A User's Guide
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STARTING SMALL WITH MINDFULNESS CAN REAP BIG BENEFITS
David Fresco, Ph.D., professor of psychological sciences, has been studying the impact of meditation in his lab and in his personal life for more than 15 years. His NIH-funded project, the Serenity Study, is designed to help people lower their blood pressure through stress management techniques, including mindfulness. (You can get involved here: www.serenitystudy.org.)
He’s also studying a Tibetan form of meditation known as analytic meditation and debate, and he has found early indications that under the right circumstances, the brains of Tibetan monastics “sync up” with another.
We asked him to share recommendations for incorporating mindfulness and meditation practices into daily life, and we’ve organized these ideas in order of commitment level. Start with a single step and ascend to ever higher mastery.
Start here: Pay attention to the details. Even if you can’t carve out time each day to meditate, you can start by simply being present in any given moment, says Fresco. “When you wash the dishes, notice the temperature of the water on your skin and the tickle of the bubbles on your hands. When you eat an orange, savor each bite and notice the juice when you break the skin.”
Then try: 10 minutes a day. Sit on a cushion or chair in a quiet location and set a timer for 10 minutes. In either case, sit up straight in a dignified posture. Breathe naturally and focus on where your breath is most vivid for you: how it feels and what it sounds like, for example. When your mind wanders, return to this focus on your breath. “We don’t know, scientifically, that 10 minutes is enough to measurably relieve anxiety or improve concentration, but some practices designed for consumers start off with a more modest commitment to build a habit,” Fresco says. Just getting started with a practice is important in developing a new habit.
Dig deeper: Well-known practitioners of the field offer accessible books about meditation. Try Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness for Beginners and Wherever You Go, There You Are or Thich Nhat Hanh’s Miracle of Mindfulness and Peace Is Every Step.
Now you’re ready: If you can commit to 45 minutes of meditation, six days a week, for eight weeks, research has shown that that this level of commitment will create physical changes in your brain. “At least two studies have shown that this level of practice leads to improved cellular density in specific regions of the brain that allows people to confront unpleasant or difficult situations in a more sanguine way,” Fresco says.
Excerpted from “Use Your Head” by Erin Peterson, first published by Kent State Magazine, Summer 2016. For more information on Kent State brain research see Use Your Head.