Mindfulness: A Super Power We Can All Access

Contributed by The Muslim Vibe

Mindfulness, as defined by the founder Jon Kabat-Zinn, is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally”. It is the awakening of the senses, moving from autopilot mode, where we are doing things without thinking and mindlessly, to being fully present. In this article, we explore the compelling neuroscience research on mindfulness, dispel the common myths, and give tips on how to practise it.

Mindfulness also incorporates attitudes as detailed below by the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society: 

  • Having a Here-Now mindset
  • Being non-judgemental
  • Having patience
  • Being kind to yourself
  • Using a beginner’s mind
  • Having trust
  • Incorporating feelings of non-striving
  • Having acceptance
  • Letting go
  • Embracing commitment

Neuroscience of mindfulness

The research in the last decade in mindfulness has been vast and exciting. Neuroscience of mindfulness has shown that mindfulness can even change the brain structure. In one particular study examining novice meditators and long-term meditators, scientists found that just 8 weeks saw similar brain changes – a decrease of grey matter in the Amydala, the stress responder of our brain and an increase in the prefrontal cortex, important in memory and focus. 

Another study by Yale University found that mindfulness initiated the Task Positive Network of the brain, responsible for being present and aware and this overrode the Default Mode Network, linked with unhelpful brain habits seen in rumination and anxiety. 

Debunking the myths around mindfulness

Mindfulness is not about the absence of thoughts. Its more about being present to the moment without judgement, with compassion and acceptance. Its secular. It doesn’t involve chanting. It does, however, involve sitting down in a comfortable position, closing your eyes and giving attention to the here and now.

Types of mindfulness

There are different types of mindful practice – formal and informal practice:

  • Mindful living is an example of informal practice eg. brushing your teeth or showering. In this practice, you use routine activities where you are normally in automatic mode, and focus in on that experience using the 5 senses – sight, smell of the toothpaste, taste, textures of the bristles against your teeth, and the sounds of brushing. 
  • Mindful eating – for the first 3 bites become aware of the 5 senses. Exercise; tangerine. For the next 5 mins, examine the tangerine in your hand, notice the texture, the smell and the taste.
  • Gratitude – write down 3 things you are grateful for and why. Studies have shown that practising gratitude daily can enhance feelings of joy.
  • Mindful walking – this practise allows us to slow down and connect with Nature. There has been growing research into the health benefits of forest bathing with some studies showing a chemical released by trees and plants, called phytoncides, was found to boost the immune system.

Here are some ways to practice mindfulness in your daily life:

  • Become aware of all of your senses – the sights, sounds, smells and textures around you.
  • Focus on one element of your surroundings, for example a tree. Notice and observe all its details, being truly present and when you notice your mind wandering, gently nudge back to the object.
  • Exercise mindful walking for 5 mins – Practise mindful walking at different speeds, try walking very slowly, noticing the feel of the ground against your shoes, the sensations of walking slowly and staying in the present.
  • Formal mindfulness practice – this often involves sitting down with legs uncrossed, placing your hands on your thighs, closing your eyes, and anchoring to the breath. Examples include mindfulness for 15 minutes noticing and focusing on the breath. Alternatively, a body scan, where different parts of the body from the crown of the head to your toes are focused in on. A body scan is a mindfulness practice that enhances awareness of your physical body. By shifting your attention to different areas of the body, you strengthen the neural pathways for focus as you learn to bring your attention to the here and now and how to anchor the mind to the present. 
  • Loving kindness mindfulness – this was designed by monks to develop selfless love and can increase feelings of empathy, joy and gratitude in just 7 weeks.

Tips to keep you on track:

  • Have a quiet comfortable spot that you use every time. 
  • Create a visual hook to remind you of your new practice eg. a meditation cushion next to your bed.
  • The mind wanders – this is very natural, gently nudge back to the breath which will be your anchor.
  • Remember to foster the mindfulness attitudes. 
  • Start small and build up.
  • Mindful living eg brushing teeth, showering, curing composite.
  • Use a mindful bell.
  • Explore – focused awareness on breath, body scans, loving kindness, mindful eating and mindful movements.
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