What it is, how it helps, how to do it
My last blog post was all about the brain: how to use it, so that you don’t lose it. I mentioned that mindfulness is one of the exercises that helps grow new neurons (brain cells) and new neural networks. In this post I’ll expand on that.
What exactly is mindfulness?
It took me a while to get this down to something simple (not full-blown meditation) that applies to everyone, jargon-free and unconnected to belief systems (because it’s not religious and doesn’t interfere with your spiritual beliefs). It’s just a form of brain-calming exercise.
Mindfulness starts with concentration. A little more than that: it starts with focused attention. The attention is often directed to (but is not exclusively limited to) your body, or your breathing. The Mayo Clinic puts it this way: “Mindfulness is a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. Practicing mindfulness involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress.”
I’ve heard it described as helping you to focus on the present. To my mathematical brain, this was intriguing! The present is literally in the past by the time you think about it; in that sense it’s impossible to focus on the present for more than an instant. But the continuous focus feels like stretching the present out, and that’s what calms us down.
The Mayo Clinic continues: “Spending too much time planning, problem-solving, daydreaming, or thinking negative or random thoughts can be draining. It can also make you more likely to experience stress, anxiety and symptoms of depression. Practicing mindfulness exercises can help you direct your attention away from this kind of thinking and engage with the world around you.”
And that’s how it helps: directly, by calming and relaxing us, and therefore indirectly, by the effect calmness and relaxation have on preserving and restoring our energy. In fact, one specific result of mindfulness is to shrink the size of the amygdala in the brain, which is what triggers our very stressful fight-or-flight-or-freeze reaction, and that’s why mindfulness reduces stress.
Mindfulness – focusing your attention – is not easy. One set of instructions I’ve seen suggests that you start by sitting in a position that’s alert yet relaxed, for example upright but not rigid. Close your eyes, to reduce distraction. Then focus on your breathing, in and out, in and out, as the air enters and leaves your body. Guess what? Your attention will wander! That’s natural. Start again – and again. Count the breathing cycles: one, two, three, … whatever … back to one, two … and so on.
Advice varies as to how long to do this for. I’ve seen suggestions that starting with five minutes a day is enough. But of course you’d like to get better at it, as you practice – and, as with all practice, you’ll indeed get better and start to feel better and calmer.
More from the Mayo Clinic, about when and how often you should practice mindfulness exercises:
“It depends on what kind of mindfulness exercise you plan to do.
“Simple mindfulness exercises can be practiced anywhere and anytime. Research indicates that engaging your senses outdoors is especially beneficial.
“For more structured mindfulness exercises, such as body scan meditation or sitting meditation, you’ll need to set aside time when you can be in a quiet place without distractions or interruptions. You might choose to practice this type of exercise early in the morning before you begin your daily routine.
“Aim to practice mindfulness every day for about six months. Over time, you might find that mindfulness becomes effortless. Think of it as a commitment to reconnecting with and nurturing yourself.”
It’s not difficult to find famous people who say how much these exercises have helped them. As a sports fan, I found it particularly interesting to read that all the basketball teams coached by Phil Jackson practised mindfulness, and that Michael Jordan in particular found it a useful way to “stay in the moment.”
I’ll let you do your own research as to how to take the practice and benefits of mindfulness further.
And (it seems inevitable!) I’ll write a post on other forms of brain exercise.
Mindfulness is a form of brain exercise involving focused attention, and it helps to calm us down.
I have written about retirement planning before and some of that material also relates to topics or issues that are being discussed here. Where relevant I draw on material from three sources: The Retirement Plan Solution (co-authored with Bob Collie and Matt Smith, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009), my foreword to Someday Rich (by Timothy Noonan and Matt Smith, also published by Wiley, 2012), and my occasional column The Art of Investment in the FT Money supplement of The Financial Times, published in the UK. I am grateful to the other authors and to The Financial Times for permission to use the material here.