During our Mindfulness Course we discuss habits and our brain pathways. Recently I came across an article which I found really useful in helping me meditate and I have also now taken a course in self-hypnosis which has been fascinating! The article talks about us all being born with a specific set of physical parameters, but if we eat right, take care of ourselves, and work out, we can build muscle, flexibility, and endurance. The same is true for our minds: We can change our brain, boosting concentration, flexibility, and intelligence and building new neural pathways and networks, by working out our brain, particularly with mindfulness and related practices.
Take a moment right now to try this basic mindfulness meditation for yourself. Before you begin, adopt a posture that is both comfortable and sustainable for a few minutes, and then set a timer for three minutes.
- First, bring your awareness to an anchor:sensations or movement in your body, the breath, ambient sounds, counting, or even an image you found powerful or calming. Anything can be the anchor for your attention. Just invite your mind to rest there.
- Pretty soon, you will notice your mind begin to wander.That is completely normal. Each time you notice it wandering, notice where it goes and then gently guide your awareness back to your anchor.
Pretty simple, right? So simple, in fact, that it might seem like you’re not doing very much. But don’t be fooled. Every aspect of this practice is building the muscles of your mind. In fact, one of my patients even likes to use the image of his brain getting a little bit bigger with each moment of mindfulness.
5 Ways You’re Strengthening Your Mind When You Practice Meditation:
- Each time you focus on or return to the anchor, you are building your muscles.
- Each time you focus on the anchor, you detach from your thought stream. This is a practice of letting go in the moment, which translates to letting go in the rest of the world.
- Each time you notice that the mind is wandering, that is the moment of mindfulness—not a moment of failure.
- Each time you are kind to yourself when your mind wanders, instead of criticising yourself, you are exercising and strengthening your self-compassion for challenging moments in the rest of your daily life.
- Each time you notice where the mind is wandering, that is an opportunity for insight into your mind’s habits and patterns—what we might call wisdom or self-understanding.
Each of the mental actions in this practice strengthens neural connections that, with practice, rewire your brain, over time making mindfulness and compassion the automatic response to stress. As the saying goes, “neurons that fire together, wire together,” and in this case, these are the concentration neurons, the awareness neurons, and the compassion and self-compassion neurons. We could all probably use a few more of those in our brains.
Over time, through mindfulness practice, we can build a map of the mind, notice our habitual thought patterns, and develop patience and compassion for our minds, ourselves and the world around us.
This article was adapted from Dr. Christopher Willard’s upcoming book Growing Up Mindful, available June 2016.