Have you ever lost your cool and regretted it later? Who hasn’t? Wouldn’t it be great to have more emotional control, less stress, and a cooler outlook on life? Life can be hard sometimes for all of us and stress is a killer, literally a killer. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our own heads, in our problems, in the world.
Wouldn’t it be nice to smooth out some of those rough seas? What if I told you there was a scientifically proven way to inoculate yourself against the balls of feces life’s little monkeys threw at you? What if that method was drug-free, good for you, easy, and didn’t cost a thin dime?
This is the part of the infomercial where I yell, “but wait, there’s more!” But this is no sales pitch, because you already have everything you need right now, except maybe a little information and some practice.
I am talking about practicing mindfulness. I know, it sounds kind of Zen, and mindfulness is a part of many meditative traditions from the East. Here’s the thing, you do not have to change, adopt or practice any religion in particular to practice mindfulness.
There is a ton of scientific research saying it works, and we even know why (more on that in a minute).
Mindfulness practice has worked well for me over the years. Both as a meditation, and a daily practice integrated into “real life,” it’s a necessary part of my life. I cannot do justice to the benefits. As a martial arts instructor teaching dangerous, even potentially lethal techniques to my students, it helps them and me stay calm and avoid trouble. It is a crucially important part of training.
What is Mindfulness Practice?
The $5 answer is that mindfulness practice refers to a metacognitive meditation practice. Metacognition means thinking about thinking.
Although practiced by some religious orders, by no means does the practice have to be religious or esoteric. There are probably thousands of different ways to practice mindfulness, some common practices include sitting while focusing on the breath, or performing a movement, like walking, very slowly and deliberately. Even just watching your thoughts come up with a detached awareness is a form of mindfulness.
Holding the attention on stuff which is usually unconscious, like breathing, has been shown to make physical changes in the brain – particularly in the prefrontal cortex. It can help inhibit the fear responses of the amygdala – a part of the limbic system of the brain. Since the changes are physical, they add up the more you practice.
Benefits of Mindful Practice
Some of the awesome benefits of mindfulness practice, coming from this peer-reviewed study include:
- less reactivity
- emotional regulation
- decreased stress and anxiety (who doesn’t want that?)
- increased response flexibility
Other studies are also looking at how mindfulness practice can help with depression, anxiety disorders, and PTSD. There may also be a benefit for the immune system
Personally, I credit mindfulness practice with helping me stay calm and think more clearly in crisis situations. Dealing with stress more positively helps me keep my energy level where it needs to be, and keeps me from getting sick at bad times. It helps me be a better husband and Dad.
How Do I Begin?
To get all Zen again, you start by beginning.
Find the method that works for you. You could start by simply sitting down, eyes closed, spine straight, and just count your exhalations until you lose track of counting.
There are many books outlining mindfulness practice, and you could find a class, retreat, or study group in almost any city.
The important thing is to begin. And if you meet the Buddha on the road, don’t tell him you saw me. I still owe that guy $5.