If you’re reading this, you’re breathing. What’s interesting about breathing is we do it regardless of whether we’re thinking about it — that is, this essential bodily function is subconscious or involuntary, according to the book Human Biology published by Thompson Rivers University. Yet we can also voluntarily control our breathing when we are conscious of our breathing patterns. For example, we can choose to control our breath by slowing it down or speeding it up, or by taking shallow or deep breaths.
How we breathe affects our health. By breathing more deeply or controlling our breath intentionally, we can impact our body in a number of positive ways, says Baxter Bell, MD, a former family doctor who now works as a certified yoga instructor and practices medical acupuncture. “For starters, we can lower our blood pressure and stress level, and think more clearly,” he says. Feeling calm and centered after deep breathing is common, and a breathing practice can promote a greater sense of well-being, he says.
If you’re interested in how deep-breathing works and how it can be beneficial, keep reading to find out more about this valuable health tool that requires no special equipment and can be accessed at any moment of your day.
What Is the Function of Breathing?
There are two phases of breathing: inhaling (taking breath in) and exhaling (breathing out). When you inhale, the diaphragm — which is the big, dome-shaped muscle located between your lungs and your heart — contracts and moves downward. This creates extra space in the chest cavity, and the lungs expand into it. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes as the amount of air in the lungs is reduced.
Breathing is essential to life because our bodies require oxygen to function; moving your muscles, digesting food, and even reading these words are all body processes that require oxygen. Breathing also helps the body get rid of carbon dioxide, which is created as a waste product of these processes.
What Is Deep Breathing?
Controlling the breath can be part of a yoga or mindfulness practice, but breath-focused meditation doesn’t have to be deep breathing, says Dr. Riehl. “Some yoga breathing can be similar to diaphragmatic breathing, but it can sometimes be very different. For example, [for] some breathing patterns in yoga, you are supposed to keep your mouth closed,” she says. In diaphragmatic breathing or deep breathing, you typically are encouraged breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth, she says.
“Breath-focused meditation can be an entry point of bringing you to a mindful place, accepting the present moment for what it is. Your breath is the one true thing that is present in the moment — you can’t breathe ahead, and you can’t breathe backwards,” says Riehl.
“In meditation or guided relaxation, oftentimes the practice will begin with an awareness of your breath as you breathe in and out, but you might not practice deep breathing or change anything about your breath pattern,” she says.
“It might just be an invitation to pay attention to or notice: Are you breathing quickly or slowly? Is it shallow or deep? That aspect of mindfulness or starting a meditation is a little bit different from intentionally practicing diaphragmatic breathing,” says Riehl.
Downsides of Shallow Breathing
“Stress can shift our breathing,” says Riehl. “We can become shallow breathers in the face of stress or tension.”
This usually has to do with our body’s sympathetic arousal, which can be activated in times of stress, she says. This is also known as the “fight or flight response,” and the release of hormones can drive up our breathing rate, heart rate, and blood pressure, says Riehl. This response prepares the body to survive a real or perceived threat, so whether there’s a car swerving at you or you’re going to talk to your boss about a raise, the body’s sympathetic system responds similarly, as an article published in July 2021 in StatPearls notes.
Shallow breathing can lead to physical tension in different parts of your body, including your shoulders, jaw, hands, or back, she says. “That tension also is associated with increased GI distress. Overall, it can have a snowball effect — stress might trigger more shallow breathing, and then the physical effects can lead to more stress,” she says.
Abdominal vs. Chest Breathing
We’re all born as deep breathers, says Riehl. “Think about a sleeping infant. Their little bellies rise and fall slowly and peacefully — you can see that really clearly,” she says.
When we move out of infancy and begin to move and run around more, we shift from being belly breathers or deeper breathers to breathing from our chest more, says Riehl.
Chest breathing still gets the job done of moving the air through our lungs, but the breath tends to be shorter and more shallow, says Dr. Lin. “For most of us, when we’re engaged in our everyday breathing, we’re just breathing using the upper half or top third of our lungs. When you take a deep breath in, your chest is rising, but for most people, your abdomen is not moving at all,” she says.
Abdominal breathing starts in the nose and moves to the stomach as the diaphragm contracts, causing the belly to expand and the lungs to fill with air.
Compared with chest breathing, abdominal breathing not only brings in more oxygen, but it’s also more efficient, because it pulls down on the lungs. The negative pressure that’s created results in more air flowing into the lungs.
Potential Health Benefits of Deep Breathing
A key benefit of deep breathing is that it can help manage stress, which is a contributor to many health conditions, says Bell. While research results on deep breathing vary, experts agree deep breathing is safe for most people to try.
Whether done alone, as a meditation, or in combination with a movement practice like yoga, this complementary approach may be worth trying if you are dealing with a health condition. For instance, deep breathing may help you manage or improve:
High blood sugar levels and oxidative stress, which contribute to disease progression, in type 2 diabetes
Recovery from COVID-19 because it can help boost lung capacity, improve diaphragm function, and lessen stress levels associated with the novel coronavirus
Riehl has witnessed the benefits of deep breathing among her patients with GI conditions, which include IBS and UC. The way the diaphragm moves in deep breathing can allow for a reduction in tension in the digestive tracts, she says. “This can aid digestion and help with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) symptoms, constipation, and diarrhea,” says Riehl.
In terms of emotional wellness, the ability to employ deep breathing when you find yourself overwhelmed or overstressed can be very helpful in the way we feel and think. “The more stressed we become, the harder it can be for us to think clearly,” she says.
Though their origins are complex, mental health disorders are associated with high stress levels.
Often people who are facing chronic stress, which has gotten even more common since the pandemic, have their normal breath rhythm disrupted, explains Bell. “That imbalance could contribute to anxiety, insomnia, or any number of unwanted effects. By doing mindful breath exercises, they can start to rebalance their breath system,” he says.
Are There Any Health Risks Associated With Deep Breathing?
In the scheme of interventions, deep breathing is very low risk, says Riehl. “Sometimes people will say when they are learning diaphragmatic breathing that they can feel a little light-headed. That’s because they are putting more oxygen in their body than they are typically used to,” she says, and levels of carbon dioxide are lowered, notes MedlinePlus. It might make you feel different from how you typically feel when you breathe, but it’s not dangerous in any capacity, she adds. If you have any concerns or discomfort such as pain or excessive light-headedness when starting a deep breathing technique, consult your healthcare team.
How to Start Practicing Deep Breathing
You might plan to set aside time each day to practice deep breathing, or you can choose to do it whenever you find yourself feeling stressed or overwhelmed, says Riehl. Because deep breathing can be a natural sleep aid, doing it before bedtime can also be helpful.
“In those stressful times, you might even catch yourself holding your breath or gasping a little bit. If you can shift that through deep breathing or another relaxation technique, you can have a little bit more control of activating what’s called our parasympathetic system, or our body’s relaxation response. By doing that, we can bring things back to baseline,” she says.
A Simple Deep-Breathing Exercise for Beginners
Riehl regularly works with deep-breathing newbies, and she suggests the following exercise to get started.
Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. Breathe normally; you’ll probably notice how the top hand is moving more than the bottom hand. Riehl says your goal is to shift that so that the top hand remains steady and the bottom hand begins to move as the belly rises and falls.
Allow your belly to be soft as you take a deep breath in through your nose. Counting to yourself can be helpful to get into a rhythm; breathe in through your nose to about a count of 4, she says. As you breathe in, the belly is going to rise very slowly and then as you exhale, the belly will fall. “Try to make your exhale last a second or two longer than your inhale,” says Riehl. “Practice that for 6 to 10 breaths; you don’t need to do this for 20 minutes if you’re new to deep breathing.”
Once you get comfortable with it, you can let go of counting if you want to, she says. “Just notice it takes a couple seconds to breathe in and for that belly to rise, and then a couple seconds to breathe out and for the belly to fall, aiming to have your exhale last just a little bit longer than your inhale.”
