From the time we are in school, we are taught to prepare for the future. But now as an adult, I get a lot of anxiety thinking about the future. I’ve spent so much time dreaming about it that I forget to appreciate my life in the present.
Do you dislike when you’re spending time with someone and they pay more attention to their phone than they do you? It’s one of my pet peeves. Thus, I’ve made it a point to spend less time on my phone this year.
By spending less time on my phone, it’s allowed me to see more of the beauty in the world. I’ve seen more sunrises and sunsets, quirky dogs sitting in cars, and peaceful places to sit and meditate. I’ve also been able to have more conversations with the people around me.
I feel like we ignore each other too much. We prefer our relationships to be virtual, as it’s an easier interaction. There is an unlimited amount of gratification our phones give us, but connecting with another human being in person is a singular and beautiful experience that should not be taken for granted. It’s no wonder we often feel disconnected from each other.
If you’re addicted to your phone, start by putting it down just for a few moments. When you’re in line at a restaurant or at the supermarket, observe who and what is around you. Compliment somebody. See if someone is having a hard time and ask them if they are okay. Just one act of kindness can change somebody’s life.
When you take a walk or a car/train/bus ride, count how many kinds of trees or flowers you can see. What type of clouds are in the sky? What sounds do you hear? Are there birds singing? Are there children laughing? Try to notice these things.
I love to think about the future; it’s fun to imagine and plan. But it’s not okay to obsess about the future so much it stresses you out and you’re afraid to climb out of bed. If this happens to you and you have an anxiety attack like I do sometimes, just acknowledge the attack is happening. Be fully present. Before you know it, the anxiety will be gone and you can take the next step forward.
The brain is the most complex, and arguably the most important, part of the human body, and yet, it is something that most people know very little about. To get a better understanding of how meditation affects the brain, we’ll first want to understand the basics of the brain itself.
What is the Brain?
The brain is a three-pound organ that is the seat of the intellect, the interpreter of the senses, the initiator of body movement, and the controller of our behavior. The brain resides within the cavity of the skull, and is immersed in a protective fluid called Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF).
The Three Parts of the Brain
The brain can be divided into three basic units, all of which work together synergistically: the forebrain, the midbrain, and the hindbrain.
The hindbrain includes the upper part of the spinal cord, the brain stem, and a wrinkled ball of tissue called the cerebellum. The hindbrain controls the body’s vital functions such as digestion, respiration and heart rate. The cerebellum coordinates movement and is involved in learned habitual movements.
The uppermost part of the brainstem is the midbrain, which controls some reflex actions and is part of the circuit involved in the control of eye movements and other voluntary movements.
The forebrain is the largest and most highly developed part of the human brain: it consists primarily of the cerebrum and the structures hidden beneath it. The cerebrum sits at the topmost part of the brain and is the source of intellectual activities. It holds your memories, allows you to plan, enables you to imagine and think and allows you to recognize familiar faces, read books, and solve puzzles.
The cerebrum is structurally composed of an outer layer of gray matter, called the cerebral cortex, and a centrally located white matter.
The Two Halves of the Cerebrum
The cerebrum is split into two halves (hemispheres) by a deep fissure. Despite this split, the two hemispheres of the cerebrum communicate with each other through a thick tract of nerve fibers that lies at the base of this fissure, called the corpus callosum.
Although the two hemispheres appear to be mirror images of each other, they are actually quite different. For instance, the ability to form words seems to lie primarily in the left hemisphere, while the right hemisphere seems to control many abstract reasoning skills.
For reasons that are still not fully understood, nearly all of the signals from the brain to the body and vice-versa cross over on their way to and from the brain—meaning that the left cerebral hemisphere primarily controls the right side of the body and the right hemisphere primarily controls the left side. When one side of the brain is damaged, the opposite side of the body is affected. For example, a stroke in the left hemisphere of the brain can leave the right arm and right leg paralyzed.
The Four Lobes of the Brain
Traditionally, each of the hemispheres of the brain have been divided into four lobes: frontal, parietal, temporal and occipital.
Most brain functions rely on many different regions across the entire brain working in conjunction, however, it is also true that each lobe carries out the bulk of certain functions in the brain.
The lobes of the brain are divided by a number of bumps and grooves, known as gyri (bumps) and sulci (groves or fissures). The folding of the brain, and the resulting gyri and sulci, increases its surface area and enables more cerebral cortex matter to fit inside the skull.
The frontal lobe is separated from the parietal lobe by a space called the central sulcus, and from the temporal lobe by the lateral sulcus. The frontal lobe is generally where higher executive functions including emotional regulation, planning, reasoning and problem solving occur.
