Giving your mind a break: the benefits of mindfulness and how to start a meditation practice.


Just about 10 years ago, I was bored and uninspired. I started to ask myself those age old questions: What would be my career path? What are my values? What’s important to me?

Because I didn’t have a great way to answer these questions, I needed to figure what my next move was going to be.

In the midst of scrambling to apply for any job I could get, I came upon an advertisement for the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program at Duke Integrative Medicine. The words “stress reduction” jumped off the page. I had almost no knowledge of mindfulness or meditation, but I did have curiosity and time on my hands. I was skeptical that it would do anything to help me, but I was willing to at least give it a shot. So, I registered for their 8-week foundations program.

The program required a lot of time and effort, but it is still one of the single greatest set of skills that I’ve learned in my life.

I still practice every single day.

I’m not one to use these words lightly, but it changed my life in ways that I could not imagine at that time.

Since that time, I have given a talk about mindfulness and its benefits, created a Youtube video on the subject, served as a research coordinator for a study examining the biological, physiological, and psychological benefits of mindfulness meditation, and even developed a mindfulness workshop for UNC undergraduate students with Student Wellness.

You might be wondering at this point, “Mindfulness? What is this dude talking about?” Well, I’m glad you asked!

Mindfulness is simply paying attention to the present moment with intention, without judgment, and with an attitude of acceptance of present moment experience.

It could be something as simple as focusing on how your breath feels, noticing that you’re feeling tired, noticing how the warm sun feels on your skin. You don’t need to do anything about your experience, you just need notice it and then simply turn your attention to whatever comes next.

Even if mindfulness is not a life altering experience for you, there is mounting evidence to suggest that mindfulness can be beneficial to physical health, like reducing blood pressure and enhancing our immune system. There are also mental health benefits like reducing anxiety, depression, and stress, and an increase in overall wellbeing. Here are just a few articles on the subject:

Brown University Health Education

Helpguide.org (in collaboration with Harvard Medical School)

Greater Good – The Science of a Meaningful Life at UC Berkeley

You really want to increase your mindfulness and start enjoying all of these health benefits, but aren’t really sure about how to do that? Well, I’ll give you a hint, it starts with an “m” and ends with “-editation”. That’s right, meditation! You might be saying to yourself, “but I thought meditation were just for people who wear dreadlocks and play in drum circles or for monks?” The good news is that you do not have to be part of a special group to start a meditation practice. You can practice alone or with a group of friends.

mindfulness
Credit: http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=12572&picture=meditation-by-the-lake&large=1

 

Despite what this picture might suggest, you don’t have to be near a lake or even have your legs in lotus position.

Basic Meditation

  1. Find a comfortable place to sit, whether it’s in a chair, on a mat, on the floor, just wherever works best for you.
  2. Make sure not to have your back too rigid and straight, but not so relaxed that you’re slouching. You should sit in a dignified manner.
  3. You can keep your eyes open or even half open. You can also close them if that’s comfortable, but this may encourage you to fall asleep.
  4. Now, bring your attention to the sensation of your breath. Notice how the cool air feels as it enters through your nostrils.
  5. Now move your attention down to your chest and belly. Notice how the chest and belly expand out with each inhalation, and contracts or flattens out on the exhalation. See if you can count at least 5 exhalations.
  6. If you notice that your focus starts to drift away from your breath and to your thoughts, for example, just notice that this has happened and slowly, without any judgment, bring your full attention and awareness back to the sensation of the breath. Just be sure that you don’t beat yourself because your mind wandered
  7. Try and keep your attention on the breath for just 10 minutes. It’s not easy, but keep at it!

Walking Meditation

You can do this as you’re walking between classes, or anywhere on campus, and no one has to know that you’re doing it (unless you want them to know).

  1. Bring your attention to your feet, and notice what it feels like to have them firmly on the ground. You may notice how your shoes and socks feel on your feet.
  2. While lifting each foot and leg off the ground, try to notice how it feels to lift your foot and leg into the air.
  1. While alternating each foot and leg, notice the experience of your weight shifting as you move forward.
  1. Bring your awareness to your upper body and pay attention to your arms as they swing and any other motion you feel in your upper body as you walk.

Moving Meditation for Individuals in a Wheelchair

Use a wheelchair? No problem! You can do this too!

  1. Bring your attention to your arms and hands as they move back and you get ready to push your wheels.
  1. You may notice how the muscles in your back squeeze together or how your shoulder muscles stretch.
  1. Notice what your hands feel as they grip your wheels.
  1. Finally, see what you experience as you start to push your wheels. You may feel the muscles in your biceps and triceps flexing and stretching. Don’t worry if you don’t notice this. Just bring your full attention to what you do feel.

You’re now on your way to having your own mindfulness practice. Now, go out there and start giving your attention to each moment! You never know what you might discover.

Originally posted in 2014, this post has been updated for clarity. In 2014, Dennis Carmody was an MPH candidate in the Health Behavior department at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and enjoying his summer practicum with the great folks at UNC Student Wellness.

6 thoughts on “Giving your mind a break: the benefits of mindfulness and how to start a meditation practice.

  1. Kamaira Philips August 31, 2014 / 2:00 pm

    Hey Dennis! Great article on meditation and mindfulness! I recently found an article about 8 basic and popular types of meditation. I reposted it on our Blog, http://mindbodyspiritualawareness.com/2014/08/8-basic-types-of-meditation/
    Check it out!

    Mind, Body, Spirit Connection hosts mindfulness and guided visualization meditation sessions for students for free in the union meditation room on Mondays at 5:15pm (except for on Labor day). Come join us to practice some of these techniques that help you manage your stress.

    Like

  2. Jillian August 16, 2014 / 4:57 pm

    I used to meditate for 10 minutes every day. Definitely need to start making the time to do it again.

    Like

  3. Andrea S August 4, 2014 / 1:12 pm

    These are great tips to keep in mind with the fall semester on the horizon! I had heard of mindfulness, but I hadn’t given it real consideration until now. Thanks!

    Like

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