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Being in the Zone

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Last time we talked about neuroplasticity and how the brain can change itself based on what is demanded of it and how it is used. Among the various restructurings that have been studied are the effects of a mindfulness meditation practice on the brain.

Studies have shown a wide variety of positive effects on the brain resulting from a consistent meditation practice. Decreases in activity in parts of the brain responsible for fear and anxiety, as well as increases in the density of areas responsible for learning and memory have been documented. This article provides a summary of some of the most promising research.

Meditation has positive effects such as decreased anxiety, improvements in general mood, and stress relief

Even in the short term, as millions of people who have taken up some kind of meditation practice are finding, positive effects can be had such as decreased anxiety, improvements in general mood, and stress relief. A program called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, pioneered by brain scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn is being utilized in hospitals, clinics, and even schools all over the country with excellent results in as little as 8 weeks of practice.

Meditation tips

Contrary to what many believe, meditation is not about stopping thought or emptying the mind. While there are many forms meditation may take, the simplest and most effective approaches are much more user-friendly than images of cave-dwelling ascetics might suggest.

Even two minutes a day can make a difference and some kind of consistency helps a lot. Here are some ideas to help get you get going, or stopping, as the case may be.

Most schools of meditation agree that an upright-seated position is helpful for maintaining alertness. If sitting on the floor is not comfortable, a chair is fine to use, but not your favorite Barcalounger. Find something that will keep your spine more or less upright. It takes time to build up strength in the back body to sit upright unsupported, so find a chair that will support your spine and help keep it upright.

Beware of the chin-jut head posture (or “text neck“) that we discussed previously in our piece about sitting, and keep your skull aligned over your spine. Rest your hands anywhere that is comfortable, and make sure your legs and feet are comfortably supported whether you are in a chair or on the floor.

Those who sit on the floor will likely be much more comfortable if the seat is elevated several inches, so that the folded legs may relax downward with no strain in the hips or low back.

The main point is: be in a comfortable posture that encourages alertness. Lying down can work, but can also lead to sleep, which is another topic entirely. If you become uncomfortable, shift your position. It’s not a contest.

You might want to use a timer set to a reasonable amount of time for the practice you want to do. Start with as little as two minutes and work your way up. If you are consistent, you will soon figure out what a reasonable amount of time is for your practice. There will be days when the time flies by and others when you think your timer has broken and is never going to beep your session to a close. It’s not better to go for longer if you are miserable in mind or body.

Start practicing meditation with as little as two minutes and work your way up.

You could close your eyes or not, but if you keep them open, it may be helpful to lower the lids part way so your eyes do not become a source of distracting input from the outside world.

Once you are comfortable and ready to begin, one of the simplest ways to do so is to just observe and count your breath. You could count to 10 and then back down again, or to some other number without counting back down, or any other means of tethering the mind to the simple anchor of counting, an activity the brain can do “without thinking”, so to speak. Without analysis or judgment notice the beginning, middle and end of each breath. Observe the pauses between phases of the breath, feel the texture and depth, note any change in pace.

Inevitably, the mind will wander off and at some point you will realize you have lost count and are going over an uncomfortable conversation from the past, planning your next flash-mob event, or making your shopping list. Simply come back without judgment and begin again. Again and again, with patience and kindness, keep beginning again. If frustration takes over, let it go for now and try again tomorrow.

If this very simple technique does not work for you, it’s possible your mind would prefer a bit more to “do”, and indeed, deep concentration and visualization can be excellent ways to hone focus and develop comfort in stillness. There are dozens of apps and online services that offer guided meditations and visualizations that help train the mind to be more focused and could be a great springboard into more independent practices. Some Buddhist practices use the breath as a vehicle for conveying compassion and lovingkindness. Some practitioners do well with a candle flame or another object to focus the eyes and mind upon. A repeated phrase or “mantra” can work well for building focus. Having a meditation teacher or belonging to a group can be very helpful for providing support when encountering frustration or difficulties with the practice.

Whether you settle on something simple or elaborate, independent or with support, consistency is key, as with any practiced discipline. Once you have a habit of practice, your mind may look forward to those moments each day when it can be unburdened of the busy-ness of modern life. You may notice a reduced level of stress and possibly even a more positive outlook. If you stick with it long enough, your brain may rewire itself to be less reactive, more able to focus, and more compassionate towards others.

Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.