The parietal lobe is behind the frontal lobe, separated by the central sulcus. Areas in the parietal lobe are responsible for integrating sensory information, including touch, temperature, pressure and pain.
Separated from the frontal lobe by the lateral fissure, the temporal lobe also contains regions dedicated to processing sensory information, particularly important for hearing, recognizing language, and forming memories.
The occipital lobe is the major visual processing center in the brain. The primary visual cortex, also known as V1, receives visual information from the eyes. This information is relayed to several secondary visual processing areas, which interpret depth, distance, location and the identity of seen objects.
Isn’t it fascinating that all of these different areas of the brain are working together, even now as you read these words?
The Inner Brain
Deep within the brain, hidden from view, lie structures that are the gatekeepers between the spinal cord and the cerebral hemispheres. These structures play key roles in our emotional state, modify our perceptions and responses depending on that state, and allow us to initiate movements that are made spontaneously without thinking about them. Just like the lobes in the cerebral hemispheres, the structures of the inner brain are each duplicated in the opposite half of the brain.
The hypothalamus, about the size of a pearl, directs a multitude of important functions. It wakes you up in the morning, gets adrenaline flowing when it is needed, and is an important emotional center that helps to control the molecules that make you feel energized, irritated, or unhappy.
Near the hypothalamus lies the thalamus, a major clearinghouse for information going to and from the spinal cord and the cerebrum.
An arching tract of nerve cells leads from the hypothalamus and the thalamus to the hippocampus. This tiny nub acts as a memory indexer—sending memories out to the appropriate part of the cerebral hemisphere for long-term storage and retrieving them when necessary.
The basal ganglia (not pictured) are clusters of nerve cells surrounding the thalamus. They are responsible for initiating and integrating movements. Parkinson’s disease, which results in tremors, rigidity, and a stiff, shuffling walk, is a disease of nerve cells that lead into the basal ganglia.
The Default Mode Network (DMN)
You may have heard of the default mode network before, but if you haven’t, this is an extremely relevant topic for meditation practice. The DMN is a network of interacting brain regions that are essentially what are responsible for what you sense as the voice in your mind (you know, the voice that says, “I look kind of fat in this shirt” “that was a stupid thing to say” “I’m bored” “what should I have for dinner tonight?”)
The DMN consists of the brain regions of the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and the inferior parietal lobule, all of which are important for our survival. This network is most active when we are awake, when we are thinking about ourselves, remembering the past, imagining the future, or anything that involves not being relaxed and attentive to what’s happening right now.
The DMN is useful because it’s involved in our memory, particularly in the daily memories that play a role in helping us make a model of the world, and predict the future based on past events. The problem is, however, the models we create may not always be true, and sometimes we get stuck in these mental models and it makes it difficult to see anything other than the image our mind has created.
Another common issue, is that people unknowingly identify with the voice in the mind, as well as the models that the DMN has created for themselves, and don’t realize that this is actually a process of the brain, one that is now measurable by magnetic resonance imaging.
Essentially, the DMN is what many people refer to as the ego, or the monkey mind. It is the inner voice inside the mind, the one dialoguing all of our thoughts and creating our mental stories. The constant stream of thoughts that just won’t turn off sometimes.
The DMN is an essential part of the brain, but it is also a great source of psychological stress. The DMN easily leads to a wandering mind and distracts us from being present to life. Instead, we are consumed by thoughts of the past or future, planning, fantasizing, imagining, reflecting, memorizing, regretting and so on.
University of Berkley researcher Matt Killingsworth conducted a study, observing people’s levels of happiness throughout the day. What he found, and what many other research studies have concluded, is that people become less happy when they let their minds wander.
When we let our minds wander, and spend significant amounts of time lost in thought, it leaves at the mercy of whatever our thoughts are—and often many of us have rather fearful, negative, and limiting thoughts.
These thoughts are not actually reality, but are our DMN’s best attempt at interpreting or creating a model for reality. Unfortunately, many of us, mistake the model for the real thing, and become stressed out, anxious, or depressed because of the voice in our heads.
Thankfully, there are times when we are free of that voice. In particular, when we are doing something active, something we enjoy, or something that engages our attention enough to quiet the mind. In these moments, we feel most alive. This is when we are in a state of flow.
The flow-state is essentially a state of presence, or present-moment awareness, and this is what meditation helps us accomplish. Meditation helps us become more present to life, so we can actually be oriented to life from this flow state, rather than being dominated by the DMN and the voice inside our heads.
