of addictions, financial debt, over-reliance on medications, and other high-risk behaviours such as unprotected sexual flings.

These short-term behaviours are highly effective for some people at relieving the immediate effects of stress, but are unsustainable in the long term.

Humans have evolved from an environment where constant vigilance against threats was necessary for survival, such as a rustle in the bushes that could mean a lurking predator. Unfortunately, the brain has not adapted to the threats we face today.

There exists a psychological phenomenon called negativity bias — when presented with a positive and negative perspective, human attention becomes magnetized to the negative.

As Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence explains, the human brain is poorly designed to handle threats in the modern era because these threats are either too small or too large. Unless immediately threatened, our brains will not rouse us to action. Whether by procrastinating on climate change, disregarding our mental and physical health or ignoring that looming assignment, humanity lives in a crisis management culture.

Micro threats are too small to have an immediate impact and are therefore easy to ignore. Macro threats are too big to exert individual control over. Because people cannot see the immediate outcome of actions such as recycling, they tune those warnings out as well.

Mindfulness is part of the solution to shifting our attention away from constant, unnecessary fears and towards thinking of proactive and preventative solutions. The brain can be trained to focus on the positive rather than the negative.

The word mindfulness might seem hokey and quasi-mystical, like something out of Star Wars. However, it has been researched and studied by well-published psychologists, doctors and neuroscientist, such as Mark Greenberg, Rob Roeser, Daniel Goleman, Daniel Siegel and Mark Williams. According to these authors, one suggestion for practicing mindfulness is learning mindful awareness and mindful presence.

Mindful awareness means developing a deeper self-understanding. It teaches us to avoid knee-jerk judgements, unconditionally accept ourselves and learn how to cope with loss.

Mindful presence means maintaining awareness of the present while simultaneously keeping in mind that past memories and emotions influence our actions.

Traditional practices, such as meditation and yoga are few methods that people use to develop mindful awareness and mindful presence. Other practices include reflective writing, mentoring, peer support groups, educational and research initiatives, psychotherapy and spiritual practices. New imaging technology has allowed neuroscience to identify the effects of practicing mindful meditation. According to Rob Roeser, initial studies have shown even five cumulative hours of mindfulness practice can cause positive changes to the brain. Briefly outlined below are three recommended meditation methods.

Concentration meditation involves sustaining attention to a chosen element, such as one’s breathing, and then returning attention to that when distracted. This has been proven to improve relaxation, attention and memory.

Insight meditation means attending to and accepting whatever arises in a stream of awareness, letting one’s thoughts flow without suppression or self-judgement to whatever arises in the mind. Practitioners report less emotional reactivity and rumination and an increased ability to focus on the present.

Loving kindness meditation, or Mettā in Sanskrit, is similar to concentration meditation and is accomplished by imbuing an object with positive emotions and memories. That object can be ourselves, others or inanimate objects. By revisiting that object whether mentally or physically, we can cultivate positive emotions and redirect feelings of blame and anger.

Yoga is also excellent for keeping us in touch with our bodily experiences. Focusing deliberate attention on slowed movements and breathing helps to build an awareness of our sensory experiences, which in turn creates a mind-body connection that clears our emotional state.

All these practices involve changing the nature and attention of our mind, memory and perception of things through mental rehearsal. The Dalai Lama once said, “The mind is like a muscle, where it lies most of the time is what it will seek in the future.” If a muscle receives exercise daily, its strength and resilience to physical stress will gradually improve. This can also be applied to the mental gymnastics of mindfulness practice. The results will not be immediate, but with time one can develop improved resistance to stress.

Learn to take 10 minutes a day to monitor and calm your internal thought processes. Think about nothing but what is around you, without the distractions from technology. This can be done any time, whether it is walking from class, on the bus or even before bed. Taking a few minutes every day to stabilize your attention will eventually pay dividends. The simplest way is through focusing on breath, but it can also involve drawing on positive memories. A bit of dedication can create positve changes in your focus, mood and energy.

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