CHANGE CHAOS TO CALM

Before recent developments in science, it was believed the brain was static and reached its peak in adulthood. That is to say, the brain we are born with – after a certain age and neural circuitry developments – is the only brain we will deal with in our lives. However, recent research has challenged this idea, and argues the brain is designed to adapt. Everything we do and experience changes the brain. Scientists now know the brains we have today reflect the demands and challenges we place on it. For example, mathematicians have more grey matter in regions important for math and spatial reasoning whilst people learning to juggle develop more connections in brain regions responsible for anticipating moving objects. However, we do not need to be a mathematician or juggler to experience these changes. It is possible to change your brain for the better by practicing new ways of thinking through mindfulness. Just as we learn anything from a sport to a musical instrument through practice, the same principle holds for our wellbeing and happiness. It is possible to intentionally cause changes in the brain by focusing on wholesome thoughts and directing intentions in particular ways. The incredible finding that even small doses of meditation practice a day can lead to measurable and physical changes in the brain should encourage you to realise it is more than possible to experience the positive benefits of meditation.

 

Control your ‘Me’ Centre:

Meditation has been found to reduce anxiety. In the brain, there is a region called the Me Centre (or technically speaking the medial prefrontal cortex for those scientists out there). This region is responsible for processing information that relates to ourselves and the experiences we have. For example, when we experience a scary situation, the Me centre is triggered, making you feel both scared and threatened. On a daily basis, this neural pathway is strong. However, meditation helps to weaken this neural connection. Simply, sensations that might have once triggered a response in our Me centre, do not have as strong an effect. Practicing meditation, whilst weakening this connection, simultaneously strengthens the connection between our assessment centre (where we reason) and our body sensations. The significance being that on activation of challenging or upsetting situations, this assessment centre allows us to more easily process rationally. By stopping your mind from its continuous churning to focusing your attention on the rhythm of the breath, you will feel more at peace. 

 

Improve attention:

Researchers have found that practicing focusing on your breath makes concentration easier. This is because meditation makes you better at focusing on something specific whilst ignoring distractions and more aware of what is happening around you, enhancing your perspective of the present moment. Focusing your attention completely on one thing during meditation practice, such as counting your breath, activates brain regions responsible for controlling attention. Both novice mediators and experienced campaigners experience this stronger activation and enhanced concentration through simple meditation practice. Interestingly, meditators with more than 44,000 hours of mediation show less activation in these concentration areas. However, their performance on attention tasks is better as meditation reduces the effort needed to focus one’s attention. Holding concentration and attention becomes effortless.  

Meditation also improves overall attention. Attentional blink is when we fail to notice things in our environment and we are all likely to have experienced this, for example, being so caught up in our thoughts that we fail to hear what somebody has said to us. Meditation can help individuals notice changes more easily, giving them a more complex perception of reality. Attention is a limited resource, however, meditation helps increase attentional control. We are all likely to have felt overwhelmed by tasks, however, paying attention can literally be made easier and less effortful through meditation, allowing us to notice more and mind less.  

 

Feel more compassionate:

Just as it has been proven that the brain is not fixed and unchanging, your emotional range is also flexible. As with any other skill, and meditation itself, it is possible to learn compassion and cultivate connections with others. Studies found a seven-week, loving kindness meditation program increased individual’s daily experience of joy, gratitude and hope. The more meditation engaged in, the greater joy felt. Meditation can make the brain more open to connections with others as they feel greater compassion, life satisfaction and social support, alongside fewer negative symptoms of illness and depression.  

 

The training program for your brain:

 

Initially try to practice this exercise for 5 minutes twice a day. Aim to increase the duration by 2-3 minutes every few days, until you can do this for 15-20 minutes at a time. Regular use can lead to visible changes in the brain that in turn create a better brain.  

 

  1. Bring your attention to your breathing

  2. Follow the air as it comes in through your nostrils and goes down to the bottom of your lungs. Then follow it as it goes back again 

  3. Follow the air, as if you are riding the waves of your breathing  

  4. Notice the air moving in and out of your nostrils…how it is slightly warmer as it comes out and cooler as it goes in  

  5. Notice the gentle rise and fall of your rib cage  

  6. Notice the gentle rise and all of your abdomen (belly)  

  7. Fix your attention on one of these areas, whichever you prefer: on your breath moving in and out of the nostrils, on the rising and falling of the ribcage, or the rising and falling of the abdomen.  

  8. Keep your attention on this spot, noticing the movement – in and out – of the breath  

  9. Whatever feelings, urges or sensations arise, whether pleasant or unpleasant, gently acknowledge them as if nodding your head at people passing by you on the street. Gently acknowledge their presence and let them be. Allow them to come and go as they please and keep your attention on the breath  

  10. Whatever thoughts, images or memories arise, whether comfortable or uncomfortable, simply acknowledge them and allow them to be. Let them come and go as they please, and keep your attention on the breath.  

  11. From time to time, your attention will become distracted by thoughts of feelings. Each time this happens, notice what distracted you, then bring your attention back to the breath. No matter how often your attention ‘wanders off’ – whether a hundred times, or a thousand – your aim is simply to note what distracted
    you, and bring your attention back to the breath  

  12. There is no need to be frustrated or impatient or disappointed when you get carried off by your thoughts. It is the same
    from everyone. Our minds naturally distract us from what we are doing. So each time you realise your attention has wandered, gently acknowledge it, notice what distracted you and return your attention to the breath.  

  13. If frustration, boredom, anxiety, impatience or other feelings arise, simply acknowledge them and maintain your focus on the breath  

  14. No matter how often your attention wanders, gently acknowledge it, note what distracted you, and gently bring your attention back to the breath  

  15. When you are ready, bring yourself back to the room and open your eyes  

 

For many of us, accessing this settled state of mediation is difficult and not something that comes easily. But it takes time and practice. So put yourself through the initial struggle in order to experience the profound alterations mediation can have on your life in terms of behaviour and brain function.