By Scott Sohn
Life seems to be more stressful in today’s modern world than ever before. Constant exposure to frightening news of world events in conjunction with high-pressure jobs, traffic, social media, and uncertainty about the future of mankind are all taking a serious toll on our health.
Stress is now recognized as one of the leading contributors to disease in the twenty-first century. Chronic daily stress weakens the immune system and can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma, obesity, diabetes, headaches, depression and anxiety, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal problems, Alzheimer’s disease, accelerated aging, and suicide. Our body’s stress response evolved over thousands of years to protect us from danger by giving us an adrenalin rush in the face of life-threatening situations.
Today, that system gets triggered unintentionally daily simply by living in this high-pressure environment. Constant distraction, coupled with our minds natural tendency to contemplate past and future events in our lives, causes us to miss out on the most important and powerful time in our life, in the here and now. In every single moment, we are either paying attention to what is happening in and around us, or we are lost in thought. Everyone has experienced arriving at a destination after driving and not remembering the journey. That’s because most of the time we are consumed by thought.
Thankfully, our brains are so well-designed that they can operate on autopilot virtually all the time. But living on autopilot is no way to experience a full and rewarding life, and it robs us of the magnificence and power we possess in the present moment. Ancient philosophers and teachers like the Buddha and Dosho were in tune with this idea and studied the workings of the mind. They understood the importance of living in the present moment and the role that contemplation and meditation play in calming the mind, allowing us to live in a state of increased awareness and fulfillment. More recently, imaging technology has shown that regular meditation increases brain matter and preserves mental function as we age. A study at Yale University found that regular mindful meditation reduces activity in the default mode network (DMN) of the brain, which is responsible for mind-wandering and negative self-referential thoughts referred to as the “monkey mind.” The DMN kicks in when our brains aren’t thinking about anything in particular and are left to wander from thought to thought. These random thoughts usually tend to drift towards regret over past experiences or worry about possible future outcomes. Meditation is also shown to improve attention and concentration after only a couple weeks of practice. Studies are showing remarkable improvements in people with ADD as well as increased scores in verbal reasoning for students taking the GRE test. In addition, meditation helps to relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression and is shown to help those suffering from addiction.
One of the most successful meditation programs was started by Jon Kabat Zinn in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School as the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. The program draws principles from Buddhism and has helped multitudes of people around the world relieve stress through the practice of mindfulness and meditation. The three foundations of mindfulness include Intention, Attention, and Attitude.
The practice is a form of paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. In order to pay attention, we must first set the intention to do so. This intention to be aware of what is happening around us is the first step. Then, as we begin to pay attention to the unfolding of life as it occurs from moment to moment, we become totally present. Every moment then becomes an opportunity to be present and aware. As we observe what is occurring in the present moment, we do so non-judgmentally. This allows us to observe the unfolding of events without attachment or judgment.
Mindfulness is an ongoing, moment to moment practice that allows us to be fully present for our lives. When we live moment by moment, life becomes available in unimaginable ways. Meditation is the calibration tool which tunes our minds, allowing us to operate with a higher level of awareness in each moment. Remember, meditation doesn’t have to be some esoteric practice. Simply by taking short amounts of time to quiet the mind and focus your attention on the breath or the natural sounds around you can have profound benefits. Namaste~
Scott is a local Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in men’s health and wellness programs. Learn more at sohnnutrition.com.