Feeling stressed out, worn out or just not quite with it? In three breaths, you can start to turn it around.
1. Sit down. Bring your attention to your body.
2. Gently close your eyes.
3. Inhale to the count of three as you visualize yourself as a large urn filling from the bottom up.
4. Exhale to the count of six as you visualize the urn emptying from the top down.
5. Do steps 3 and 4 twice more.
6. Repeat in one hour.
There. You’ve started a mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness is direct awareness of whatever’s happening as it happens. It brings our attention to body sensations, sounds, thoughts and emotions.
The health benefits of regular mindfulness meditation have been shown in many studies and include relief from chronic pain, anxiety and skin ailments, as well as enhanced weight loss and immunity, plus stimulation of the calming parasympathetic stress system.
In short, neuroscientists are discovering that mindfulness can rewire our brains for less stress and more happiness.
How does it work?
“The brain is like Velcro for bad experiences and Teflon for positive ones,” says Richard Mendius, MD, a neurologist who’s written about the neuroscience of happiness.
Mendius explains the brain’s negativity bias: “The brain’s programmed to detect negative information faster than positive.”
But the brain also learns, Mendius points out. “The wiring diagram of the brain can change as a consequence of experience.”
One of the most significant examples has been found in the brains of those who meditate. In one study, certain areas of meditators’ brains lit up on a brain scan before and during meditation, indicating positive emotions and mood.
Another study showed that meditators with only eight weeks of training used more areas of their brains than non-meditators when coping with sadness. This may explain the meditators’ ability to restore balance—to tolerate sadness but also recover from it, two hallmarks of mental health.
Release the negative
With mindfulness we can allow negative reactions to rise up, play out and disappear in the mind. This is useful because our negative brains lead to judgment of ourselves and others, as well as fear of others’ judgment, which causes stress.
When a judgment occurs in your mind, ask three questions:
- Is it kind?
- Is it true?
- Is it helpful?
The same reflection before we speak to others can lead to more positive relationships.
Hold on to the positive
To make our brains better at remembering good experiences, we need to sustain the pleasant signal to the brain. It’s easier than it sounds. Try the following steps for a happier brain in 30 seconds.
Step one: bring your awareness to the positive experience as it’s happening.
Step two: replace thoughts like “this is okay” with “this is really great” to amplify the experience so the brain can learn.
Step three: let go of negative thinking.
Step four: feel the body sensations of the positive experience.
Step five: continue for 30 seconds.
With regular practice, mindfulness increases our resiliency to the ups and downs of life. Our brains and bodies will thank us for it.