Meditation’s Effect on the Default Mode Network
Several studies have been done on meditation and its effect on the default mode network. One such study was published in the National Academy of Sciences Journal and states “We investigated brain activity in experienced meditators and matched meditation-naive controls as they performed several different meditations (Concentration, Loving-Kindness, Choiceless Awareness). We found that the main nodes of the default-mode network (medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices) were relatively deactivated in experienced meditators across all meditation types. Furthermore, functional connectivity analysis revealed stronger coupling in experienced meditators between the posterior cingulate, dorsal anterior cingulate, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices (regions previously implicated in self-monitoring and cognitive control), both at baseline and during meditation. Our findings demonstrate differences in the default-mode network that are consistent with decreased mind-wandering. As such, these provide a unique understanding of possible neural mechanisms of meditation.”
In numerous studies, it has been shown that meditation, in as little as 20 minutes, can significantly reduce activity in the DMN and quiet the voice in the mind, allowing meditators to achieve a state of presence and flow.
For thousands of years meditators and spiritual traditions have talked about the importance of living in the present moment, and the misery that is caused by the mind and its untamed, restless thinking. Now, we have scientific research that can back up these claims, and shows that people do in fact experience less happiness when they are at the mercy of their restless mind, and that they can train the mind to quiet the inner voice, and open awareness to the reality of life in the present moment.
Meditation Changes the Brain
While the quieting down of the inner voice and the reduced activity in the DMN are significant brain changes that occur in meditation, they are not at all the only changes that occur in the brain.
One Harvard study found that when people went through 8 weeks of meditation, critical areas of the brain that associate with awareness, stress, and empathy changed. They grew new grey matter in their cerebral cortex, which connects to attention and emotional integration. The participants in the study all gained more control over their emotions and even impulse control became better.
What Happens in Your Brain When You Meditate
Using modern technology like fMRI scans, scientists have developed a more thorough understanding of what’s taking place in our brains when we meditate. The overall difference is that our brains stop processing information as actively as they normally would. We start to show a decrease in beta waves, which indicate that our brains are processing information. This decrease can happen in as little as 20-minutes, even if we’ve never tried meditation before.
The frontal cortex tends to go offline.
Activity in the parietal lobe slows down.
The flow of incoming information into the thalamus is reduced significantly.
Brainwaves slow down considerably.
The default mode network becomes less active.
The gray matter of the brain is transformed, allowing for new neural pathways to be formed.
In the image here you can see an MRI scan of how the beta waves (shown in bright colors on the left) are dramatically reduced during meditation (as seen on the right).
Our brain develops and adapts throughout our entire lives. This phenomenon, called neuroplasticity, means that gray matter can thicken or shrink, connections between neurons can be improved, new connections can be created, and old connections can be degraded or even terminated.
It was long believed that once your “child brain” was fully developed, the only thing you could anticipate for the future was a gradual decline in intelligence. Now we know that our everyday behaviors literally change our brains, and it appears that the same mechanisms which allow our brains to learn new languages or sports can help us learn how to be happy and to experience more joy in our daily lives.
The brain is truly a fascinating organ, and the more we understand it, the better we can work with it to shape our lives in a positive way. Meditation is a powerful tool for improving your brain’s health and overall functioning.
To develop self-trust, stop seeking the opinions of others and recognize the guidance within you.
Self-trust is harnessed when we follow our sacred wisdom instead of looking outside ourselves to provide inner peace.
We develop self-trust by honoring our emotions instead of hiding behind them. As you honor your feelings, you develop trust in your capacity to deal with what arises.
Equally, we must distance ourselves from people who undermine our self-trust. Some people push your pain buttons because it pleases them to see you suffer. Whilst they can help us to identify our disowned parts, we are better to distance ourselves from them rather than become embroiled in their deceitful ways.
Self-trust is developed by nurturing our innermost thoughts. Whilst we cannot control external circumstances, we become curious to what is going on inside us instead of retaliate in anger.
“As we learn to recognize and understand the body’s subtle sensations, and then act on them, our self-trust will grow tremendously. To me it is rather amazing that the body has this innate sense of the truth, as if the body is hardwired for it,” states psychotherapist John Prendergast Ph.D.
The subtleties of the human body point to what is going on beneath the surface, so we become attuned to the minor fluctuations and our true needs.
2. Follow the Inner Guidance
It’s vital we honor our commitment to ourselves, whether it be in the goals we set or pursuing our dreams. To dishonor them diminishes our self-trust because we fail to follow through on our plans.