Slowing down and controlling breath during a difficult situation — whether you’re feeling anxious, have a flare-up of lower back pain, or something else — can make a real difference, says Bell. “It can give a sense of control in situations where we often feel out of control. It’s empowering to have something you can immediately put into action,” he says.
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Chaddha A, et al. Device and Non-Device-Guided Slow Breathing to Reduce Blood Pressure: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Complementary Therapy Medicine. August 2019.
Ma X, et al. The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in Psychology. June 2017.
Huang AJ et al. A Randomized Controlled Trial of Device Guided, Slow-Paced Respiration in Women With Overactive Bladder Syndrome. Journal of Urology. September 6, 2019.
Ubolnuar N et al. Effects of Breathing Exercises in Patients With Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Annals of Rehabilitation Medicine. August 21, 2019.
Breathing Exercises for Asthma. Cochrane. March 25, 2020.
Chan BR et al. Yoga, Meditation and Mind-Body Health: Increased BDNF, Cortisol Awakening Response, and Altered Inflammatory Marker Expression After a 3-Month Yoga and Meditation Retreat. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. June 26, 2017.
If you’ve been following this blog, you know that there are countless ways to apply mindfulness in your everyday life.
You have probably also noticed that there are tons of benefits of practicing mindfulness regularly.
Although we’ve talked about these benefits in a few other places, we thought it would be helpful to provide one resource that breaks down all of the great benefits of practicing mindfulness in one place, with sources to back them up.
If you’re wondering what you can get out of being mindful, read on to learn about all the great things mindfulness can do for you!
Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our 3 Mindfulness Exercises for free. These science-based, comprehensive exercises will not only help you cultivate a sense of inner peace throughout your daily life but will also give you the tools to enhance the mindfulness of your clients, students or employees.
An entire stress reduction program, with decades of experience and tens of thousands of practitioners, is an excellent indication that mindfulness works.
In addition to the outcomes of MBSR, there have been numerous studies supporting the idea that mindfulness reduces stress.
One study on present-moment awareness found that it facilitates an adaptive response to daily stressors (Donald, Atkins, Parker, Christie, & Ryan, 2016). Another study by Donald and Atkins (2016) found evidence that mindfulness produced less avoidance and more approach coping as a response to stress than relaxation or self-affirmation controls.
Mindfulness can also help alleviate stress by improving emotion regulation, leading to a better mood and better ability to handle stress (Remmers, Topolinski, & Koole, 2016).
The impact of mindfulness on stress can also be seen in several specific groups, including:
Those who suffer from restless legs syndrome (Bablas, Yap, Cunnington, Swieca, & Greenwood, 2016);
For an excellent dive into how mindfulness affects the experience of stress, check out the Little Book of Mindfulness by Rebecca Howden and Medibank. I’ll leave it to them to dive into the nitty-gritty, but I’ll describe their explanation of the relaxation response.
Howden and Medibank first list the symptoms of stress, including:
Constantly feeling anxious and worried;
Feeling irritable, agitated and easily annoyed;
Argumentative and defensive with friends and family;
Low levels of energy, often waking up feeling tired;
Restless and frenetic mind;
Often self-critical and/or critical of others;
Feeling flat and uninspired;
Having difficulty concentrating;
Skin rashes and conditions;
Clenching your jaw muscles and grinding your teeth at night;
Headaches and migraines.
When you induce a state of relaxation, which can be achieved through mindfulness, another kind of meditation, or other activities, you can reap the benefits, including:
Higher brain functioning;
Increased immune function;
Lowered blood pressure;
Lowered heart rate;
Increased attention and focus;
Increased clarity in thinking and perception;
Lowered anxiety levels;
Experience of being calm and internally still;
Experience of feeling connected.
Gaining these benefits can be as simple as closing your eyes and being silent for a few minutes a day. This is a practice that is so easy, anyone can do it!
2. Enhanced Ability to Deal with Illness
Perhaps one of the most studied groups in terms of the impacts of mindfulness is cancer patients and others who are suffering from a chronic or potentially terminal illness.
Mindfulness may not take away their symptoms, but it can help make them more manageable.
For example, the eCALM trial, a therapy program for cancer patients, found that mindfulness can reduce symptoms of stress, enhance spirituality and non-reactivity to experience, facilitate post-traumatic growth, and enhance vigor while relieving fatigue (Zernicke, Campbell, Speca, ruff, Tamagawa, & Carlson, 2016).
Another cancer-specific mindfulness program decreased rumination and worry and increased observing and nonjudging in cancer patients (Labelle, Campbell, Faris, & Carlson, 2015).
An exploration of MBSR for those suffering from chronic low back pain found that mindfulness improved patients’ ability to function independently and resulted in less back pain than treatment as usual (Cherkin, Sherman, Balderson, Cook, Anderson, Hawkes, Hansen, & Turner, 2016).
Mindfulness can also help patients to focus less on the pain, improving their quality of life
(Garland & Howard, 2013).
A study on the use of MBSR with lung cancer patients and their partners showed that mindfulness can instigate a process of positive change in patients and their partners, as well as relieving caregiver burden in partners (van den Hurk, Schellekens, Molema, Speckens, & van der Drift, 2015).
Similarly, a review of MBSR for family caregivers found that mindfulness can decrease stress, depression, and anxiety in those caring for a loved one who is sick (Li, Yuan, & Zhang, 2016).
3. Facilitation of Recovery
Mindfulness can not only help you deal with a chronic or potentially terminal illness or life-threatening event, but it can also help you move on from it.
A study of MBSR in Chinese breast cancer survivors provided evidence that mindfulness can enhance post-traumatic growth and decrease stress and anxiety in cancer patients (Zhang, Zhou, Feng, Fan, Zeng, & Wei, 2017).
Another study of young breast cancer survivors showed that women who practiced mindfulness were more likely to experience increased self-kindness, decreased rumination, and decreased stress (Boyle, Stanton, Ganz, Crespi, & Bower, 2017).
Mindfulness, yoga, and meditation have also been found to decrease anxiety and facilitate post-traumatic growth in breast cancer survivors, in addition to increasing vigor and spirituality (Tamagawa, Speca, Stephen, Lawlor-Savage, & Carlson, 2015).
4. Decreased Depressive Symptoms
Mindfulness has long been considered an effective supplemental treatment for depression.
It has been found to decrease depressive symptoms, anxiety, and stress in college students, as well as increasing self-compassion when compared with yoga alone (Falsafi, 2016).
One of the ways in which mindfulness can help treat depression is through enhancing practitioners’ ability to regulate their emotions. Mindfulness provides the tools needed to step back from intense negative emotions, identify them, and accept them instead of fighting them. This allows mindful thinkers to better regulate their emotions, leading to better coping and management of depression.
A study by Costa and Barnhofer (2016) backs this theory. They found that, when compared to guided imagery relaxation, a brief training in mindfulness helped participants struggling with depression to reduce their symptoms through greater emotion regulation.
Another study found that MBCT reduced depressive episodes, which not only helped participants feel better but also had positive impacts on their health care costs (Shawyer, Enticott, Özmen, Inder, & Meadows, 2016).
Mindfulness is even effective for people dealing with the most critical of depressive symptoms: suicidal ideation, or thoughts of suicide. In chronically depressed participants with suicidal thoughts, mindfulness was more effective than treatment as usual in reducing these thoughts (Forkmann, Brakemeier, Teismann, Schramm, & Michalak, 2016).
5. Improved General Health
Beyond the many mental health benefits of mindfulness, it can also improve your general health.
For example, a study of how the two facets of mindfulness impact health behaviors found that practicing mindfulness can enhance or increase multiple behaviors related to health, like getting regular health check-ups, being physically active, using seat belts, and avoiding nicotine and alcohol (Jacobs, Wollny, Sim, & Horsch, 2016).
Another study on mindfulness and health showed that mindfulness is related to improved cardiovascular health through a lower incidence of smoking, more physical activity, and a healthier body mass index (Loucks, Britton, Howe, Eaton, & Buka, 2015).
Additionally, mindfulness has been positively linked with lower blood pressure, especially when the practitioner is skilled in nonjudging and nonreactivity (Timor, Pung, Mills, & Edwards, 2015).
