I read an article about a patient with panic attacks, who was told to react to his own panic with as little frenzy as possible. This easy explanation was what triggered my eureka moment. It made me understand the basic principle of mindfulness - that I don't have to be a slave to my own mind. Even if I already feel anxious, and the urge is telling me to panic, I don't have to. I can react to myself with peace and kindness.
This was my very first encounter with mindfulness. I haven't stopped practicing it since. And the effects it had on my life are immeasurable.
I started reading books from Thich Nhat Hanh and other Zen masters, and my understanding of mindfulness grew even larger. My mind was eased by the realization that what I was doing was actually an already established method, and not just something I invented on my own.
It's been about 3 years since I started this practice of meditation and mindful living. The changes that I went through were gradual, but large. I now know myself so well, and it actually amazes me how little I knew about myself in the past - so little that I actually made myself anxious every single day. I'm happy to live in harmony with my own self now.
I realized that our anxieties do not stem from our external circumstances (although we love to think that) - they stem from our own disharmony and lack of understanding towards ourselves.
First, I would like to share with you what I do on a day-to-day basis to practice mindfulness, and then the results I've noticed and researchers have documented.
How I practice mindfulness every day:
Obviously, I meditate every day. I used to meditate about an hour every day when I started and was just beginning to understand my mind. Nowadays I meditate less, because I have cultivated other practices that allow me practice mindfulness throughout the whole day.
I think it's more important to try being mindful moment-to-moment than to sit down for a short period of time every day and live the rest of our day without being mindful.
I realized that you don't necessarily have to sit down, close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing to train your mind and practice mindfulness. The real challenge and real growth lies in trying to be mindful when our eyes are open and we are living our lives.
What I do:
1. I try to always ground myself in the present moment. Whatever I'm doing, I try giving it my full attention. When my mind wanders, I bring it back to the present moment. The future is only a fantasy, and the past is ghost. Only the present is what is.
2. When I'm with somebody, I listen. I'm not there to be some kind of function or role, but to give my full attention and understanding to that other human being. I always aim not to think about replies while the other person is speaking, but to listen and then respond when they have finished. Not as an image I want to seem like, but as a fellow human being. Also, I try not to be affected by their behavior if it happens to be hurtful. How they act has nothing to do with me. Understanding and compassion makes that clear.
3. I notice my surroundings. When I'm outside, I'm aware of my environment. I'm aware how these tall buildings were built by the hard work of my human brothers and sisters long ago. I notice the hard work the trees are doing every day to become lively green, how the wind caresses my face with such gentle flow, and how that delicious food I have the privilege of eating was grown by Mother Earth and the hard-working hands of the farmers. I see all the beautiful effort of the world around me, and I'm grateful.
4. Wherever I go, I know that I'm home. I used to be scared of going outside. Now, I love going anywhere, because I've realized that peace is not in my surroundings - it's inside me, and I can always reach for it, anytime, anywhere.
5. I react with peace. I'm not perfect, and there are still plenty of times when feelings like anger, sadness or anxiety arise in me. I've learned that this is not a problem, since I am a human being, and these emotions are a natural part of human existence. What matters is how we react to them. And I always choose to react to them with peace and understanding, because I know that nothing is permanent, these feelings will pass as well on their own time. As long as they decide to stay, I welcome them with kindness.
6. I allow life to flow. Painful events happen to everyone, and uncomfortable feelings arise in all of us. But like the Buddha said, pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. We can always choose to react to what is happening to us with peace and understanding. I allow life to flow as it might and surrender to what is.
7. I know thoughts are just thoughts. Perhaps the most important aspect of mindfulness. Our thoughts are not reality. What we think about the world, our judgments, their all just perceptions, not reality. What we think about ourselves - the same. Thoughts don't define us - how we choose to act despite of them does.
Altogether, these are more than enough to keep us mindful all day, every day. Meditation is amazing, and I still practice it every day, but mindful living is just as important in my opinion. Meditation makes living our days mindfully easier.
The effects of mindfulness on the brain:
I read a lot of articles about neuroscience, and I've recently read one about meditation's effects on the brain. Scientists from Harvard concluded that meditation actually changes the brain. The grey matter density of those who practice mindfulness meditation majorly increases in the posterior cingulate, the left hippocampus and the temporo parietal junction - these parts of the brain are associated with mind-wandering, self-relevance, learning, cognition, memory, emotional regulation, perspective-taking, empathy and compassion. That's not all: the grey matter density decreases in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with anxiety, fear and stress.
I don't know how my brain changed these past few years, but I definitely feel different, and I've noticed that the default reactions of my mind have also changed. Where my default reaction used to be anxiety and fear is now peace and understanding. I think that practicing reacting peacefully gradually overwrote my default fearful reaction to many things.
I can only speak from my own experience, but mindfulness has changed me from being crippled by my own mind to living a free and peaceful life in harmony with myself instead of at war with it. Living mindfully cannot do you any harm, but it might just change your life (and brain) for the better.
“In mindfulness one is not only restful and happy, but alert and awake. Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.” - Thich Nhat Hanh