Fostering self-trust involves developing a compassionate dialogue with ourselves. In times of turmoil, we should cultivate compassionate thoughts rather than be ruled by the unfolding drama. We plant the seed of equanimity and nurture it with kindness so it grows strong.
Self-trust arises when we make time to honor the child within us. This means devoting time to be with ourselves, instead of declaring how busy we are, in the midst of craving emotional compassion.
John Prendergast states, “As we learn to slow down, tune in to our inner guidance, and act on it, our self-trust grows. We increasingly get the feel for when something resonates as being true or false for us, in or out of accord. This sense of inner resonance becomes our inner authority.”
Our inner authority is the pillar of a stable emotional life. We take the time to connect with our emotional wellbeing and attend to any disturbances that show up.
3. Understand the Power of Silence
How do you recognize when you need time alone?
Whenever you notice internal unrest, it is a call to spend time in silence to examine the emotions.
It is no surprise our lives are hectic. We are more likely to pay attention to external events instead of meet our personal needs. We spend our waking life fixed on the world “out there” instead of within. Yet, if we continue down this path we neglect our inner life, which influences how we relate to the world.
“How am I doing?”
This simple question allows us to distinguish what is going on inside us, instead of dismissing the emotional disturbances as unjustified.
“Trust yourself. Create the kind of self that you will be happy to live with all your life. Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.” — Golda Meir
Eckhart Tolle states that whenever emotional chaos is apparent, we invite an earlier Pain-Body experience into the present moment. This is obvious when others trigger our Pain-Body, such as being cut off in traffic or someone taking our line in the queue whilst shopping.
If we don’t take the time to examine what is going on beneath the surface, we react instead of interact with our core emotions.
“Most of us have not tried just sitting in and through a feeling experience. We have not trusted ourselves enough to let our feelings take their full course. So we never find out that a feeling is not so tough on us as we imagine it will be. We miss out on how much better we feel when we let go instead of hold back. Nothing is so hard to handle as the fear of facing it,” affirms author David Richo.
Building self-trust does not mean we will always say or do the right thing. Irrespective of our words or actions, whatever arises is there to guide our personal evolution.
4. Develop Mindfulness
A well-known practice for developing self-trust is to be mindful of your body moments before you react to external events. So, with someone taking your place in the shopping queue, move into your body and note any tension or tightness. Become curious toward these sensations and observe them non-judgmentally.
For example, you might be aware of a constricting sensation in your chest moments before retaliating with the person who took your place in the queue at the supermarket.
Be with the emotion and simply notice it without an agenda. Silently repeat the phrase, “I’m aware of you” or as Daniel Goleman suggests, label the emotion. So we affirm to ourselves, anger or fear instead of act on it.
This simple action puts the brakes on deferring our emotions and draws our awareness to what is going on inside us.
In this way we become aware and awake, instead of unconscious to the emotional drivers in our life.
We develop self-trust by honoring every facet of our being irrespective of whether we approve or disapprove of that part of us.
For example, those with a diminished self-esteem might criticize themselves for reacting angrily to a situation. In contrast, those with an empowered self-esteem see it as an opportunity to become inquisitive and a teaching point from which to grow.
5. Work On Heart-Centered Awareness
To develop self-trust is to listen to our heart’s guidance, rather than be dictated by the incessant thoughts.
Our thoughts are saboteurs since they cannot be trusted. Given their volatility from moment to moment, we cannot rely on them to make sense of our environment.
For example, at the end of a working day your thoughts are scattered, while mid-morning after you’ve had a cup of coffee they’re less likely to be reactive.
However, the heart is not influenced by fluctuating mood changes. There is a stillness that longs for you to connect with, even during your darkest hour. Practice moving your awareness into your heart in the midst of the commotion and observe the silence.
Be with the sensations that arise and meet them with openness. You’ll soon realize the habitual and stressful thoughts melt away, leaving a sea of expansiveness that permeates your mind and body.
Self-trust is an invitation to develop a relationship with your core self. We learn to become our own best friend and appreciate the interplay between our thoughts and emotions, instead of remaining unconscious to them.
In doing so, we learn to trust the guidance from our deepest wisdom.
Ultimately, if we continue to place our trust in others’ opinions, we will disengage from our sense of authority and diminish our self-confidence over time.