Finally, in a study on the impacts of mindfulness on the psychological and physical health of obese or overweight adults, researchers found that mindfulness helped participants lose weight, improve their eating behaviors and attitudes, and decrease depression and anxiety (Rogers, Ferrari, Mosely, Lang, & Brennan, 2017).
While all of these benefits of mindfulness can be experienced by children as well as adults, there are some benefits that have been found specifically in young people. These are outlined in the next section.
Health Benefits of Mindfulness for Kids and Students
Many studies have been conducted using college students as participants, as they are an easily accessible population that is often willing to participate for simple incentives like extra credit or some extra spending money.
Mindfulness studies with children as the participants are becoming more common as well, as more and more benefits of mindfulness on early development are discovered. We’ll describe some of the amazing outcomes associated with mindfulness on children, teens, and young adults here.
Benefits for College Students
Adults are not the only ones who can reap the benefits of mindfulness.
College students have also experienced incredible positive impacts resulting from the practice of mindfulness.
A study on mindfulness in college students found that medical and psychology students who practiced mindfulness reported improvements in a wide range of areas, including decreased reactivity, increased curiosity and affect tolerance, improved patience, and self-acceptance, and enhanced relational qualities (Solhaug, Eriksen, de Vibe, Haavind, Friborg, Sørlie, & Rosenvinge, 2016).
Problems with alcohol are more prevalent in college students than many other populations and can lead to serious issues with both academic progress and life in general. Mindfulness may be an effective tool for addressing this issue, as it has been negatively linked with alcohol problems and can help students deal with the stress that may prompt drinking in this population (Bodenlos, Noonan, & Wells, 2013).
Mindfulness has also been shown to be an important link between the depressive symptoms that spring from alcohol-related problems and the incidence of drinking to cope in college students (Bravo, Pearson, Stevens, & Henson, 2016).
College students who practice or have practiced mindfulness were less likely to experience depression stemming from the use of alcohol to cope with their problems.
Another study on drinking in college students found that those who practice mindfulness are engaged in lower rates of problematic drinking, especially those proficient in acting with awareness and nonjudging (Vinci, Spears, Peltier, & Copeland, 2016).
The effects of mindfulness on the likelihood of drinking may be due in part to the impact of mindfulness on self-control. College students who participated in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) reported enhanced self-control and vitality, among other outcomes (Canby, Cameron, Calhoun, & Buchanan, 2015).
Similarly, a study on mindfulness and emotion regulation in college students found that higher levels of mindfulness predicted better regulation of emotions and suppression of thoughts (MacDonald & Baxter, 2016). Better self-regulation and self-control contribute to the more effective positive inhibition of destructive behaviors and, in turn, greater psychological well-being.
In general, children are not likely to have the same problems college students do (especially problems like over-imbibing!), but there are many areas in which mindfulness can have positive outcomes for children.
Improved Academic Success
Mindfulness is known to be effective in helping students achieve academic success in a variety of ways, and this benefit is not reserved for any specific group.
The following groups of children have enjoyed the benefits of mindfulness when it comes to their academic performance:
Elementary students who practice mindfulness exhibit greater prosocial behaviors, emotion regulation, and academic performance (Harpin, Rossi, Kim, & Swanson, 2016);
Teenagers studying for a general education certificate who participated in a mindfulness program experienced lower depression and anxiety, which contributed to improved academic attainment (Bennett & Dorjee, 2016);
Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who participated in a five-week mindfulness program reported decreased stress, allowing them to focus on school (Costello & Lawler, 2014);
Urban male youth who participated in MBSR experienced less stress, anxiety, and negative coping, improving their ability to deal with academic stress and achieve academic success (Sibinga, Perry-Parrish, Chung, Johnson, Smith, & Ellen, 2013);
Children with ADHD displayed less aggression and conduct problems when exposed to mindfulness therapy, which helps them focus on their academics (Singh, Soamya, & Ramnath, 2016);
Homeless middle school students who participated in a mindfulness course reported greater well-being and a higher incidence of using mindfulness in school, which can lead to greater quality of life and academic achievement (Viafora, Mathiesen, & Unsworth, 2015).
Buffer against Bullying and Depression
Mindfulness can even help kids deal with bullies!
A Chinese study on bullying victims and depression showed that mindfulness can protect children against the depressive symptoms that can arise from being victimized by bullies (Zhou, Liu, Niu, Sun, & Fan, 2017).
A dissertation by Sandra Mccloy (2005) on mindfulness as a coping tool for bullying suggested that mindfulness can help children consider perspectives other than their own and find constructive reactions in the face of bullying.
Mindfulness may even be an effective tool for addressing bullying at the source. Improving empathy with tools like mindfulness and improving social and emotional learning could be the key to stopping bullies before they become bullies (Kaldis & Abramiuk, 2016).
Provide Support and Boost Resilience
Mindfulness can also aid children who have been involved in the welfare or mental health care system. A study on a mindfulness program for vulnerable children found that mindfulness improved emotion regulation, mood, empathy, confidence and self-esteem, coping and social skills, and ability to pay attention and focus (Coholic & Eys, 2016).
Resilience is a very effective skill for children to cope with daily struggles and develop emotionally, psychologically, and academically. Mindfulness training has been shown to boost resilience in children and help them understand and regulate their own emotions (Coholic, 2011; Coholic, Eys, & Lougheed, 2012).
In the classroom, mindfulness can be as simple as adding a station for students to visit any time they are feeling a hard emotion. This station can have crayons and be a “pause” station for students to spend 5-10 minutes before reflecting on the emotion.
Another study showed that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for children reduced problem behaviors, attention problems, and anxiety while improving children’s social-emotional resiliency (Semple, Lee, Rosa, & Miller, 2010).
And the benefits of mindfulness don’t stop here. Mindfulness in the workplace also has numerous benefits for all levels of staff.
Advantages of Integrating Mindfulness in the Workplace
Although many of the benefits of mindfulness described above can and do affect individuals in all areas of their lives including work, mindfulness’ impact on job performance may be the outcome that gets the most attention and interest from managers and executives.
There are several ways that mindfulness has been shown to impact job performance, including:
Gallant (2016) found that mindfulness can improve executive functioning by improving inhibition abilities;
Mindfulness in service industry workers improves job performance, even when controlling for workers’ level of engagement (Dane & Brummel, 2014);
De Bruin, Formsma, Frijstein, & Bögels (2017) showed that mindfulness in the workplace can actually increase the number of contract hours worked by employees, a result that will certainly catch the attention of higher-ups;
Office employees who participated in an eight-week mindfulness intervention experienced lower levels of work-related stress, greater job satisfaction, and, ultimately, enhanced job performance as rated by their employers (Shonin, Van Gordon, Dunn, Singh, & Griffiths, 2014).
Beyond job performance, mindfulness has also been applied to the workplace for other benefits that can contribute to a healthy and productive work environment.
Reduced Work-Related Stress and Psychological Distress
One of the most common benefits of practicing mindfulness in the workplace is the decrease in stress experienced by employees.
Researchers Grégoire and Lachance (2015) found that employees at call centers who took part in a brief mindfulness intervention reported decreased stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and negative affect, while also experiencing greater satisfaction at work.
Similarly, employees from the Dow Chemical Company enjoyed less stress and increased resiliency and vigor after completing an online mindfulness intervention (Aikens, Astin, Pelletier, Levanovich, Baase, Park, & Bodnar, 2014).
Huang, Li, Huang, and Tang (2015) also found that mindfulness reduces stress, fatigue, and psychological distress, especially for employees struggling with poor mental health.
A study of public sector employees showed that this group was also able to benefit from the mental health effects of mindfulness. These employees reported less stress, reduced psychological distress, and improved social functioning and quality of life (Bartlett, Lovell, Otahal, Sanderson, & Tasmania, 2016).
Decreasing Turnover and Burnout
Along with the decreases in stress, mindfulness can also lower the incidence of burnout and turnover at work.
Researchers Taylor and Millear (2016) found that mindfulness helps employees construct a buffer between their work and becoming burned out.
