To Think or Not to Think: Is that the question?
The Basics of Mindfulness and Meditation
Guest Post by Ashley Hughes
Ashley Hughes will host Nefeli Nine’s October 13-19 retreat in which mindfulness and meditation will be intertwined into the days activities. Hughes trained in mindfulness and meditation through Thrive Mind, a positive psychology group based in Cleveland OH, that helped save her life after trauma. She now works to integrate these practices into her yoga teachings to give students more options to connect mind, body and soul. She is RYT 200hr certified in Yoga Sculpt, Power Vinyasa and Yin/ Restorative. Currently based in Breckenridge, CO, she has taught 7000 classes around the world since 2014.
Mindfulness. Meditation. These are often words we hear, but don’t necessarily understand. Word on the street is mindfulness and meditation are good for us, but why?
Let me break it down.
First, the two are different.
Mindfulness in layman's terms is the act of asking “what is new?” in every moment.
Meditation? The focus of one thing.
Let’s dive into some details first as to how they work.
Mindfulness, or the act of asking what is new in every moment, is about the present moment. The goal is to be curious. Notice sounds, textures, colors, movement, vibrations, wind, temperature, that twitch in your left eye. Mindfulness can be achieved in a variety of ways.
One simple practice is to lie down on your back for one to two minutes. Close your eyes. What do you notice? Do you hear any sounds? How’s your breathing? What’s the temperature? How does the fabric of your clothes feel? What about the surface on which you laid down?
Another way is to stare at an object with wonderment. Like a shoe. Ask: Who invented the shoe? I wear shoes every day. That shoe is gray. There is a Nike Swoosh; I prefer adidas.
In mindfulness, the goal is grounding. WTF does ground mean? Have no fear; I felt the same way too. Being grounded just means you are in the present.
For example, if you are in a yoga class and the entire time your head is in your inbox, or your grocery list, or trying to remember where you parked your car, you are anywhere but present. If you come back to the breath, the pose, how your body feels - you are mindful and in the present moment.
Meditation. Meditation contrary to popular lies is not the force of making yourself think about things that are challenging or upsetting. In fact it’s the opposite. Meditation is like a bicep curl for your brain.
An easy way to practice? Pick an object and stare at it - your water bottle, a pen, a tomato - whatever you like and in contrast to mindfulness, rather than ask questions about that object - you stare at it. When your mind starts to drift, as it will, you go back to that object.
An example thought process:
Where did I put my keys, I put them in…
Wow I feel tired; work was really hard today, that Sally is…
Think of thoughts like weather. They are just clouds passing through the sky. As they pass you avoid spiraling on one thought and the thought has a lesser impact on your emotions.
If you’re wondering “what happens if I choose meditation, but find myself being mindful?” Ah well, you are a true guru and it is a beautiful thing when the two come together. However the two have different benefits.
Mindfulness is better for anxiety. Meditation is better for depression.
Because anxiety is all about future tripping; worry or anxiousness about something out of our control. Even Harry Potter couldn’t control the future, and neither can we. When you become grounded in the present by asking “What is?” rather than “What if?” it’s possible to realize things are less bad than we think.
Depression - what an evil little thing; it can weigh us down at a level that makes it hard to recognize our own self, but alas! There is hope without giving too much to Big Pharma: Meditation.
The last place most people feeling depression want to be is present. The present moment currently sucks. (sucks lemons, sorry mom). We miss the good ol’ days of the past and we are either afraid or can’t wait for the future. Yet, here we are, in this challenging moment. In depression, scary thoughts can happen. And oddly enough they are normal. A lot of people with depression, including myself, try to battle the thoughts, but the thoughts, based on the circumstances might be completely valid. However, meditation teaches us our thoughts do not control us. Our brains have the power to change the experience. Like a bicep curl, we focus on one thing, a thought comes in (arm extends away from body with weight), we realize our thought has drifted, we curl the mind back in.
Now these terms may be trendy, or maybe ancient concepts are scary- so for the skeptics there is this little thing Bill Nye likes to call “Science”!
Science is cool!
In the brain there are two major regions that control reactions. Gray matter aka the frontal cortex and Amy - scientifically known as the amygdala- for the sake of pronunciation let’s just call her Amy.
Amy is the part of the brain that tells us how to react. But before she has her say - the experience passes through the eyes, or the nose, through the gray matter and gets to Amy.
The less gray matter, the less time to process and this my friend is why sometimes people speak before they think, or react before processing.
Mindfulness and meditation is proven to increase gray matter which gives the brain and body a moment to process, then choose the appropriate response.
For example - Joe has very little gray matter. He is driving down the 405 in LA and is cut off. His immediate reaction is a lot of profanity, lay on the horn, flip the bird and road rage the person in front of him that made a poor decision. Joe’s adrenaline is pumping, and for the rest of the day he is on edge.
Kate is driving on 495 towards NYC (brave soul), when a driver cuts her off. Kate regularly practices meditation. She is relaxed when it happens and thinks: “That was rude, I hope you get wherever you need to go safely.” She is unphased and spends the rest of her day listening to podcasts on her way to NYC.
The cool thing about both practices is that it only takes one to two minutes/day to increase gray matter. Both options help the mind and body tune in so that we can properly take care of ourselves. If you practice mindfulness on your body and body scan, you may notice: “Wow, my quads and IT bands are tight. I had that 10 mile run planned today. I think it’s best I do yoga and foam roll today, and beat the pavement tomorrow.”
Both are simple concepts, but can be weird to start on your own, which is why I am excited to integrate mindfulness and meditation into my retreat with Nefeli Nine this October 13-19. By the end of the week, my goal is that everyone will have an easy 5-10 minute mindfulness/meditation ritual to take home.