What Does Neuroscience Tell Us About the Benefits of Mindfulness?

Continuous neuroscience research into the benefits of mindfulness has revealed supportive evidence that should encourage you to persist with mindfulness practices. While the neuroscience research into the power of mindfulness, and meditation specifically, is in its infancy, there are enough studies and research review articles to point to some real, measurable benefits.

Scientists still do not fully understand how the mind works but they have been able to identify the impact of meditation on the physical brain through Magnetic Resonance Imagining (MRI). Dusana Dorjee warns us, however, that science is a reductionist approach to the study of the mind and cannot effectively measure the whole range of states of awareness that can be achieved by the long-term meditator. Dusana is the author of
Neuroscience and Psychology of Meditation in Everyday Life: Searching for the Essence of Mind (2017).

How meditation changes the physical structure of the brain

A comprehensive review of neuroscience research into the impacts of mindfulness meditation undertaken by experienced meditators showed that eight regions of the brain were altered. Significantly, the regions of the brain that were positively impacted relate to:

  • capacity to be introspective and manage abstract ideas and, importantly, the ability to be aware of our own thinking
  • body awareness including touch, pain and proprioception
  • attention, self-control and regulation of emotions
  • ability to communicate effectively between the hemispheres of the brain (between right and left hemispheres).

Mindfulness meditation and happiness

Happiness can be developed as a skill and mindfulness meditation has a key role in its development. Well-being is increased, according to scientists at Wisconsin-Madison University, when the following capacities are enhanced:

  • ability to maintain positive emotions
  • rapidly recover from what is experienced as negative
  • engage in actions that manifest empathy and compassion
  • sustain attention in the present moment (and avoid mind-wandering).

Richard Davidson and Brianna S. Schuyler (2015) in their chapter, The Neuroscience of Happiness, draw on their mind research to argue that these capacities can be developed through training, especially mindfulness training and kindness/compassion meditation.

Research on the Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation by
Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015) demonstrates that meditation can reduce stress and increase performance because it switches off the brain’s anxiety- riddled, default-mode network (focused on the past/future) and activates the task-positive network. This latter network focuses on the present moment. As the brain can utilise only one of these networks at any one time, meditation – through creating the task of focusing on the breath, body scan or some other aspect – can activate present mindedness which leads to physical and mental health, while deactivating the default-mode which would otherwise lead to stress and ill-health.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and other mindful practices, we can enhance our performance and the wellness-generating structure of our brains and move from the stress-creating default mode to the task-positive mode of operating in our daily lives.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Maintaining the Daily Practice of Tai Chi

Despite my very best intentions, I find it difficult to maintain the daily practice of Tai Chi. There are always other things that I have to do and physical impediments that provide excuses (legitimate and otherwise) that I use to avoid the practice of Tai Chi.

In reflecting on my current lack of consistency, I have identified some strategies that I will put into place to increase the regularity of my practice:

Review my daily schedule

I find I become locked into habits (such as the timing of my morning cup of coffee) that make it difficult for me to fit in a Tai Chi practice. I also find that I am more likely to practice in the morning when I am fresh, rather than the afternoon when I am tired. What I have to do is establish a fixed time each morning when I undertake my Tai Chi practice. As my early morning has an established routine that operates on most days, I have to find space within that routine to ensure that I can practise. When the routine is broken, e.g. on days when I am facilitating a workshop or attending a meeting, I need to mentally lock in another practice time for that day.

Revisit the benefits of Tai Chi

I have previously written about Tai Chi in terms of the physical and mental health benefits and the benefits for the mind and the mind-body connection. Mentally revisiting these benefits on a regular basis can enhance my motivation to undertake the daily practice of Tai Chi. I find, too, that there are very clear benefits for my tennis that result from Tai Chi. I am very motivated to practice this meditation-in-motion on the days that I play tennis. Recently, I noticed difficulty in maintaining my balance on the court and this has encouraged me to increase my practice. So, it seems if you can relate the benefits of regular practice to some specific activity or outcome you already have a high motivation for, it is a lot easier to maintain your practice.

Reading about Tai Chi and its benefits

If I read about Tai Chi and its benefits, I am more motivated to undertake my routine practice. There are numerous articles, books, blogs and research reports about the benefits that can help me to keep the benefits front-of-mind. There are also videos that reinforce people’s positive experience and the research findings. Building in the habit to access these resources on a regular basis, particularly when my motivation is flagging, is a good way to strengthen my resolve to keep up my practice.

