Mindfulness arises out of learning to pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgement, to things as they actually are.
Meditation and mindfulness practices are not weird fads and do not have to be religious. They are ancient practices that have found a new currency in the 21st century. Now taught in a secular way they have roots, especially in Buddhism which contains a huge body of experience on the subject.
Mindfulness is a simple yet subtle skill that requires doing to understand. No amount of reading can replace your own experience. Personal instruction and guidance is a great starting point as is learning with a group of people.
There is a growing interest in the subject which is due, in no small part, to the emerging evidence of the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. Respected researchers have identified benefits such as reduced stress and it's associated physical benefits, improved concentration and a lower propensity to depression.
"We're beginning to discover that meditation practices can have extremely powerful effects on our health. Exciting new research is revealing exactly how meditation works on the brain and how it can be applied more widely"
Mark Williams, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Director of the Mindfulness Centre at the University of Oxford.
"Now there is new scientific evidence that meditation, especially when associated with some other mental disciplines derived from CBT, can improve our mental and physical health.This has given rise to a new group of psychological therapies called mindfulness-based therapies.
Despite the jargon this is a very exciting development – showing how ancient wisdom combined with modern science can improve mental health. In particular this new treatment can tackle recurrent depression but the principles have a much wider application to our lives. There is evidence for example that the use of mindfulness in the workplace can improve productivity and decrease sickness absence."
From the "Be Mindful Report, Dr Andrew McCulloch, Chief Executive, Mental Health Foundation.
Studies have shown that regular meditation promotes mindfulness (sustained observing awareness), whose benefits include decreased stress-related cortisol, insomnia, symptoms of autoimmune illnesses, PMS, asthma, falling back into depression, general emotional distress, anxiety, and panic, and increased immune system factors, control of blood sugar in type 2 diabetes, detachment from reactions, self-understanding, and general well-being.
In your brain, regular meditation increases gray matter (neuronal cell bodies and synapses) in the:
- Insula – Handles interoception (sense of your own body); self-awareness in general; empathy for the emotions of others
- Hippocampus – Key role in personal recollections, visual-spatial memory, establishing the context of events, and calming down both the amygdala (the alarm bell of the brain) and production of stress hormones like cortisol
- Prefrontal cortex (PFC) – Supports the executive functions, self-control, and guiding attention
Regular meditation also:
- Increases activation in left PFC, which lifts mood
- Increases the power and reach of very fast, gamma range brainwaves, which promotes learning
- Preserves the length of telomeres, the caps at the ends of DNA molecules; longer telomeres are associated with fewer age-related diseases (This was found in a three month retreat, and may not apply to meditation in general.)
- Reduces cortical thinning due to aging in the insula and PFC
Source: Rick Hanson Senior Fellow, Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley, CA
Latest Research (links)
According to the Mental Health Foundation's surveys, over half of us say we'd like to attend free meditation classes to help with stress