Teach the Brain to Calm the Mind

Now that we have made our list of resolutions for the new year, it seems appropriate to re-visit the concept of ‘Mindfulness.’ We’ve discussed the practice of mindfulness meditation – the act of observing your thoughts, feelings and sensations, moment by moment without judgment. By training yourself to observe these things without judgment, you can break the destructive associations that typically arise from them. The practice of mindfulness meditation is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that has a unique regulating effect on your mind. It increases the activity in the parts of your brain that are underactive and it decreases the parts that are overactive. When you develop a mindfulness practice, you’ll notice a difference in the way you respond to others. You’ll develop an inner strength and more compassion in your response to others. It’s kind of like a smart drug, but without the drug.

Research published in Psychiatry Research, Neuroimaging gathered people who were brand new to meditation and tracked them through an 8-week mindfulness course. Participants reported spending just under 30 minutes per day on their practice. At the end of the eight weeks, the researchers scanned their brains and found an increase in the thickness of grey matter in the regions of the brain involved in learning, memory and emotion regulation.

Again – less than 30 minutes a day and you’ve got structural changes for the better in your brain!

The best thing about a daily mindfulness practice is that it can be done anywhere, anytime and doesn’t cost a dime.

Not sure how to start?

Begin with 10 minutes a day. It will take your mind 5 minutes to calm down and to focus, to settle into stillness. It’s a settling-in period and it can take a bit to calm the monkey mind. Once you get through those five minutes, you’re really practicing mindfulness. Start with 10 minutes throughout your day. Then, as it works for your schedule, you can work up to 20 and 30 minutes per day.

There are 2 types of mindfulness practices: formal and informal. To begin, start with informal. With informal practice, you can pick any activity that you do on a daily basis and you can turn it into mindfulness training. Things like brushing your teeth, shaving, taking a shower, putting on makeup, getting dressed in the morning, dishwashing, ironing, raking the leaves, shoveling the driveway, walking the dog—any activity where your mind is off and wandering—part of that 47% that we learned about earlier where we’re on autopilot.

Start with brushing teeth. Brushing teeth is something we do every day, multiple times a day, without fail. You might pick up your toothbrush, begin brushing and then start moving about the house getting ready for work, looking for keys, getting the kids out of the bed, picking up clothes off the floor. You know the drill. We never seem to just stand still while brushing our teeth.

When you brush your teeth mindfully, you begin by bringing awareness to the body, and in particular the soles of your feet as they’re planted on the ground. If you’re barefoot, pay attention to the sensation of the floor. Is it a cold floor? Is it wet? Are you on a bathmat? Are you on a rug? Is it a warm floor? Really feel the pressure on the floor on the feet. Next, take notice of the texture of the toothpaste. What does it feel like on the tongue? Then notice the smell and how you respond to that smell. Next, notice the taste and also be aware of your arm as it moves up and down and around as you brush. Listen to the sound of the toothbrush on your teeth. If you have a battery operated toothbrush, you may listen to that buzzing sound. Also, just note your reaction to it. Carefully tune in to each tooth as you brush. Be sure to notice the sensations in your gums.

This all sounds pretty simple and basic, but what this does is train your brain to be completely focused on the task at hand. It’s attention training. It takes part of that 47%—that auto-pilot time—when we’re playing scenes from the past, arguments from the past, failures from the past, things we’ve done wrong in the past, things we could have done better or worrying about the future – and it brings the mind out of that into a time that is as simple as brushing the teeth.