Time to Think About Thoughts

By: Olivia

“The meeting of two eternities, the past and future…is precisely the present moment.”

–Henry David Thoreau

There are a lot of different ways to think about mindfulness and no one way is better than any other. It helps some people to think of their mind as the sky and of their thoughts as clouds drifting across it, impermanent, transitory, present and then gone. Other people like to think of their thoughts as an excited puppy, constantly peeing on trees and sniffing things it probably shouldn’t be. If the sky analogy helps you, then use it. If the puppy analogy helps you, then use it. Today I’d like to share my favorite way of thinking about my thoughts. Something that really helps me is thinking about thinking in the context of time.

Past Thoughts

It is so easy to get caught up in past thoughts- the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you ever find yourself reminiscing about that awesome date you went on, fuming over how unfair your teacher was, or trying really hard to forget about that embarrassing thing you said to your in laws, then you do this too. Another easy way to get stuck in past thoughts is to hold on to feelings from the past. If someone gets you really angry, and a week later you’re still angry, then you are not experiencing the present moment, you’re experiencing the past.

Future Thoughts

I once heard that the center of your life is what you end up thinking about while you brush your teeth at night. When I brush my teeth, I always find myself thinking about what I’m going to do next. Whenever I have a spare moment it’s always devoted to planning and thinking about the future. This is where anxiety can be a real pain. You can’t control the future, so it’s easy to get caught up in a world of “what ifs”. Yes, it can be extremely useful to think about the future, but if you can’t appreciate the present moment because you’re too busy thinking about what you’re going to buy at the grocery store tomorrow, it’s time to rethink how you’re thinking.

Present Thoughts

I find that for myself, present thoughts actually occur rather rarely. Present thoughts are thoughts like “That cookie smells delicious” and “This hug makes me so happy”. Present thoughts can also be things like “This dentist’s office is striking fear into my soul” or “My heart is beating much faster than usual, I think I might be panicking”. Present thoughts come in all shapes and sizes. They’re important to experience because once they happen, they immediately turn into past thoughts. They’re here, and then they’re gone. And then you have another one, and another one, and another one, and….

Whenever I’m having difficulty with feelings from the past, or anxiety about things in the future, I take a minute to evaluate: am I in any danger right now? If I take five minutes to be present right now, will anything bad happen to me? Almost always, the answer is no. Taking five minutes to only experience present thoughts, to disregard past or future thoughts, is a great way to give yourself a break and I always find that when I do this, I am better able to deal with whatever situation I am having difficulty with.

Forward, Road, Away, Straight, Road Sign

What do you do when you’re overwhelmed with past and future thoughts? Is it difficult for you to be present?

A Video on Mindfulness

By: Olivia 

Today, just a quick post with a link to this great video on mindfulness from a 60 Minutes segment with Anderson Cooper. Many of the most common problems people encounter when first trying mindfulness meditation are addressed. There is also an excellent explanation following up on the neuroscience of mindfulness. I love the attention to mindful eating and walking…more on this in the future!

 

What Science Says About Mindfulness

By: Olivia

Opinions are great. I like opinions. My opinion on mindfulness is that it’s awesome. But when you’re thinking about trying something new, it’s great to have facts. When it comes to the topic of mindfulness, research is being conducted every day to help us understand it better. In this post I am going to share some of the research that tries to explain exactly what is happening in the brain when mindfulness and meditation are in practice as well as the effects on the brain over periods of time.

I am going to be directly summarizing some of the information in Tang, Holzel, and Posner’s article:

The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation (2015).

For those of you who would like to read the full 13-pages of research and findings, I have included a link directly to the article below, and I strongly encourage you to read it yourself.

http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v16/n4/pdf/nrn3916.pdf

The first step the authors take is to remind us of a few very important things:

  1. Research on mindfulness is relatively new,
  2. A lot of the research that actually gets through to publication is likely to show positive results and,
  3. Some  studies don’t use the most thorough methodologies.

Does this mean we can’t trust the research? No, it just means we have to use a critical eye when examining results, and that we have to accept the possibility that research conducted in the future may discover new or conflicting results.  

Moving on…

The authors break down mindfulness into three separate categories: attention control, self-awareness, and emotional regulation. There is a great chart included in the article which helps illustrate this breakdown, shown here as well:

screenshot_20170213-211053-2

Box 1. Mindfulness meditation.

The second part of the diagram is showing how the stages of practicing mindfulness can be separated into three parts: a beginner level, an intermediate level, and an advanced level. Some findings suggest that the parts of the brain employed during mindfulness practice change as an individual progresses from one level to the next.

First, let’s talk about what a beginner can expect. In studies conducted to test the effects of mindfulness on attention, one week of practice didn’t seem to change anything significantly. Research in the area of self-awareness also doesn’t generate too much interest for the purposes of this summary. In terms of emotional regulation, however, scans of brain activity in beginners showed some interesting results. Areas like the amygdala and the ventrolateral PFC showed changes which suggest that mindfulness meditation interacts with emotions not by stifling them or suppressing them but by surveying and keeping track of emotions.

In expert practitioners there are different effects in the brain. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) which is involved in attention and control, shows signs of increased activation in meditators with advanced experience. Unlike beginners, advanced meditators do not activate their ventrolateral PFC as much indicating a more automatic acceptance of emotions instead of the purposeful monitoring of emotions that was evident in beginner practitioners. This would mean a less effortful process of emotional regulation.

Besides these variations across studies, most studies have found that certain parts of the brain do react to meditation practice. These areas are:

  • Frontopolar cortex: meta-awareness
  • Sensory cortices and insula: body awareness
  • Hippocampus:  memory  
  • Anterior cingulate, mid-cingulate, and orbitofrontal cortex:  emotional regulation
  • Superior longitudinal fasciculus and corpus callosum: intra/inter hemispherical communication

This article by Tang, Holzel, and Posner surveyed a significant amount research articles that related to different types of meditation and mindfulness. Some of the specific articles they examine reflect more conclusive findings. I am excited to see what research in the areas of mindfulness and meditation will find next and what it can tell us about the effects of mindfulness meditation on our emotional well-being.
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Why I Care About Mindfulness and So Can You

By: Olivia

Today I throw myself into the dangerous world of blogging in order to share my learning journey about mindfulness.

A few disclaimers before I start…

  1. I am not a medical professional,
  2. I am not a professional of any kind, except possibly a professional procrastinator,
  3. It might be a good idea to consult with a doctor or mental health professional before doing any of the crazy things I’m going to suggest are good for you.

Maybe you’ve heard about this mindfulness thing before in a book, maybe you know someone who practices it, or maybe you have absolutely no clue what mindfulness is and you only clicked on this post to look at the pretty pictures. I want to clear up a few things about mindfulness:

  • What is mindfulness?
  • Is mindfulness for you?
  • How do you start?

I recently moved away from home to start at a new college and apart from learning facts and figures in all my classes, I also a learned a lot about myself. I started to find that a lot of the things I did, thoughts I had, and feelings I felt were based in anxiety. One of the things that helped me the most was practicing mindfulness. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, mindfulness isn’t a one time thing that fixes your life, it’s an ongoing process.

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