Reflecting on the benefits experienced

If I reflect on how Tai Chi has benefited me in a particular situation such as after a game of tennis, I am better able to cement the benefits in my mind and strengthen my motivation. For example, there have been times when I was regularly practising Tai Chi that I noticed that I could play a good tennis shot even when off-balance. Reflecting on this specific benefit reinforces the value for me of maintaining my practice.

Revising my expectations

I regularly have some form of surgery to identify (biopsy) or remove (excision) a skin cancer (the result of playing daytime tennis over several decades in Queensland). My tendency is to stop Tai Chi altogether to prevent aggravating the resulting wound (this could be for a period of four weeks). What would be a better process would be to at least undertake the warm-up exercises (basically involving the hands and arms) at the time when I would normally do my regular practice. This reduced level of activity still maintains the habit of regular practice and keeps Tai Chi top-of-mind. By reducing my practice expectations in line with my physical capacity at the time, I will be able to further embed my practice, rather than break my practice habit.

As we grow in mindfulness through the daily practice of Tai Chi or other mindfulness practice such as meditation, we can experience the pervasive benefits of such practices that, in turn, reinforce our motivation – thus creating a “virtuous circle”.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of Alexandra_Koch on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Movement and Mindfulness

Often meditation techniques involve sitting still in a relaxed, grounded, upright posture with your hands in a comfortable position; alternatively, they can involve lying down on the floor or the ground. In either case, these mindfulness approaches involve immobility – they are designed to create stillness in both your mind and your body. However, one can make a case for supplementing these immobile meditation techniques with mindfulness practices that involve movement.

The need for movement

Much has been written about the impact of a sedentary lifestyle on our physical and mental health and overall wellbeing. There is also increasing research about the health benefits of walking. Movement exercises our muscles and activates the various systems of our body, e.g. cardiovascular, respiratory and digestive systems. So movement is essential for good physical health. Physical exercise, too, helps to reduce the symptoms of depression.

Another consideration as the population ages, is that physical capacity declines progressively as we age. For example, the Harvard Medical School recently released a report on Preventing Falls and highlighted the fact that from our 50s onwards, our balance can be adversely affected by a number of factors. They highlight the impact of aging on our gait (the distinctive way we walk – encompassing aspects such as pace, weight transfer, stride length, swing of the leg and foot placement pressure). According to the report, our gait is considerably affected by the time we reach 70, even if fit:

Gait often changes with age. For example, healthy people in their 70s generally have a 10% to 20% reduction in the speed of their gait and the length of their stride compared with healthy people in their 20s.

This physical decline is accelerated where no movement or exercise is undertaken on a regular basis.

Combining movement and mindfulness

Two key ways to achieve the combination of mindfulness and movement to help redress physical and mental decline are mindful walking and Tai Chi. While mindful walking in the open brings the added benefits of engaging with nature, mindful walking on the inside (indoors) can be more readily accessible, especially when the weather is inclement and uninviting.

Earlier in this blog, I discussed the many physical, mental and emotional benefits of Tai Chi, including enhanced mind-body connection. A recent Harvard Medical School report, An Introduction to Tai Chi, reinforces these benefits and highlights the research showing that Tai Chi develops a “sharper mind”, offsetting the natural decline in your mental faculties, which can lead to dementia.

Whether you engage in mindful walking, Tai Chi or yoga, these practices have in common “meditation-in-motion” and strengthen the mind-body connection. So, combining movement and meditation, simultaneously strengthens our mental and physical capacities and their interconnection.

As we grow in mindfulness through combining meditation and movement, we can supplement and enhance the many benefits of sitting, standing or lying meditations. We can reduce the mental and physical decline that comes with age and improve our overall capacities, especially the connection between mind and body.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of silviarita on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Overcoming a Toxic Work Environment through Action Learning

Dr. Rod Waddington, PhD, recently published an article about his doctoral research which incorporated action learning as a central intervention.  His article, Improving the work climate in a TVET [Technical & Vocational Education} college through changing conversations, tracks his intervention as Human Resource Development (HRD) Manager in a college in South Africa that had five campuses.

