People often ask, “What can I really expect if I take up mindfulness? How long will it take?” I answer, “You may get both less and more than you expect. Find what works for you, and be prepared to be surprised.”
Mindfulness is now in the bright lights. Sometimes used to promote product. Sometimes as a cure-all for practically everything; slowing aging, treating diseases from diabetes to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, re-setting your emotional baseline, or thickening the brain’s executive center – the prefrontal cortex. The number of scientific studies has exploded from practically zero in the 1980’s to recently over 1000 per year. These studies can be used as a promotional tool by opportunistic marketers, or by well-meaning teachers to encourage their students.
Caution #1: Beware of wild claims and who is benefitting from making such claims.
Two top science researchers, Daniel Goleman and Richard Davison, for their recent book Altered States: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body, sifted through a sea of publications. They found that only 1% met the gold standard for scientific rigor. (Harvard Business Review, 2018) While well intentioned and often peer reviewed, many of these studies are poorly designed or have improper controls.
Caution #2: Beware of hype from small or isolated studies. It may be true – or it may be too early to say.
In my book Mind Your Life: How Mindfulness Can Build Resilience and Reveal Your Extraordinary , I talk about three broad areas where mindfulness practice has been shown to produce reliable results. I am pleased to say that Goleman and Davison’s rigorous analysis largely confirms my own studies.
Staying Calm Under Stress
People who practice meditation don’t over react and do recover more quickly from stressful situations. Their amygdala is less sensitive to inputs. They are less likely to interpret actions as signals of threat. Over the longer term, they are better able to regulate their emotions, even dial down their responses to physical pain.
You can experience Initial changes after as little as an 8 week, 30 hour Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program.
Staying Focused Under Pressure
At root, mindfulness retrains how, and how deeply, you can pay attention.Click To Tweet People who meditate exhibit less mind-wandering and are better able to concentrate, even when faced with multiple tasks. Experienced meditators have less ‘attentional blink’. They don’t miss signals from other people or situations because their minds have unintentionally wandered off somewhere else. Even a few weeks of practice improved working memory equivalent to 16 percentile points on the GRE (graduate and business school test).
Fostering Compassion and Positive Relationships
Intentionally nurturing positive attitudes, thoughts and images leads to increased activity in brain circuits for caring and generosity, as well as an increased likelihood of actually helping someone in need. Studies show early results from as little as 8 hours of practice.
Practice Makes Perfect
Mindfulness is a skill, not a pill. Like any other skill, it requires practice. Just think of the hours that athletes, musicians or professionals have put in to reach the top of their game! The same applies in meditation. The wisdom traditions, and the stories of Ordinary Heroes in Mind Your Life, all attest to the value of continued practice. Goleman and Davison’s research corroborates this; the benefits increase with the more total hours of practice you put in.
But not all practice is equal.
First, you must practice deliberately; do multiple repetitions over time, seek qualified guidance and make the appropriate adjustments, and gradually increase the challenge level from easier to more difficult.
Second, different practices yield different results. Compassion practices produces different brain changes than high concentration practices. It’s helpful to mix up your practice, to meet your current challenges, interests—or simply to alleviate boredom. (A friend of mine used to call it ‘sleep-itating”!)
Third, you have to find a practice that appeals to you and stick with it. This is what I love about Mindfulness Coaching; helping people to find just the right fit that suits their style, schedule and leadership challenges.
When you consistently practice over time – what do you get?
The test of meditation is NOT how you feel during your practice session, but how you resilient you are in your responses in daily life. If you find that, with time, you are experiencing negative emotions less often, you are more flexible and adaptive in your response to challenges, you are more often composed and realistically confident—then it’s working. Temporary altered states that you experienced in meditation have become permanently altered traits. Your brain and body have permanently re-wired to become consistently calmer, kinder and more focused. Like Amy Peasgood, who practices meditation in order to live with terminal cancer , and can find the miraculous in simple moments at the bus stop.
If you are able to mind your life—Life will mind you back.