Mindfulness meditation — nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, feelings, and state of mind — has been proven to make measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress. According to the Harvard Gazette, a team led by Harvard-affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital are the first to document meditation-produced changes in the brain.
Mindfulness meditation is not about some strange activity that brings a blank mind and or an “out of it” sort of behavior. Rather, meditation is about stopping and being present – bringing awareness and acceptance to the present moment. Peter Matthiessen, author of The Snow Leopard, defines the practice of meditation quite eloquently: “The purpose of a meditation practice is not enlightenment; it is to pay attention even at un-extraordinary times, to be of the present, nothing-but-the-present, to bear this mindfulness of now into each event of ordinary life.”
Mindfulness practice has taken hold, both within scientific circles and across the cultural landscape. Writing in the Jan. 1 issue of Newsweek, Amy Gross observes, “The burgeoning field of neuroscience emits a fairly constant stream of evidence for meditation’s positive impact on immune response, cardiovascular functioning, the brain itself. Meditation can change the brain-measurably. Scientists can see a thickening of the cortex areas where memory and empathy reside. In one famous study, subjects who meditated showed less activity in an area associated with negative emotions like anger, depression, and anxiety, and more activity in the area associated with buoyancy, optimism, and confidence. They also had a stronger immune reaction to flu vaccine than did those in control groups. And all these differences show up in eight weeks.”
Mindfulness meditation has been around for more than 2,500 years, so why the renewed and growing interest in mindfulness? In part, because of the lasting benefits that people find when they take up the practice, and in part because the science behind it keeps getting more rigorous and compelling.
“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” says author Sara Lazar, a Harvard Medical School instructor in psychology. “It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life,” says Britta Hölzel, a research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and Giessen University in Germany.
I invite you to check out the mindfulness meditations available free on my website, simpleserenity.com. I also have recorded CDs available for purchase, providing a nice introduction to the practice of mindfulness meditation, offering simple yet effective tools for embracing life with a peaceful, compassionate heart.