Dane and Brummel’s (2014) study also discovered an inverse relationship between mindfulness and turnover intention, meaning that employees who are higher in mindfulness are less likely to leave their jobs for any reason. The study referenced earlier by de Bruin and colleagues (2017) also uncovered the reduction in the risk of employees dropping out of work when mindfulness is encouraged in the workplace.
Burnout seems to occur less in workplaces that encourage and offer spaces for mindfulness.
Goodman and Schorling (2012) found that mindfulness-based stress reduction reduced work-related burnout and improved mental well-being among healthcare providers. A study of Australian psychologists added more support to this theory, finding a strong negative association between mindfulness and burnout (Di Benedetto & Swadling, 2014).
Further research on mindfulness at work showed that mindfulness can act as a buffer for unsupportive work environments, enhancing well-being at work and contributing to lower levels of burnout for employees from a range of careers (Schultz, Ryan, Niemiec, Legate, & Williams, 2015).
Clearly, mindfulness has some extremely positive impacts on both individuals and the work they produce. But how does mindfulness produce these outcomes?
Research on Mindfulness and the Brain
Recently, a lot of research has been conducted on what effects mindfulness has on the brain. It’s clear that practicing mindfulness can lead to positive outcomes, but many researchers want to know why it works as well.
This is where neuroplasticity comes in.
Neuroplasticity is, at its most basic level, the ability of the brain to change and adapt over time.
This adaptation happens regularly, as the brain constantly works to make itself more efficient and effective, but neuroplasticity is of specific interest to researchers in the context of brain injuries like a stroke. Our brains can actually reorganize themselves to ensure that functions continue unhindered after a traumatic injury (Honan, 2017).
Whenever we complete a new task or find a more effective way to do something, our brain takes note, often making structural or connection changes to facilitate our next attempt at this task.
When we practice mindfulness, we send the message to our brain that we are more effective at dealing with everyday tasks when we are aware, observant, nonreactive, and nonjudgmental. This causes our brain to make the changes that will improve our ability to function mindfully.
Note: For the more neurobiologically inclined among our readers, continue on in this section to read more about how the brain changes after practicing mindfulness. If you’ve already had enough talk of brain structures and gray matter, feel free to skip the jargon and head straight to the next section!
For example, meditation practice has been linked to an increased thickness in the cortex, an area that is important for a general cognitive function like attention and sensory processing (Lazar et al., 2005).
Similarly, long-term meditation is linked with a denser gray matter in the brain stem, an area that is linked to cardiorespiratory control (Vestergaard-Poulsen, van Beek, Skewes, Bjarkam, Stubberup, Bertelsen, & Reopstorff, 2009). This may help explain how mindfulness produces positive outcomes in cardiovascular, as well as general, health.
A study on an 8-week MBSR program showed that the regular practice of mindfulness increased grey matter in the left hippocampus, an area involved in learning and memory (Hölzel, Carmody, Vangel, Congleton, Yerramsetti, Gard, & Lazar, 2011). This finding can help us make sense of the improvements in academic achievement and job performance that can result from mindfulness.
Mindfulness has also been shown to result in changes in white matter, particularly in areas involving brain interconnection and self-regulation (Tang, Lu, Fan, Yang, & Posner, 2012). You’ll recall from above that improved self-regulation is a key result of mindfulness practice, and can lead to a plethora of advantageous outcomes.
In general, mindfulness is known to impact brain systems that control emotion regulation and self-awareness (Paulus, 2016), which makes sense given the outcomes we have seen in the practice of mindfulness.
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging
More specifically, one study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess changes in the brain after an eight-week mindfulness course.
Results showed that the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, and other areas experienced heightened activity and connectivity, while the amygdala experienced decreased functional activity and earlier deactivation after exposure to emotionally charged stimuli (Gotink, Meijboom, Vernooji, Smits, & Hunink, 2016).
This means that the areas of the brain associated with higher-level functioning were more active, while the area of the brain that handles stress and strong emotions was less involved. These findings match the behavioral changes we see after a mindfulness program, like better emotion regulation, less reactivity, and even better performance on tasks.
Another study of brain activity related to mindfulness found evidence that mindfulness is associated with areas of the brain related to memory retrieval, decision making, and outward attention, all functions which can help link the bridge between mindfulness and improved mental health and job performance, among other outcomes (Gartenschläger, Schreckenberger, Buccholz, Reiner, Beutel, Adler, & Michal, 2017).
While the science of neuroplasticity in relation to mindfulness is still relatively young (as neuroscience as a whole is relatively young!), these studies and others have provided a solid foundation for continuing research on how mindfulness impacts the brain.
The Importance of Consistent Practice
“Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.”
While everyone has something to gain from practicing mindfulness, there is one caveat: to reap the maximum benefits of mindfulness, it truly needs to be a practice, meaning that it must occur regularly and often.
Nearly all of the articles mentioned above on the benefits of mindfulness are based on a mindfulness practice of five to eight weeks, or more. While a regular practice is vital, it does not need to be a huge commitment. Even a brief, 10-minute daily practice can result in more efficient cognition and better self-regulation (Moore, Gruber, Derose, & Malinowski, 2012)!
Another study on the effects of a 10-minute mindfulness exercise showed that even just a few minutes of mindfulness practice can lead to better executive attention and recognition memory, leading to better performance on a simple task (Watier & Dubois, 2016).
If you need some tips on how to commit to a regular mindfulness practice, try the following (Lucid Living, 2013):
Find the right motivation and intention. If you are experiencing a busy day or just don’t feel like practicing mindfulness, it might help to remind yourself why you practice and what it can do for you.
Find the right attitude and attention. Each practice will be different, but try not to think of them as “better” or “worse.” There is no bad way to become more mindful.
Find the right time and timing. Just as each practice will be different, the length of time appropriate for your practice can vary as well. Some days you may need only a few minutes, and other times you may want to stick with it for a bit longer to make sure you have a rewarding experience.
Find the right spot and posture. It’s important to feel safe and secure, wherever you decide to practice. That may be on a cushion on the floor, in your office chair at work, or even sitting in your car in traffic. You will benefit from finding a comfortable and familiar spot for your regular practice, but there’s no harm in modifying your seat or posture if circumstances require it!
Find the right routine and stick to it! Although the length, location, and posture of your practice can and will change depending on your situation, it’s best to make a minimum commitment when it comes to frequency. Whether practicing once a day works best for you, or multiple times a day, find a routine that you will be able to stick to in the long-term.
Another helpful way to support your commitment to a daily practice of mindfulness is to assign a different value to each day’s practice.
Dr. Amit Sood, the chair of the Mayo Mind Body Initiative, provides the following mindfulness schedule as a template:
Monday: Gratitude – Find things to be thankful for throughout your day, and include them in your loving kindness meditation or a gratitude journal;
Tuesday: Compassion – Set an intention to decrease any pain or suffering in others that you encounter throughout your day;
Wednesday: Acceptance – Accept yourself as you are and others as they are; appreciate yourself and other people without trying to change them;
Thursday: Meaning and Purpose – Think about your ultimate purpose in life, and where and how you find meaning;
Friday: Forgiveness – Forgive yourself first, then extend your forgiveness to others for any past transgressions;
Saturday: Celebration – Make sure to take a day to celebrate all the joy in your life and the lives of others;
Sunday: Reflection – Reflect on your week, your month, your year, or whatever period of time makes sense to you at the moment. This can be accomplished through meditation, prayer, or simple awareness.
A Take-Home Message
This article was packed with a lot of information, but I hope you found that it was worth your time.
To recap, this article included numerous potential benefits of practicing mindfulness for adults, children, and employees, including:
Decreased stress and psychological distress in adults and employees;
Enhanced mental health and functioning;
Increased emotion regulation and self-control;
Decreased anxiety, depression, worry, and rumination;
Reduced incidence of problem drinking and symptoms associated with problem drinking;
Enhanced academic achievement in students, due to improved ability to focus and improved attention;
Improved social and relational skills;
Reduction in aggression and problem behaviors in children;
Reduced symptoms of burnout in employees;
A decrease in turnover and turnover intentions at work;
Enhanced job performance;
Increased ability to cope with bullying;
Enhanced resilience in children.
