Mindfulness Mentor: Tips for Living a Happier Life

Lewis University’s Arts & Ideas program is hosting what is referred to as the “Happiness Series” throughout the course of the 2017 fall semester. The series includes numerous presentations from faculty and staff that offer helpful tips in regards to mindfulness, writing and the arts, and happiness.

I attended the “Cultivating Happiness through Mindfulness and Writing I” presentation that was held late last month. This presentation highlighted the benefits of practicing mindfulness and its intersectionality with writing, as well as how the conjunction of both can cultivate and restore happiness into one’s everyday life.

The human mind has been conditioned and hard wired to focus on events that are forthcoming. We are always thinking about what’s next, whether it’s the D.N.A. assignment to be completed for biology class that’s due a week from now, the 2% milk you have to pick up from the farmer’s market on the way home, or planning for your child’s little league soccer tournament for this upcoming weekend. Our minds are always fixating on the future; thus it is quite easy to slip into “auto-pilot” mode. An experience that many have encountered that can best describe this is in the example of a drive home from a long day at work or school, when we often pull into the driveways or garages of our homes and wonder, “how did I get home?” Or, “I don’t even remember driving home!”

Then you have to recall whether or not you stopped at all the red lights or stop signs, and it seems to be a miracle you made it to your destination safely. When this happens, we are experiencing that auto-pilot mode, simply because our minds are thinking about our endless to-do list of chores or tasks we still have to accomplish, which distracts us from being fully present in the moment. These distractions can certainly have many consequences; the biggest being the idea that life is passing us by as we are consumed by never-ending lists.

However, by practicing mindfulness, we are able to redirect our thoughts, which brings us back to the “here and now.” Author Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the book Wherever You Go, There You Are, makes a remark and proposes that, “Mostly we run around doing. Are you able come to a stop in your life, even for one moment? Could it be this moment? What would happen if you did? A good way to stop all the doing is to shift into the ‘being mode’ for a moment. Think of yourself as an eternal witness, as timeless. Just watch this moment, without trying to change it at all. What is happening? What do you feel? What do you see? What do you hear? The funny thing about stopping is that as soon as you do it, here you are. Things get simpler,” (Kabat-Zinn 11).

If it’s true that things get simpler if we slow down and attend to the current moment, then we might save a lot of work for ourselves on the back-end. Maybe you don’t have to reply to that email, or schedule that appointment, or run that quick errand. Kabat-Zinn refers to this as “making time for the present moment;” something we so rarely do. We don’t typically stop and take a minute, but Kabat-Zin suggests, “The stopping actually makes the going more vivid, richer, more textured. It helps keep all the things we worry about and feel inadequate about in perspective. It gives us guidance,” (12). So, just stop — There’s nothing lifeless about it.

Mindfulness can be practiced in a variety of ways, but the main idea is to focus on relaxing your mind and concentrating on your body and breathing. During the presentation, the audience was invited to engage in a mindfulness practice, which involved closing your eyes, finding a comfortable seat or position, relaxing your posture, and drawing attention to your breath.

I found that focusing on breathing was essential to reaching a relaxation state, because during the day when we are consumed with responsibilities, we often pay no attention to breathing. Breathing becomes something that is an involuntary and instinctual mechanism in order to survive, but the breaths are ones that are short and limit the oxygen supply that is carried to the body. However, while meditating, one is able to focus on taking deep, full breaths, allowing the lungs to expand and fill with a large supply of oxygen. Besides breathing, one is supposed to think about the moment they are in, the chair beneath their seat, the floor beneath their feet, and their chest rising and falling with every breath. The practice gives the mind something to focus on, instead of getting caught in a steady stream of thought. Rather, one can let thoughts come and go with ease.

There are many key benefits to practicing mindfulness and meditation. Some benefits include: regulation of emotions, cultivating passion/compassion, and remaining calm and relaxed. If your emotions are regulated, then you can prevent acting out without thinking, which would allow you to make better choices. Mindfulness helps us to slow down and enjoy the moments we are in, which enriches passion and compassion into our work with others around us. Lastly, when we are calm and relaxed, we are less likely to become stressed out, and our nervous system is slowed down. Although mindfulness has many more benefits, these three are probably the most essential.

These benefits have been the outcomes and findings of many evidence-based practices that have found that mindfulness decreases stress and anxiety, increases attention, improves interpersonal relationships, strengthens compassion, and confers a host of other benefits. Mindfulness is associated with emotion regulation across a number of studies. Mindfulness creates changes in the brain that correspond to less reactivity and the ability to better engage tasks, even when emotions are activated.

The amygdala is the part in the brain that is aroused when detecting and reacting to emotions, especially difficult or strong emotions such as fear. When these intense emotions are experienced, the amygdala goes into “fight or flight” mode. This defense mechanism is characterized by the release of stress hormones that flood the body and create this “freeze mode.” A domino-effect occurs as the hippocampus — which controls learning, memory and recall as well as helps regulate the amygdala — is negatively impacted. However, research shows that the amygdala is less activated and has less gray matter density after mindfulness training, whereas the hippocampus has more gray matter density.

Furthermore, studies have found that people who were assigned to mindfulness training are more likely to help someone in need and have greater self-compassion. Others have presented that it even reduces feelings of stress when placed into stressful social situations. Lastly, there’s the pre-frontal cortex — the part of the brain most associated with maturity, higher-order thinking, including regulation of emotions, behaviors, and making wise choices — which becomes more active after mindfulness training.

While at the mindfulness presentation, the speakers made note of “positive psychology,” which shifts the maladaptive psychological lens to “the value of the healthy minds.” One of the philosophies is that fulfilling desires leads to happiness. As an outcome, the presenters invited the audience to write a list (yes, another list!) about our desires. After writing a lengthy list of desires (e.g. marriage, romance, vacations to Florida, an Australian Shepard, two kids, etc.), we were encouraged to write where these desires were stemming from, whether they be from “inside you” or “outside you” (i.e. social media, others, etc.).

This exercise demonstrates how writing can bring thought to mind, and how mindfulness and writing work together in conjunction. After completing this application, I could put my desires into a broader context and figure out where they are stemming from and where they’re rooted to. I was able to get more introspection on whether I truly desired the things on my list, or if they were the product of outside expectations and constraints.

This led the audience to free writing about one of their desires, and we were instructed to pay attention to what was going on at a physiological level with our emotions. For example: smiling, a flutter in your stomach, a shiver down your spine, or goosebumps on your arm. During the free write, we were instructed to worry less about grammatical errors, spelling, and format as to simply be free in writing. Writing is a process, much like thoughts. By putting my thoughts down on a page, I was able to become more aware of my own habitual thought process and how that is tied to emotions. The simple act of putting pen to paper formed much clarity on what’s going on in my head. After doing so, I felt more light, liberated, and relaxed.

— Andrea Holm, Mindfulness Mentor

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