September 20, 2014

Update on Mindfulness: Overview and Practical Applications

In June 2009, I completed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program offered by the University of Minnesota.  This program is a certified version of the one pioneered by Jon-Kabit Zinn at the University of Massachusetts.  The 8-week program consisted of reading the book Full Catastrophe Living, reflective exercises based on the book’s concepts, and a series of awareness exercises such as body scans, yoga and sitting meditation.  Then in May of 2010, I attended the seminar The Brain Changes Itself given by Daniel Siegel and Norman Doige.  This seminar outlined the adaptability of the human mind especially when awareness and intentional focus are present.

I further explored mindfulness through reading the books Mindful Brain and Mindful Therapist by Dr. Siegel, Meditations to Change Your Brain by Hanson and Mendius and Train Your Mind Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley.   I continue to seek out new information and applications for using mindfulness in my life and offering it to clients who might be interested in exploring how it might benefit them.

Mindful awareness is a useful brain tool.  It helps an individual respond to a problem in a constructive manner rather than react to the problem in a knee-jerk fashion. Many of these reactions have been created by years of patterns of reacting to similar situations many times in a maladaptive way.  It is remarkable when you realize that many of these patterns are set long ago and probably have no bearing on the situation that presents itself at that moment.

Mindfulness meditation (one example is breath awareness meditation but there are many others) helps to strengthen the neural pathways of the medial pre=frontal cortex.  The pre-frontal cortex is not only the administrative center of the brain modulating important functions such as attention, flexibility, and initiation of task;  the medial pre-frontal cortex can modulate the activity between the emotional and reactive systems of the brain (For example, the flight of fight response of the amygdala can be overridden by the rational brain that informs the individual that there is no real danger.).  Indeed, mindfulness is brain training.

Overview and Practical Applications (partial list):

1. Building mindful awareness takes practice.  Simply reading about it will not produce significant benefits.  However, one study demonstrated that increases in focus can be achieved even through 20 minutes of breath awareness meditation daily.

2. There are some programs of study that are comprehensive and powerfully life-changing but also require a large time commitment.  One such program is the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program.  Currently, one of my clients is using this program as part of a team effort  to restore function after a head injury.  I provide some the cognitive coaching, primarily applying concepts from Full Catastrophe Living and others guide her in yoga and other physical exercises.  Today, she reported that when doing the Warrior Pose in yoga, it was the first time since her accident that she felt grounded and not dizzy. It was a powerful moment and a tribute to the benefits of this program.

3. There are many levels of practice and study to build mindful awareness. One should not shy away from trying because of concerns about competence or time constraints.

4. Not all meditations and practices are appropriate for everyone.  In my own personal experience, the 45-minute body scan put me to sleep and I was distracted by the imagery used in the guided practice tape.  I wrote 2 blogs about this experience: Ommmm or ZZZZZZZ and Zafu and Zabutons There is no point trying to judge yourself because something doesn’t work for you.  Keep exploring.

5. Pertinent to the MBTI, I found that meditation is a useful way to balance perception and judgment using the Myers-Briggs model of understanding psychological preferences.

I meditate daily for 20-30 minutes. I started out using Daniel Siegel’s 11-minute guided breath awareness exercise. After becoming comfortable with that practice, I purchased a snazzy pyramid  timer and usually do the breath awareness exercise without any guidance.    Sometimes I will experiment with some of the meditations from Hanson and Mendius.  I try to do yoga several times per week but if something has to be eliminated due to time constraints, it is usually the yoga work.

I have gained enormous benefits from Mindful Awareness practice.  If you are interested in applying this in your own life, I encourage you to try.  Please don’t be judgmental about your progress and know that there are a wide array of meditation practices available to you.  The key is to get started.  Namaste!

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