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  Introduction to Mindfulness

In your bonus materials, you received a short introduction to what mindfulness is. In this lesson, I want to recap some of the important points, and explain how mindfulness is the foundation of the practices you will learn in this class.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is present moment awareness. It is paying attention to what is actually happening right now. So often, our “awareness” of the present is really the story we are telling ourselves in our heads — it’s a lot of interpretation and judgment.

With mindfulness, we “drop the story” and attempt to see clearly, attending to reality the way raw video footage would. It’s almost as if we live our lives as the narrator of a documentary film — constantly adding our commentary to what is going on. When we practice mindfulness, we practice really seeing, without the voice-over to filter our experience.

Our present moment awareness includes both our internal and external worlds. We can be mindful of what is happening around us — what we see, hear, smell, feel, and taste. In this way, mindfulness is very much a sensory experience; in fact, Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it as “coming to our senses.” We use that phrase to describe a moment of waking up, of seeing clearly, of gaining insight. It’s a great description of what is happening when we practice mindfulness.

We can also be mindful of our internal experience. A lot of mindfulness practice involves paying attention to thoughts, observing the arising and passing of thoughts as events in consciousness and becoming familiar with the patterns of the mind. We will primarily be exploring this practice in our final week when we turn to mindfulness of emotions.

Mindfulness of our internal experience also includes awareness of our bodily state and our internal sensations. We were taught in school that we have five senses… but did you know we really have eight? (And I’m not talking about anything woo-woo or extrasensory!)

You Have More Sense(s) Than You Know!

In addition to the five senses you learned about in school, you also have:

  • vestibular sense: our sense of our body’s position in relation to gravity (supports balance and concentration)
  • proprioception: our sense of bodily position in space (this is what allows you to close your eyes and still be able to touch your finger to your nose… unless you’ve been practicing mindful drinking)
  • interoception: our sense of the physiological condition of the body’s internal organs and viscera, such as feelings of cold or warmth, hunger, pain, etc. (usually these physical sensations inform our emotional state — more on this in later weeks)

For many of us, we generally engage the world with, and are aware of, our external sensations; we are not as “practiced” in tuning into the body’s internal signals. Therefore, it is this component of mindfulness, our awareness of the internal states of the body, that we will focus on in this course.

Mindfulness Changes Your Brain

insula
Henry Vandyke Carter – Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body. Bartleby.com: Gray’s Anatomy, Plate 731


Research tells us that a mindfulness practice — setting aside specific moments during the day when we deliberately focus our attention (on the breath, for example), activates the insula. The insula, among other things, is responsible for our awareness of the internal state of the body. It’s also involved in emotion and self-awareness.

In this first week, we will be practicing exercises that train our attention to focus on our breathing. As we are doing this, not only are we becoming more consciously aware of our body… we are strengthening the part of the brain that supports that awareness!

In the famous phrase of modern neuroscience, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The more we activate a particular neural pathway in the brain, the more likely that pathway is to continue to fire. Attention and awareness, then, are like muscles — the more we exercise them, the more we strengthen them.

“Research has shown that the more a person is aware of their own body, the more their insula lights up in an MRI. The more active their insula is, the more empathic they are to other people, which is the foundation of compassion and lovingkindness.”

Drs. Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius

As you work through the various practices and guided meditations this week, you are changing and strengthening your brain! You are beginning the transformation toward making attention and awareness your “default mode,” as opposed to distraction and worry.

Throughout this course, you will be cultivating your awareness of your breath, your body, your emotions, and your movement…. and you will also learn how this embodied presence will in turn strengthen your resilience to stress!

And that’s what we’re turning to in the next lesson…