There are so many amazing benefits to practicing mindfulness, with more being discovered all the time. With such positive potential outcomes, the reasons not to practice mindfulness are quickly evaporating.
Thank you to REI and Florence Williams for this wonderful read. Science is backing up what we already know about the healing power of nature.
THE NATURE FIX: THE THREE-DAY EFFECT
written by: Florence Williams
Ken Sanders is a seller of rare books in Salt Lake City. Before that, he used to guide rafting trips down the Green and Colorado rivers for commercial clients and for his pals, like Edward Abbey. Starting on the third day, he’d notice the vibe of the whole group change.
“An awareness sets in that the river is now your new reality,” says Sanders, who’s been running rivers for 40 years. “The ritual of unloading the boats, setting up your campsite, gathering around the fire, sharing meals, etc. is now your day-to-day existence. It’s a bonding experience. Your old reality fades away.”
Sanders shared his observation with cognitive neuroscientist David Strayer, who teaches and conducts research at the University of Utah. It immediately struck a chord with Strayer, an avid backpacker who noticed that some of his best ideas emerged after three days of camping out.
“Having hiked around the desert for years, I noticed in myself, and from talking to others, that people think differently after being out in the desert. Their thoughts are clearer, they’re certainly more relaxed, they report being more creative,” says Strayer. “If you can disconnect and experience being in the moment for two or three days, it seems to produce a difference in qualitative thinking.”
Strayer wanted to find ways to test what he started calling “the three-day effect,” a kind of neural reboot that might boost creativity. “I wanted to try to understand what was going on inside the brain,” he says.
So, for a study published in 2012, Strayer and his colleagues Paul and Ruth Ann Atchley from the University of Kansas administered tests to 28 backpackers before and after going on Outward Bound trips. Immediately after a trip, the participants performed 47 percent better in a word-test game that measures creative thinking and insight problem-solving. The game is called the Remote Associates Test, or RAT. It poses a series of three words; for example, tug, gravy and show. The test taker has to come up with the fourth word that fits with all three; in this case, boat.
“A near 50 percent improvement is huge!” says Strayer.
What caused it? Strayer believes the frontal cortex (our executive taskmaster) of the backpackers’ brains got a much-needed break. Strayer often studies networks in the brain, especially the attention network, which typically gets pretty fried in the normal course of life these days. So many things demand our attention: emails, pings, deadlines, chores, grocery lists, elusive parking spots, and, as William Wordsworth put it, all the “getting and spending.” The world, wrote the poet, “is too much with us.” And that was in the early 1800s!
When the attention network is freed up, other parts of the brain appear to take over, like those associated with sensory perception, empathy and productive day-dreaming.
“That first day in nature, your mind is recalibrating and you start to notice things a little bit, to unwind from the modern world,” says Strayer. “You notice cloud patterns, sounds and smells, and it becomes really acute. You don’t need a watch anymore. You forget what day of the week it is.”
The Strayer team’s results caught the attention of some other neuroscientists, such as University of Nebraska researcher Frank Ferraro III, who normally studies addictive behaviors. Curious to see if he could replicate the creativity findings, he gave a similar RAT test to college students before and after a six-day canoeing trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. This time he also had a control group, a bunch of students who would take the test six days apart in a classroom setting. The earlier results were confirmed: The campers showed a 50 percent improvement after the trip, but there was no meaningful change in the control group.
An older study suggests the cognitive surge isn’t just a vacation effect. In 1991 psychologist Terry Hartig and colleagues tested backpackers as well as people taking sightseeing and other types of vacations, and found increased performance only in the backpackers.
Now Strayer is drilling down further to a part of the attention network, the midline of the frontal cortex, where theta waves become active when we are performing demanding cognitive tasks. He already has data indicating those waves quiet down out in nature, but not, notably, if you’re using your phone at the same time.
His advice: Go outside for three days, and turn the phone off.
Ken Sanders agrees. “I think it takes the first two days and nights to wash away whatever veneer of civilization you have brought with you. The new reality begins on that third day.”
I’ve loved hiking in the woods ever since my Aunt Ree took me on my first walk in the woods as a small child. It felt like I entered a brand new world – a magical world of trees, moss and animals. A world apart from my normal everyday life, which was far from magical and far from peaceful. I still remember having my peanut butter and jelly sandwich with her on a stop along the trail. It was the most peace I had ever felt. Still today, I find solace in the woods, and hike as often as possible.
Tomorrow I am taking a class in Shinrin-Yoku – or “forest bathing”. I already KNOW how great I feel after being in nature, hiking, kayaking, walking – but I’m excited to learn more about the health benefits of forest bathing from a scientific standpoint. Below is a great article written by Karin Evans and published in the Greater Good Magazine.
I’ve also added a quick 1 minute video (scroll down to the bottom) for those who don’t have the time to read the article; i.e. those of you that would probably benefit from a great forest bath 😉
Why Forest Bathing Is Good for Your Health
From the Greater Good Magazine – Science Based Insights for a Meaningful Life
“Nature deficit disorder” is a modern affliction. With more people living in cities, working in high-rise office buildings, and becoming addicted to their innumerable electronic devices, many of us are indeed experiencing a nature deficit. This is true for children and adults alike.
In his new book, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, Japanese medical doctor and researcher Qing Li presents some sobering statistics: By 2050, according to the United Nations Population Division, three quarters of the world’s people will live in cities. Even now, the average American spends 93 percent of the time indoors, and some ten hours a day on social media—more than they spend asleep.
The Kumano Kodo trail in Japan
In Japan, there’s enough awareness about this deficit that Li heads up an organization called The Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, which promotes research on the therapeutic effects of forests on human health and educates people on the practice of forest bathing. His book—a companion to the center he runs—explores research on these benefits, while offering a number of techniques we can use to enhance them.
“Some people study forests. Some people study medicine. I study forest medicine to find out all the ways in which walking in the forest can improve our well-being,” writes Li.
The history of forest bathing
Japan is a country that is both urbanized and heavily forested. Trees cover two-thirds of the island’s landmass, and yet a majority of Japan’s people live in crowded city conditions. Li himself lives in Tokyo, a city he describes as “the most crowded city in the world.”
Perhaps that’s why the art of “forest bathing”—shinrin-yoku—began there. Forest bathing involves slowly walking through a forest, taking in the atmosphere through all your senses, and enjoying the benefits that come from such an excursion.
In 1982, Japan launched a national program to encourage forest bathing, and in 2004, a formal study of the link between forests and human health began in Iiyama, Japan—a place particularly known for its lush, green forests. Now, each year upwards of 2.5 million people walk those forest trails as a way to ease stress and enhance health.
Li’s interest in forest research began when he was a stressed-out medical student. He went away for a week of forest camping, and found it restored his physical and emotional health. That inspired him to begin researching the benefits of forests on human health and well-being. In 2004, he helped found the Forest Therapy Study Group, aimed at finding out why being among trees makes us feel so much better.
After years of careful study, Li has found that spending time in a forest can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and anger; strengthen the immune system; improve cardiovascular and metabolic health; and boost overall well-being.
“Wherever there are trees, we are healthier and happier,” writes Li. And, he adds, it isn’t about exercising—like hiking or jogging—it’s simply about being in nature.
Why would this be? It’s long been recognized that humans have a biological need to connect with nature. Some 20 years ago, American biologist E. O. Wilson noted that humans are “hardwired” to connect with the natural world, and that being in nature had a profoundly positive effect on human health.
Li’s research seems to corroborate this. For example, one of his studies looked at whether forest bathing could improve sleep patterns among middle-aged Tokyo office workers who tended to suffer sleep deficiency due to high levels of stress. During the study, participants walked the same amount of time in a forest that they usually did in a non-forest setting on a normal working day. After a walk in the forest, participants were significantly less anxious, slept better, and slept longer. In addition, researchers found that afternoon walks were even more beneficial than morning walks.
