Brighten Up Your Mood With Mindfulness Meditation
It’s easy to feel irritated when dealing with colleagues who are inconsiderate or friends who have trouble keeping their negative emotions to themselves. Or, how about when you encounter a stranger in a public place who’s having a bad day and decides to take it out on you?
You can either give them the same attitude back or respond in a compassionate and understanding manner. Training your brain to react in an empathetic way takes time, but mindfulness meditation can help you understand how to respond kindly. It can also prevent fatigue, stress and burnout.
This kind of compassion is the power of mindfulness, which, in simple terms, means being in the here and now, without judgment. “Mindfulness is a quality of sustained presence,” says Rick Hanson, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist and author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom.
There’s an awareness that you’re aware, as well as a nature of acceptance. “You may not prefer what’s happening, but you’re not fighting it, or shaming yourself about it,” Hanson says. Usually, warmth, kindness and compassion show up as well.
Where to Start
Hanson says that mindfulness practices often begin with a type of “steadying of the mind” practice, before moving into an “open awareness” practice where you bring your sustained presence wherever you go. “This is the traditional way—first build up the muscle, and then apply that muscle to opening out into everything,” he says.
You can simply sit—on a chair or cushion—watching your breath, or thoughts, as they come and go. You can close your eyes, or keep them open. You might label your thoughts as they arise: “planning,” for example, or “worrying.” You can connect your practice to the divine, which is prayer. Or you can choose a secular practice, such as noticing the breath on your upper lip as you inhale and exhale.
Some people choose a mantra, even a simple one word mantra such as “peace.” Some might focus their attention on an image—a beach scene, for example. You can even meditate on a feeling, such as loving-kindness.
The Health Benefits of Mindfulness
Studies show that mindfulness can strengthen neural networks that are associated with resilience, compassion and well-being. In a 2009 study, for example, published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, participants who practiced mindfulness-based stress reduction for two months were less anxious and thought of themselves more positively. In another study published in 2011 in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, participants in an eight-week mindfulness meditation program showed changes in parts of the brain associated with memory, empathy and stress.
Cognitive-Based Compassionate Meditation Training From Emory University
Jennifer Mascaro, Ph.D., co-author of the Cognitive-Based Compassion Training study at Emory University and the study’s lead teacher, Brooke Dodson-Lavelle, modified the following cognitive-based compassionate training for the readers of Massage Therapy Journal.
- Self-Compassion. Begin by finding a comfortable posture that allows you to feel both stillness and focus. Take deep breaths, and as you do, pay attention to the sensations of each breath as it moves in through your nose. Now, notice how you are feeling and what you are thinking. Notice that your thoughts and emotions change moment by moment, which reflect that our views aren’t fixed. Not only are your thoughts and emotions ever changing, but by recognizing them you also have the ability to change them in ways that are more healthy and positive.
- Equanimity. Bring to mind three people: a close friend, someone you don’t know very well, and a person with whom you’re having trouble. In turn, imagine each of these three people standing before you. Notice how you feel toward each of them. Now, try to connect with them on a deeper level by noticing that all three of these people are like you in wanting happiness. Notice, too, that they are vulnerable to stress and suffering. As you imagine the person with whom you often have trouble, imagine a particular instance of strife you have had with this person. Think about whether the person you were having trouble with may have been suffering, and how this may have contributed to the strife. Take a moment to sit with this recognition.
- Finally, cultivate your affection. Once you recognize the similarities in others, positive feelings arise and strengthen. Now, turn your attention to the things that you depend on for survival—including food and shelter. Notice the ways in which these essentials require the effort and kindness of others. Imagine the last meal that you ate and each ingredient that was included in the meal. Think about the effort and kindness that were necessary for each ingredient to make it to your table. By shifting your perspective in this way, you can come to develop a deeper sense of gratitude toward other people, which strengthens your affection and empathy.
Source: This article was excerpted from mtj® (Massage Therapy Journal®) Summer 2013. Subscribe to read the entire article.
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