By Hugh Byrne, Insight Meditation Senior Teacher
We live in a culture that is increasingly fast-paced with numerous competing demands on our time, energy, and attention. These external pressures can be compounded by our internal drives—to achieve, be successful, and meet all our responsibilities. It is very easy for the demands of work, family, health, and finances to lead to a build-up of stress, worry, and anxiety that can have serious effects on our health.
Seventy-five to 90% of all doctor's office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints, according to a recent estimate. Stress can play a part in problems such as headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, arthritis, depression, and anxiety. One of the most effective ways of dealing with stress is through meditation and the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness involves bringing a kind and non-judging awareness to our experience, just as it is, moment by moment. Mindfulness allows us to pause between a stimulus and our reaction to it. As Victor Frankl noted, “Between the stimulus and the response, there is a pause, and in that pause lies our power and our freedom.”
Mindfulness has been shown to provide significant physical, mental and emotional health benefits, including:
- lowering susceptibility to colds and flu;
- lessening the intensity and unpleasantness of physical pain;
- lowering blood pressure;
- improving focus and concentration;
- slowing the progression of the HIV virus;
- changing the structure of the brain in just eight weeks of practice, increasing gray-matter density in areas linked to self-awareness and introspection and lowering density in areas associated with stress and anxiety.
Here are some tips for using mindfulness to help find peace and well-being even in the midst of a busy work day:
- Begin the day with 5-10 minutes of silent meditation: Set a timer for the length of time you wish to sit. Sit in a relaxed and alert way. Allow your eyes to gently close. Let your attention come inward. Feel your body in contact with the surface beneath you. Scan your body and see if you can relax and soften areas of tension. Let your awareness come to your breath—feel the sensations of the breath entering the nostrils, your chest and belly expanding and contracting with the in-breath and out-breath, and the feeling of the exhalation at your nostrils or mouth. Experience the breath just as it is. If your mind moves into thought, gently return to your breathing. Bring a kind and non-judging awareness to whatever you experience, and come back to the breath whenever your mind moves into discursive thought. When you’ve finished the meditation, calmly begin or return to your daily activities.
- Find times during the day to take a mindful pause: Between clients or meetings or a project you are working on, pause for 30-60 seconds or for 3 or 4 full breaths. For this short time put aside whatever you may have been doing and let your awareness come inward. Let your attention come into your body. Feel whatever sensations are present—tension, warmth, pressure, tingling—breathing into whatever you are experiencing. Bring awareness to your breathing and take a few full and deep in-breaths and out-breaths. Notice whatever mood or emotions may be present and let them come and go. At the end of this short pause, return calmly to the activities of the day. Take a mindful pause several times a day.
- Carry out a regular activity with mindfulness during the day: Take an activity you do regularly but perhaps without awareness—such as walking to or from your car or metro, or going to the restroom or kitchen or cafeteria—and bring conscious attention during this space in your day. Invite a softening of any tensions in your body. Breathe in a relaxed and easy way. Bring conscious awareness to the sensations of walking—lifting, moving, and placing your foot on the ground. If thoughts from the day come up, let them come and go and bring your attention back to your bodily sensations. Let this be a time when you pause, relax, and take a mindful break during your day.
- Take in and appreciate positive experiences during your day: Neuroscientific studies have established that our brains are biased towards negative experiences—for example, our brains detect negative information faster than positive and hold it longer, and it typically takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one. As a leading researcher, Rick Hanson, says, ‘our brains are like Velcro for the negative and like Teflon for the positive.’ So it is important to take in and appreciate positive experiences. You might take time in the day to reflect on things that you are grateful for in your life and allow yourself time to experience the appreciation in your body and emotions. If something positive happens—for example, someone says something kind or complimentary to you—allow yourself to take this in for 20-30 seconds. If you successfully complete a project or activity, take time to take in the positive feelings of accomplishment. In these ways you balance and regulate the brain’s tendency to emphasize the negative.
These simple mindfulness practices can have a profound effect, lessening stress and increasing our sense of well-being and inner calm.
About Hugh Byrne:
Hugh Byrne is a senior teacher with the Insight Meditation of Washington (IMCW). He has been practicing mindfulness meditation for over twenty years and teaching since 2000. Hugh teaches courses on Buddhism and meditation for the Smithsonian Resident Associates Program and leads courses, workshops, and retreats for individuals and groups nationwide. He has a law degree from London University and a Ph.D. in political science from UCLA.
He will be leading a workshop titled Introducing Lawyers to the Power and Serenity of Mindfulness Meditation on Monday, January 7 for the DC Bar Lawyer Assistance Program. Please go here to register: http://www.dcbar.org/for_lawyers/events/event_Detail.cfm?eventCD=3401330LAP&isPackage=0&showAllButtons=1