“You sleep better when you spend time in a forest, even when you don’t increase the amount of physical activity you do,” reported Li.
To further assess the effects of time spent in a forest, Li measured people’s moods before and after walking in the woods or in an urban environment. While other studies have shown that walking anywhere outdoors reduces depression, anxiety, and anger, Li found that only the experience of walking in a forest improved people’s vigor and reduced fatigue.
The health secrets of trees seem to lie in two things—the higher concentration of oxygen that exists in a forest, as compared to an urban setting, and the presence of plant chemicals called phytoncides—natural oils that are part of a plant’s defense system against bacteria, insects, and fungi. Exposure to these substances, says Li, can have measurable health benefits for humans. Physiological stress is reduced, for example, and both blood pressure and heart rate are lowered. Evergreens—pine, cedar, spruce, and conifers—are the largest producers of phytoncides, so walking in an evergreen forest seems to have the greatest health benefits.
How to do forest bathing
So, is there a specific art to forest bathing? Or is it just as easy as a walk in the woods?
Connecting with nature is simple, writes Li. “All we have to do is accept the invitation. Mother Nature does the rest.” Here are some of his suggested steps.
Find a spot. Depending where you are, find a good source of nature. One doesn’t need to journey deep into a forest for these benefits. Just look for any green area. It could be an urban park, a nature preserve, or a trail through suburban woods. Forests with conifers are thought to be particularly beneficial.
“Let your body be your guide. Listen to where it wants to take you,” Li says. Some people will respond to sunny glades, others to shadier places. Listen to your own wisdom. For people who don’t have access to a forest, or can’t get outside for some reason, infusing essential tree oils in your home can provide benefits, too.
Engage all your senses. “Let nature enter through your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands, and feet,” says Li. Actively listen, smell, touch, and look. “Drink in the flavor of the forest and release your sense of joy and calm.”
Don’t hurry. Slow walking is recommended for beginners. And it’s good to spend as much time as possible. You’ll notice positive effects after twenty minutes, says Li, but a longer visit, ideally four hours, is better.
Try different activities. Try doing yoga in the woods, or Tai chi, or meditation. Take a picnic. Write a poem. Study plants. You can venture alone, or with a companion. In Japan, forest walking therapists are even available.
Appreciate the silence. One of the downsides of urban living is the constant noise. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a wooded area that’s free from human-produced sound. Silence is restorative, and a forest can have its own healing sound—rustling leaves, a trickle of water, birdsong. Spend a few quiet moments with a favorite tree. If nothing else, when we connect with nature we are reminded that we are part of a larger whole. And that, Li notes, can lead us to be less selfish and to think more of others.
Li’s book, which includes illustrations and a map of “40 Beautiful Forests Across the World,” is an invitation and an inspiration to take a walk in the woods, wherever you are.
VIDEO: What is Japanese Forest Bathing and How Can It Improve Your Health?
Do you know what the most common regret people express on their deathbed is? It’s “I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
This blog post is about how not to have that regret on your deathbed.
So, what stops people from living a life that’s true to them?
The first thing that stops people from living a life that’s true to them is the fact that they never defined or got clear on what’s true to them. They never got clear on what their own deepest values are and what’s meaningful to them.
When we feel out of touch with the deepest and truest part of ourselves, it’s all to common to fall into just following societal norms and values (which are often very different from your own) or we submit to doing what our loved ones want us to do (often in an attempt to get them to like/approve of us) instead of what we really want to do. Sound familiar?
“‘Cheshire Cat,’ asked Alice. ‘Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?’ ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to go,’ said the Cat. ‘I don’t much care where,’ said Alice. ‘Then it doesn’t matter where you go,’ said the Cat.” –Lewis Carrol
The second thing that stops people from living their truth is a lack of awareness. A lack of mindfulness. Without mindfulness we tend to live much of our lives on ‘autopilot’ and when we’re on autopilot we often fall into conditioned, mechanical patterns of thought and behavior… most of which we did not consciously choose, and most of which was handed down to us from our culture and upbringing. Living in unawareness like this leads to a sense of discontent and disconnection from ourselves.
Mindfulness means waking up out of autopilot and connecting deeply with ourselves and our lives. It’s the ‘art of conscious living’ as Jon Kabat-Zinn likes to say. Mindfulness gives us the capacity not only to ‘listen to our hearts’ and to stay in touch with what’s meaningful to us, but it also gives us the ability to respond (from our values) and not to react (from old conditioning).
In other words, mindfulness is needed in order to LIVE your values on a daily basis.
What Are Values & Why Are They So Important?
We all have values – they are as much a part of us as our blood types or our genetic make up. They are as unique to us as our individual thumbprints. Our core values determine what’s really important and meaningful to us.
Values are who you are in your own deepest nature, not who you think you should be in order to fit in. They’re like a compass that points us to our “true north.”
When the way you think, speak and behave match your values, life feels very good – you feel whole, content, in your power. But when these don’t align with your personal values, then things feel… wrong. Life feels uneasy. You feel out of touch, discontented, restless, unhappy.
As you can see from the number one regret of the dying, there is a steep price to pay for not living according to ‘what’s true to you.’ When life feels ‘wrong’ many people try to ‘fill up’ through external pleasuring or they may try numbing or distracting themselves by keeping busy… but until you come back to living your truth, until you come back to this internal homeostasis of balance and ease, those efforts to ‘fix’ things externally will be futile.
“Follow your bliss. If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one that you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.” –Joseph Campbell
This is why making a conscious effort to identify and live your values is so vitally important. Here is a simple six-step process to help you identify your own core values…
How To Discover Your Core Values in Six Simple Steps…
“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.” — Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
STEP 1: EXPLORE
Let’s start of with an exercise to help you clearly identify your core values. Grab a pen and paper or perhaps you can choose to take notes on your computer or device.
Can you recall a moment where you felt totally yourself? A peak moment of life when you were in your element, when everything just felt… aligned? A moment when you felt happy and fulfilled? Take some time to recall this peak moment. When you’re ready, take some notes describing this peak moment in some detail.
For example, here is one of my own recent peak moments:
I had been teaching a retreat for four days and we (there were 40 of us all together) were doing a ‘closing circle’ since the retreat was coming to an end. As people began to share one by one, they really opened their hearts and shared very intimate stories, spoke of personal breakthroughs and deep insights into the human condition. There was a real sense of love, tenderness and camaraderie in the room. There were tears of laughter and tears of joy… we all ended up crying together! It felt so intimate, real and deeply connecting. I felt like I was doing exactly what I should be doing.
Once you’ve written down a peak experience of your own then…
STEP 2: EXTRACT
Ok, now that you have your peak experience written down, think about what values were being expressed and felt in that moment. What was important to you about this moment that made it so special?
From the moment I described above, I can extract that I value:
-Love and connection -Working with people to help them suffer less and be happier (Contribution) -Being open, vulnerable and authentic -Feelings of courage and strength -Vitality – a deep sense of aliveness
So now jot down a couple of things from your peak moment. Got them?
STEP 3: CHOOSE
Pick one or two values that you’ve identified as most important to you. Write them down on your paper.
Out of my five values identified above, I feel like ‘contribution’ is the one that is most important to me in my life. A close second would be ‘love.’
STEP 4: DEFINE
Now write a little bit about what your chosen value (or values) means to you. Different words mean different things to different people so it’s important to define what this value means to YOU in your life.
To me ‘contribution’ essentially means that I am being kind and caring… I am expressing the love in my heart. I am helping the world to become more peaceful, happy, healthy and in harmony. Contribution is an outward flow from my innate feelings of love towards life. The value of ‘love’ is very closely related but subtly different to me. Love as mentioned above means to me that I am feeling a deep sense of connection with another being or with life in that moment.
Write what your values mean to you, and then…
STEP 5: NAME
Choose a value name that feels right to YOU. Like I said, different words can mean different things for people so it’s important to define how this word is meaningful to you.
For instance, the word contribution to me is only meaningful if I am truly expressing my innate love for life.