Organisational toxicity and its impacts

The college was characterised by a toxic workplace that resulted in both physical and psychological problems for employees, both managers and staff.  Rod discussed the toxicity of the organisation in terms of the “toxic triangle” described in the article by Padilla, Hogan & Kaiser, The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments.

Rod was then able to address the three elements that contributed to toxicity in the college – toxic leaders, toxic followers and a toxic organisational context (systems, processes and procedures that enabled toxicity to develop and grow).  Toxic leaders were identified as displaying narcissistic tendencies and traits in that they micromanaged, abused and bullied staff, failed to address poor behaviour (in part, because of favouritism), threw tantrums and undermined engagement, productivity and wellness of managers and staff.

The Action Learning Group

Rod was able to create an action learning group (action learning set) comprising a representative group of nine managers who managed campuses and reported to the Corporate Centre where the HRD manager worked.   His description of this approach to organisational intervention was in terms of engaging people who were directly impacted by, and were contributeding to, the toxic organisational environment:

I had to learn to adopt an inclusive, participative, democratic paradigm to guide a bottom-up approach.  I thus recruited other managers as participants, co-researchers and change agents to constitute an action learning set. (p.9)

The Action Learning Process

Rod chose to use a process of drawing and story telling to capture the experiences and feelings of the managers who formed the action learning group.  He provided a large calico sheet for them to draw on and space around a central drawing of a river which symbolised the flow of events and the connectedness and interdependence of the group members.

In the first instance, the managers in the participating group were invited to identify events that contributed to their experience of trauma and stress.  The invitation to draw and use colours and shapes engaged their right brain and moved them away from their usual mode of thinking – thus providing some sense of safety in exchanging information that was self-disclosing and uncomfortable, leaving them vulnerable.

The story telling or narrative that followed the drawings enabled the managers to articulate what they each had been feeling for a long time but that they had denied, submerged and kept hidden from others.  The process gave them permission to be honest in their communication with each other because it helped them to realise that they were not alone in their experience of personal hurt and dissatisfaction.

The participating managers identified different feelings – a strong sense of abandonment through lack of support, devalued because they were not listened to, dehumanised because they were verbally abused and hopelessness because there was no positivity or direction provided.

In a second round of drawings, the managers were asked to develop a picture of a changed workplace which incorporated the values that had been denied through the toxicity of the work environment.  This second drawing enabled the managers to tap into a sense of empowerment and hope that they could create an environment conductive to improved personal physical and mental health and to the development of an organisation characterised by wellness and mutual respect.

Outcomes of the Action Learning Process

Participants started to admit their own feelings as well as the part they themselves played in perpetuating the toxic environment.  This growth in self-awareness enabled them to move from helplessness and self-blame to take up the “agency and responsibility” offered to them through the action learning process.  In this way, they developed skills in self-management.  Hence, the intervention overall enabled the development of managerial agency for the participant managers.

The focus of conversation amongst the managers moved from negative thoughts and stories to discussion focused on hope and aspiration.  A key outcome was the development of a sense of responsibility, not only for their own area of responsibility but also for the organisation as a whole.   This was reflected in the managers’ agreement to initiate a “values campaign” in their areas of responsibility based on five core values –  inclusiveness, participation, trust, empowerment and consultation.  They developed an agreed format for posters to be used as part of this “values advocacy”.

Through the processes of drawing, sharing and reflecting, participants built trust in each other, changed their mind-sets, developed better coping skills and increased resilience as proactive change managers.

The action learning process and the development of mindfulness

The action learning process enabled the participant managers to grow in mindfulness – becoming increasingly aware of themselves and the impact of their thoughts, feelings and behaviour on their organisational environment.  Along with this increased self-awareness, they developed enhanced self-management skills, taking up responsibility for shaping their work environment and becoming more assertive in communicating and pursuing their own needs and those of their staff.

The participant managers were able to develop awareness through a clear focus on improving a toxic work environment and doing so in a non-judgmental way, moving from self-blame and blaming others to acting to improve the situation for all who were experiencing the pain and suffering resulting from organisational toxicity.  So, they were motivated not only to remove their own pain and suffering but also that of others affected by the work environment. This then reflects compassion , a key feature of emotional intelligence and mindful leadership.

[Note: Dr. Rod Waddington published the abovementioned article with co-author, Leslie Wood, Research Professor, Faculty of Education Sciences, North-West University, South Africa.]

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of acky24 on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.