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A calm mind is an energetic mind. We turn to the practice of mindfulness to relax the brain and make it so that your natural state of mind is rational, nonreactive, and in energy conservation mode.
Mindfulness is the practice of purposefully focusing all your attention on the current moment and being completely aware of yourself, your emotions, and your thoughts.
It can keep your mind from overthinking and running amok, which is the precursor to drained mental energy. The person who is aware of their thoughts as they are happening is far more likely to keep it together and calm versus the person who is unaware of what is happening in the present moment.
You might be consumed by thoughts of past regrets or by anxiety about a future that may never occur. Being in these states makes it easy to slip. It’s not so much that donuts will appear in your mouth if you’re unaware and distracted, but you won’t properly be able to assess whether you are thinking with your primal or logical brain.
In some sense, this factor is going to be our biggest enemy to a stressed and exhausted mind. Our brains are working against us, but the lives we lead are as well. Most of us face constant stress and anxiety in varying degrees. It doesn’t have to be debilitating to cause damage over time; it simply has to take us off the path of presence and emotional stability.
Mindfulness is a handy solution to all of those problems. It can both recharge you, and insulate you from the stresses of the exterior world. As mentioned, it is quite literally the practice of emptying your mind—most frequently by focusing on your breathing, for example. Of course, it is difficult to let go of thoughts and concerns because you feel that you must ensure they don’t fall through the cracks. The two worst things you can do for yourself are focusing on past events that you can’t change, or zeroing in on present events and comparing them with your future. One is long gone, and one has yet to happen. Neither should be your concern.
Practicing mindfulness will feel distressing at first because people who are stressed or overwhelmed constantly feel that they have too much on their plate to ever stop churning. This makes everything worse; when you’re continuously moving 24/7, this gives your brain and body very little time to recharge. As we’ve mentioned at various points in this book, a stressed brain is the opposite of an energetic brain.
Let go of the past, the future. One doesn’t exist anymore, and the other may never come to be. Spending your time thinking about them is the definition of useless. And—you guessed it—a massive waste of energy because there’s nothing to be done about them. Even attempt to drop what your thoughts and feelings are bound by in the present moment. Anything you can potentially be distracted by, just drop it and trust that it will be right where you left it in thirty minutes. As a last resort, make a list of these thoughts before you attempt to achieve mindfulness, and rest assured that the world will not end in the meantime.
Your focus should be only on what is happening now in your physical surroundings. Let go of what might happen later, what happened earlier, and all thoughts of the present. The only thing that matters is your breathing, your physical sensations, and the noises, sounds, smells, and sights around you.
Although it is most common to sit during meditation, you may choose to kneel or stand. Just make sure that whatever option you pick is comfortable for you to remain for thirty minutes. You can’t empty your mind if your body is suffering. Ease yourself from any tension you might feel by relaxing your body as a whole and focusing your mind on the task at hand—nothingness.
Make sure you aren’t bent over so that the air you breathe is easily accessible to your lungs. Inhale through your nose. Ensure that your breaths are deep and slow. In doing so, you will allow the air you take in to go directly to your stomach, breathing the correct way for the purposes of your meditation practice.
Your mind may begin to wander from your breath, but don’t chastise yourself—this is only natural. When wandering takes place, forgive, forget, move forward, and focus on your breathing. This will help you regain focus rather than wrestle with your wayward thoughts. You’ll notice how easy it is for your anxieties to hijack your peace of mind and constantly jump into the mental space you’ve created. Instead of engaging with them and unfolding these thoughts, observe them and just let them go, then return to your breathing. We’re not necessarily trying to quiet our minds, but rather focus all our chatter onto one thing.
For some of us with noisier minds, you might find it more helpful to focus on a physical sensation. For instance, some will balance a cup of water on their heads (or simply hold it) because this is an act that requires the utmost concentration. Coincidentally, this is why many feel that running and other repetitive motions can create a meditative state. You can also move through your body, limb by limb, and feel the sensations present in each part.
Let go. Enjoy the break from the outside pressures you face daily. Reboot your brain and eliminate all the clutter that was preventing you from thinking clearly or being self-aware. Think about how the air feels on your lips, in your nose, and down your throat. Focus on the sound of inhalation and exhalation.
If it sounds too simplistic to be effective, you’re in for a surprise. At the core, this is where mindfulness comes from. Your brain gains a rare reprieve from its efforts as the proverbial mouse on a wheel. Your body is able to reset ever so slightly to a state of homeostasis and relaxation. You are able to gain perspective on your anxieties and understand that you are not forced to be overwhelmed—it was your choice all along.
Again, if it sounds too simplistic, rest assured, studies have confirmed that the practice of meditation does indeed have a real effect. MRI scans were taken of volunteers before and after they participated in an eight-week mindfulness course, the results of which make a strong case for meditation being a useful tool for “strengthening” the areas of the brain that are responsible for executive functions and thus self-discipline—specifically the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the orbitofrontal cortex, which are regions all firmly within our logical brain.
Moreover, meditation was shown to shrink the amygdala, a major part of the emotional limbic brain and also the center of the fight-or-flight instinct. All of this means that those who practice mindfulness are less susceptible to fear, emotional impulses, and stress. Mental energy is often sabotaged by emotional impulses and stress, so keeping these under control is helpful in setting the conditions for willpower.
On top of that, scans showed that the gray matter in the prefrontal cortex had become noticeably denser after meditation. The gray matter growth wasn’t isolated to just the prefrontal cortex. The brain structure located behind the frontal lobe—the anterior cingulate cortex—also became denser with meditation practice. This brain area has been associated with functions having to do with self-regulation, such as monitoring attention conflicts and allowing for greater cognitive flexibility. In other words, meditation can both reduce the feelings and emotions that make us lose self-control, and increase our ability to manage those feelings by physically improving the brain structures responsible for them.
If mindfulness isn’t already a part of your daily routine, consider adding it in as part of your recharging rituals instead of thirty minutes of television. It’s common to hear people say they don’t have time for meditation, possibly even seeing this as scheduling a time to be unproductive. But if meditating for a few minutes a day can make you more capable of carrying out your intentions just as you want, the increased energy will more than make up for a few minutes of inactivity. Our mental energy needs to recharge, after all.