“If a person's basic state of mind is serene and calm, then it is possible for this inner peace to overwhelm a painful physical experience.”
- The Dalai Lama
“Nothing in the world can make you happy; everything in the world can encourage you to be happy”- Dr. Robert Holden (The Happiness Project)
Connecting with your body and mind
Numerous scientific studies have shown us that mindfulness can have a positive influence on general well being and that it can improve physical and psychological problems.
In our hectic modern western society it is easy to become disconnected from our bodies; from the messages which they send us. Signals that something is wrong, such as a headache or indigestion are often ignored,as we take the easy option of a Paracetamol tablet, or Antacid tablet. It may well take the pain away and it seems as if it has solved the problem, but often the underlying problem goes unresolved, as we busy on with our lives taking pills every now and then to control pain and discomfort. If we recognise this familiar pattern, then we are not listening to our body.
A simple method for becoming more connected with ones body is by doing a body scan. The body scan is used in Vippassana and Mindfulness meditation practice, as well as in Qi Gung. It was popularised by Jon Kabat-Zin, as one of the central parts of his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course. It involves lying down quietly and focusing your attention bit by bit on each individual part of the body whilst keeping the whole body still and relaxed, noticing any sensations in the area which you are focusing on, tension, pain, numbness or twitching for example and just observing this, without judging the feeling as bad or good, just feeling it, breathing into it and allowing the sensations to dissolve away as you breathe out, then moving on to the next area. If any thoughts come up, they too are just observed, as they come and go.
“The moving zone of your attention harvests tension and pain as it passes through various regions and carries them to the top of your head, where with the aid of your breathing, you allow them to discharge out of your body.”- Jon Kabat-Zin
At the end of the body scan it can feel as if the body has dropped away and you become your breath, flowing in and out.
This technique can help us to become more aware of tensions and pains (however subtle) in the body, as we begin to listen to what it is telling us. After practising this for a while, a new relationship with strong pain sensations can be formed and as a result, people are better able to cope with the pain, because they have learnt how to separate from and just observe the pain. After practising the body scan over a period of time, symptoms of illness can lessen and this brings a general feeling of well -being. This process is mindful awareness of the body, it is a form of meditation.
During mindful meditation we form a connection with the mind and the body, as we observe our thoughts coming and going, also observing any sensations, we are watching our mind as opposed to getting immersed in our emotions and thought processes. This allows us to form a more objective view of ourselves and what goes on in our minds and also how certain thoughts might produce sensations such as tension, or butterflies in the stomach, if you think about something you are worried about. This helps to strengthen the link between mind and body and our connection to both of them.
A sense of empowerment
“My greatest wealth is the deep stillness in which I strive and grow and win what the world cannot take from me with fire or sword.”
-Johan Wolfgang Von Gothe
We can use mindfulness as a means to take more of an active part in finding your own path to health and facing the difficulties that we may have in life. It helps us to listen to and be more actively connected to our bodies, it also helps to develop ways of working with our problems without solely relying on pills, which can leave the symptoms to escalate to a chronic and possibly more serious diagnosis, as often is the case.
Mindfulness and meditation can benefit social interactions and have a positive effect on close relationships.
A study based at the University of Carolina, USA showed that Mindfulness had a direct positive effect on relationships of relatively happy, non-distressed couples. It showed that the couples became more optimistic, more relaxed, had less psychological distress and grew in spiritual awareness. Those who practised mindfulness with greater intensity on certain days, showed increased levels of happiness, less stress and a greater ability to cope with stress on those particular days.
The study concluded that:
“Mindfulness was efficacious in enriching current relationship functioning and improving individual psychological well being across a wide range of measures.”
Over the last few decades western medicine has had a huge shift in its attitude to the mind and body. Thanks to the increasing amount of scientific studies on the subject, modern medicine is beginning to embrace the inter-connectedness of mind and body. British doctors now not only go on mindfulness courses to help them deal with the pressures of their job, but can also prescribe them for their patients.
Mindfulness practice has been shown to affect the amount of activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain which regulates emotions. When the amygdala is relaxed, the parasympathetic nervous system starts to do its job of counteracting the anxiety response and generally relaxing the body.
By meditating we can build new neural connections in the brain cells, this is like rewiring the brain. With each new neural connection the brain is learning, it is like adding more RAM to a computer. Through meditation we build up the left-prefrontal cortex and lengthen telomerase.
Findings from an in depth study into the effects of meditation called the Shamatha Project, show:
“That meditation may improve a person's psychological well-being and in turn these changes are related to telomerase activity in immune cells, which has the potential to improve longevity in those cells. Activities that increase a person's sense of well-being may have a profound effect on the most fundamental aspects of their physiology.”- Clifford Saron
Leading neuroscientist and author of The Mindful Brain, Daniel Siegel, said that one of the benefits of meditation is that it creates new neural networks for self-observation, optimism, well-being memory, attentiveness and empathy and decreases activity in areas controlling anxiety and nervous tension. As a result of this we can experience increased self awareness and as we begin to judge ourselves and other people less harshly, we will begin to experience more stable moods, generally feel a greater connection between body and mind and an improved sense of wellness in the body and mind. As a result of practice we will begin to feel happier in our relationships and in life in general.