I wouldn’t feel I was expressing my value of contribution if I were doing someone a favor, for example, but doing it begrudgingly. To me it always has to have genuine loving energy behind it. Contribution to me is active. Another word for contribution, in the way I mean it, could be ‘kindness.’ In fact, I feel that word fits better for me so I an going to name this value ‘kindness.’
Also perhaps to someone else ‘love’ would mean romantic love or it might mean speaking and acting in certain ways. My personal value of love means to me that I am experiencing and expressing feelings of connection and intimacy with a being or with life. So ‘love’ is my second value name.
What are yours? Jot them down.
STEP 6: REPEAT & REVEAL YOUR CORE VALUES
Now that you have one or two values you can now repeat steps 1 to 5 until you have a set of 5 to 7 values. We call this your set of core values. You may notice the same ones coming up again and again and that’s fine. See though, if you can explore the new ones that come up as you go through the steps again until you have your core 5 to 7.
Next week we’ll talk about how to LIVE your values in daily life (the most important part!) so stay tuned for that. But one more thing I’d like to make clear about values before we go.
The Difference Between Values and Goals
There is an important distinction that needs to be made between values and goals.
Values provide a deep sense of ongoing direction for our lives – they are not ends in themselves. Goals are things that we want to achieve or do – they are often ends in themselves. Values always exist in the present moment… they can be drawn on at any given moment. Goals are in the future.
Values Are Not Rules Or Commandments
Some spiritual traditions tell people what they should value and how they should act but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Values, in the way we speak of it here, are freely chosen by YOU. Your true values are not imposed on you from external sources. They come from listening to your heart and tuning in to what matters the most to YOU.
In order to live a life that is true to you, you must be willing to be completely honest with yourself about what you value most in life.
Values are not rules or commandments and they’re best held lightly. They don’t need to become rigid or static. Values may take new forms and change and develop over time.
Now you know what your values are. In the next post I’ll give you two powerful mindfulness-based practices to help you live your values in daily life. See you then!
Of course, as always, please let me know if you have questions and comments in the comments section below. I’d love to hear how you go with it
How often have you begun the holiday season with the most exalted expectations, only to stumble into the New Year burned out and disappointed? The secret to making your holidays as enjoyable and stress-free as possible is to take the mindfulness you practice on your yoga mat or meditation cushion and actually apply it in your life from moment to moment. And what better time than those frenzied, emotional weeks at the end of the year? Here are some suggestions:
Live in the moment.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, most of your stress occurs when you’re worrying about the future or obsessing about the past. Live in the present, and your mind naturally settles down and your anxiety dissipates. Easier said than done, of course, especially around the holidays, when your head is filled with back-to-back commitments and an endless list of things to do and buy. But you can make a commitment to yourself to stop from time to time, shift your attention from your thinking, and pay mindful attention to your experience right now—the weight of your feet against the floor, your back against the chair, the coming and going of your breath.
2. Let go of expectations.
The holidays are fraught with promises that life and other people can’t possibly fulfill. Maybe you desperately want to take your family on vacation, but discover you can’t afford it. Or you’re looking forward to a big family gathering, but your folks get sick and have to cancel at the last minute. Instead of attaching to the way you think things should be (and causing yourself unnecessary stress), you can choose to stay present and grounded, roll with the changes –and heed the other tips in this list.
3. Tread softly with the relatives.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em (or a little of both), family can be a major challenge to your peace of mind, especially when they’re stressed. Breathe deeply, and resist the temptation to rehash old hurts or expect more love and approval than they can muster (see above). But do relish the tender moments and the generosity and togetherness that the holidays tend to evoke.
4. Be especially kind and gentle with yourself.
If you’re pushing yourself too hard, you need to be the one to notice, back off, and give yourself a little loving. Take a hot bath, do some yoga, get a massage, spend quiet time in nature, meditate, or call a close friend. Do what nurtures you, then return to the fray refreshed, reinvigorated, and rebalanced.
5. Count your blessings.
Researchers agree that the key to a happy life is to appreciate what you have. Dwell on the positive, and your mood quickly lifts. Spend five minutes each night during the holiday season reflecting on the good things that happened to you that day, even if they seem inconsequential. The sky at sunset, the loving look in a baby’s eyes, a gift from a friend, a tasty meal, a funny incident at work. Human minds tend to skew toward the negative to alert us to predators and other threats, so you need to make a special effort to correct the bias.
Above all, remember to be mindful, no matter how busy you get. In the end you’re responsible for your own happiness and peace of mind. No one else can provide it for you, even at the holidays!
I just came back from teaching my four-day retreat ‘the art of mindful living’ to forty wonderful people.
Throughout the course of those four days it became apparent that a common challenge in most of their lives was stress. They are not alone.
According to WebMD, currently 75% to 90% of doctor visits are due to complaints and illnesses related to stress (1) and Psychology Today refers to stress not just as an epidemic, but as a pandemic now (2). Stress is rampant and on the rise, especially in the west.
Trying to do too much can certainly be one factor involved in the emotional state of stress but busyness does not necessarily mean stress.
In my life right now I am the busiest I have been in years. There are many things that need doing during the day. My man and I are juggling preparing our house for sale, running two businesses and getting ready to move.
When my schedule is very full like this I employ some tricks and ‘cheats’ to maintain mindfulness during my workday. I am going to share the three here that I find the most potent and easy to introduce to your daily routine.
1. Mindfulness Bells
In France there is a famous ‘mindfulness monastery’ called Plum Village. At random intervals during each day the sound of a ‘mindfulness bell’ echoes through the village. Upon hearing the sound every person stops whatever they are doing and takes a moment to simply be.
These pauses in the day are an opportunity for people connect deeply with themselves and to the present moment.
You may not be at a monastery but you can introduce mindfulness bells into your day. I use an awesome iPhone app called ZAZEN.
The free version that I use has two settings. One is a meditation timer but the other is a mindfulness bell which you can set to go off at intervals during the day – either 15, 30 or 60 minutes.
When you hear the sound of the bell take a brief pause from whatever you’re doing and take a deep slow conscious breath.
If you don’t have an iPhone you can get creative and set up another kind of mindfulness bell into your day.
Many of us have a habit of rushing through our days as if there were a finish line we’re trying to get to. Instead of rushing from task to task practice mindful transitions.
This simply means that when you have completed a task – like say making breakfast – pause for a moment before moving to the next thing (which in this case might be walking to the dining table) and take one of those deep slow conscious breaths mentioned above.
This brings you back into the moment and therefore is a natural antidote to stress (it’s almost impossible to be fully present in the moment and stressed at the same time!).
One of the most potent places to practice a mindful transition is in the car. Once you sit in the drivers seat stop, breathe and connect – then move.
3.One Thing At A Time
Studies show multitasking is a less efficient way to do things (3). To be more accurate, what these studies show is that multitasking is a myth.
What most people think of as multitasking is actually a very quick shifting of attention from back and forth from task to task – and this rapid shifting of attention leaves you vulnerable to stress.
Being that multitasking is less efficient and also potentially harmful there is no reason to do it. Kick the habit!
Keep your focus on one thing at a time. Be fully present in the moment for each task as you do it (after all this is your life!). Not only will you be more efficient and make less mistakes but you will also be happier and notice a natural sense of peace arising as you go about your day.
Try these 3 tips out and let me know how they go for you in the comments section below. Do you have your own mindfulness tips to counter stress? Share them too!
When building a house, the foundation is a crucial element. Without a stable foundation, all your hard work is at risk of cracking and crumbling down around you.
In mindfulness the attitude that you bring to your practice is your necessary foundation. Get this part right and you can build your ability to relax, find mental clarity and abide in inner peace.
These eight foundations will create a strong stable foundation in your mindfulness practice.
In mindfulness practice, aim to develop the attitude of an impartial witness to your experiences. If you spend some time paying attention to the thoughts that dart in and out of your mind all day, you may be surprised to see just how often you pass judgment about things, people and situations.
The mind tries to sort and file everything into neat compartments. I like, I dislike, I want, I am, he is, she is, good, bad and so on.