Meditation comes with many benefits including boosting mood, increasing energy, and tempering stress. And this practice is truly for everyone—even those of us who think we can’t sit still. All you need is a little instruction on how to train your brain, and before you know it, you’ll be harnessing the power of your mind and improving your life. Here are 10 easy tips to start meditating right now and maintain a daily practice:
We tend to make meditation more complicated and challenging than necessary. Take it easy. Start by taking a comfortable seat. If you’re flexible, sit cross-legged on the floor, on a meditation cushion, or blanket—with your knees resting slightly below your hips. If you’re not, sit in a chair with your feet on the floor.
2. Make it a ritual.
Set a clearly designated space for meditation. It can be as simple as a thoughtfully placed candle (candles can also help with dropping into meditation) picture, or crystal. You’ll also want to practice at the same time every day. Start with the same protocol for each meditation.
3. Sit tall.
Posture 101: Sit up nice and tall by straightening your spine. Sit in a chair or against a wall if you need to. Lengthening the spine can help increase your circulation and keep you alert.
4. Start small.
Start where you are. If 10 minutes seems overwhelming, begin with five. After a week, begin to add one minute to your practice each week until you build up to 30 minutes (or more) at a time.
5. Be niceto yourself (really nice!).
As renowned meditation teacher Sally Kempton says, “Meditation is relationship.” Ultimately, it’s all about your relationship to yourself. The way you do anything is the way you do everything. Meditation teaches us radical acceptance, compassion, and unconditional love. Be sweet to your convoluted mind. Surrender to exactly who you are and what is happening—right here, right now. And don’t forget to smile!
6. Note your excuses.
Meditation is a practice of self-inquiry. Observe the excuses you tell yourself—I’m too tired, or I don’t have time. Notice how your mind can tend to rationalize when you break your commitment. Just observe and understand without judgment. Then recommit to your practice without making excuses.
7. Find a meditation buddy.
Accountability is the answer to your excuses. Find a buddy to commit to meditating with. Find a friend who is also beginning to meditate, or join a Facebook group or online course. Your struggle is normal…but it will get easier.
8. Practice makes perfect.
As the Ashtanga guru Patthabi Jois says, “Practice. Practice. Practice. All is coming.” Think of meditation as bicep curls for the muscle of your mind. You are training your brain to focus, concentrate, and let go. Over time, with consistency, it will become easier to drop into.
9. Just breathe.
Our mind is addicted to analyzing the past or projecting into the future, but the breath is only in the here and now. Focus on your breath to anchor the mind into the present moment.
10. Start a meditation journal.
End your practice each day by observing how you feel. What is happening in your body? What is your emotional state? Make note of any changes so they register in your body and conscious mind. The next time you feel resistance to meditation, flip through the notes you made in your journal to remind yourself of its benefits. This will help you stay motivated and committed.
I’ve been thinking about mindfulness quite a bit. I’ve been thinking about what it fully means to be a mindful person. I’ve been connecting the dots on the type of self-awareness it takes to truly be in a mindful state.
So what does it take for us to achieve that sort of self-compassion? For me, it’s finally starting to accept the things I view as weaknesses and turning them into my strengths. I have been told my entire life that I am “too nice” by various people. I have always looked at my overly empathetic, compassionate, and kind nature as a weakness and something for people to take advantage of. And they have. To be frank, I have bashed myself numerous times and have said how much I wish I didn’t feel these emotions.
However, in my adult life so far, I have realized just how necessary empathy, compassion, and kindness are. If I have these compassionate feelings towards everyone else, why don’t I have them towards myself? If anything, empathy, compassion, and kindness are the very things that connect all of us. They’re the very reason we experience love and friendship.
From my experience, being truly mindful is about having enough self-compassion to know that the things you may view as your weaknesses are actually your biggest asset. That sort of self-compassion can help ground you in the present moment instead of telling yourself you are behind on the “timeline.” Every morning, I wake up, look in the mirror, and say, “I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.” The fact of the matter is, what is this “timeline” we have all put ourselves on? Shouldn’t our happiness be the indicator of our success? Why do I have this overwhelming feeling that by age 30 I need to have found my dream job and be married to my soulmate? All I wish to focus on is having a good time. A fun time. So shouldn’t empathy, compassion, and kindness be what humanizes all of us?
No one has any answers on their future. From what I’ve gathered, it seems as if most of us are just trying to survive and maybe be a bit less freaked out than we were yesterday. Some of us are trying to just find contentment with where we are in life. Contentment can be the very thing that balances what we view as our inadequacies. With finding contentment, maybe we’ll be less concerned about what happens tomorrow and more okay with wherever today takes us. Today, the things I have previously viewed as my weaknesses are now my strengths. I am just now learning to embrace my empathy, compassion, and kindness. I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. You are exactly where you’re supposed to be.