It does all this quickly and automatically, so flash judgments about all that we encounter become habitual, even automatic. Often, we’re not even aware we’re doing it, but this unyielding flow of judgmental thoughts makes it difficult to find any peace within ourselves.
To experience mindfulness, you need to become aware of the mind’s habit of judging and step back from it.
Suspend judgments, labels and categorizing. What does that mean? It means we simply see our judging thoughts as just that – thoughts. We don’t have to believe them or buy into them and we don’t take them all that seriously.
If a young child finds a cocoon, he may be tempted to try to break it open in his eagerness to see the butterfly emerge.
An adult though, knows not to touch the cocoon. He knows it can’t help the butterfly—and in fact, it will sabotage its transformation.
The adult knows that the wise action is to have patience. To let things unfold in their own way, in their own time. With patience, the butterfly will eventually emerge. Likewise, with patience, your mindfulness practice will improve in time. There is no need to try to force it or rush it; we can simply allow the process of any kind of improvement to unfold.
There is no hurry to get anywhere or achieve anything— there is no goal or finish line ‘out there’ in the future. The goal is to be fully present, in the moment and to be fully engaged in only whatever is presenting itself in the here and now. Any idea of striving for some future goal will only impede your practice.
You may have come to mindfulness practice in the hopes to achieve certain results (like more happiness or health), but let go of these desires during your practice and simply allow this moment and where you’re at to be enough.
3. Beginner’s Mind
Too often we let our thinking and beliefs about what we “know” prevent us from seeing things as they really are. If you’ve ever caught yourself tuning someone out while they were talking because you were already sure you knew better, then you know that attitude. You’re sure you’re right, so you’re really not giving their point of view a chance.
As they speak, instead of paying attention to their words, you’re forming your counter-argument. We’ve all done it, and when we’re doing this we’re not open. We’re rigid and closed-off.
In contrast, a beginner’s mind is open and receptive, willing to experience everything as if it were the first time. It does not try to guess what the other person is going to say or assume it already knows better. It reserves judgment. Try this next time you find yourself wanting to judge what someone is telling you: listen and think, ‘hmmmmm, isn’t that interesting?’
Likewise, when cultivating a beginner’s mind with our own thoughts and experiences, it opens us to beauty and richness of the present moment.
When being mindful, ‘listen’ with an open mind, free of expectations of what you think is supposed to happen. Allow yourself to experience what presents itself as if it were the first time, without expectations of what it should be like.
For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them. ― Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace
Normally, we go through our daily lives and everything has a purpose. We do things to accomplish something, to get something or to go somewhere. This attitude is bred into us from childhood— to do things purposefully and have an outcome—but in practicing mindfulness this attitude can be an obstacle.
Mindfulness is unlike our other activities—it’s the opposite of doing. It’s non-doing. In a way it does take work and energy, but of a different kind.
Mindfulness is simply being. Being with ourselves and being in the moment—with whatever arises. When you take time out to practice mindfulness and make plans like ‘I’m going to get more relaxed now,’ ‘I’m going to manage my pain,’ or ‘I’m going to be a happier because of this, you’re already undermining the practice.
You’ve already set goals and made plans, you’ve already determined what you should be doing or where you should be—which is telling yourself the present moment is not okay.
When you’re practicing mindfulness it’s counter-productive to strive for any result in particular.
See if you can let go of that subtle desire for a better future. Instead, you simply start focusing on this moment, and accepting this moment just as it is.
Acceptance is seeing things as they are in the present, and having an attitude of allowing life to be as it is. In mindfulness practice we cultivate acceptance by taking each moment as it comes and being with it fully.
We try not to impose our ideas about what it should be, or what we should be feeling, or what should be happening. Instead, we are just open to whatever is. We accept it—as is– because it is the now.
Having an attitude of acceptance in your daily living practice of mindfulness doesn’t mean you have to be passive. You can still take action or make changes. You just do it from a place of acceptance.
For example, if your car breaks down on a deserted road you can resist what is happening. You can cry, scream it’s unfair, or you may begin to panic. You can slam doors and kick tires. The reality is this, though: you don’t have a problem – the car has a problem. The car is no longer moving. That’s what is.
You also don’t have to resign yourself, sit down on the side of the road and do nothing.
You can recognize fully that you want to have the car fixed and get to your destination. But you can narrow your life down to the moment; accept what is, and take action from there. Maybe you call the NRMA or flag down another car, but you do it from a place of allowing instead of resisting.
During mindfulness or meditation practice, there may be all kinds of emotions, impulses and thoughts– both negative and positive. With an attitude of acceptance, you don’t resist them and you also do not cling to them. You allow them to be—whatever they may be. You’ll find that when you don’t resist impulses and feelings, they tend to subside more quickly.
Imagine if you were holding onto a large balloon that was being filled up with helium. As it grows, it threatens to lift you off your feet into the air. Your first instinct may be to hold the balloon tighter and resist the tug, but the only way to truly free yourself of the struggle is to let go.
In mindfulness practice it’s essential to cultivate an attitude of non-attachment—the ability to simply let go of thoughts. As we pay more attention to what’s going on inside of our own heads, we begin to discover the mind often clings to, buys into and follows certain thoughts and feelings, or we may try to suppress or wrestle with them.
In mindful awareness, aim to simply watch thoughts and objectively observe them. Non-attachment means neither resist nor cling to thoughts. Think of your thoughts and feelings like little clouds floating through the vast sky of your awareness.
Observe them arising, floating through and then disappearing. There is no need to try to hold them back or control them. If you have trouble letting go of the thoughts, then observe your ‘non-letting go’.
As we learn to no longer attach to thoughts or feelings, over time they lose their hold over us. That is, we are able to choose whether or not to ‘play them out’ or simply let them go.
In your practice, aim to foster a sense of curiosity. How do you feel emotionally? What kind of thoughts are going through your head? What does your body feel like at the moment? What happens when you focus all your attention in the present moment? How does that change how you feel?
When we were children were had a natural curiosity about everything. Children are born scientists who aim to explore, question and understand what’s around them.
Aim to take the attitude of a curious child. Note that this is a light and open attitude – not a serious or heavy one. For a wonderful mindfulness practice you can make it a habit to regularly ask yourself, “‘what’s going on inside me right now?’ and then take a moment to truly tune into your state of mind, body and being.
Whatever experience you notice, investigate it with a curious mind.
Curiosity doesn’t condemn. It simply watches.
8. Present Moment Awareness
The secret of awakening into mindfulness is to be fully present in this moment and to unconditionally accept this moment as it is. That means to pay attention to only what is present now– just this breath, just this step, what you see and feel.
Welcome this moment as it is – go into it deeply. Mindful awareness can only be realized in the now. Time is a source of enormous noise making activity in the mind.
Take away time from the mind and it loses its hold over us and starts to become more still. Too often our minds have us caught up in planning for, and always looking for our fulfillment in the future. This idea that one day we’ll ‘make it’ when we get ‘there’ creates so much mental chatter.
We’re always chasing a happiness that is just around the corner. When it comes to the past, the mind constantly brings up all our old conditioning and history, judgments and resentments regrets and the whole story of ‘me and my life’- Also the source of much inner noise.
You can drop all of that in an instant by becoming immersed in your present moment experience.
Life is only ever happening in the now. Everything that’s going on, all of your experiences and thoughts and emotions are happening now. If you ignore the now, you are short changing your life. When practicing mindfulness – bring awareness to the present moment, whether walking, hugging a loved one, meditating or doing some mundane chore like the dishes.
Because the great majority of our mind chatter is derived from thinking about the past and future, you may notice that the mind becomes very still and calm, yet very much alive, when you’re living in the present moment. After all, you can only exist in one moment at a time— why waste any of them?
As soon as you honor the present moment, all unhappiness and struggle dissolve, and life begins to flow with joy and ease. When you act out the present-moment awareness, whatever you do becomes imbued with a sense of quality, care, and love – even the most simple action.
– Eckhart Tolle
I hope these tips help you to discover and deepen mindfulness in your own life! I wish you all the best.