Interested in improving how your brain works, prune old unhelpful pathways, and change how you feel, how you “do” your feelings, and even your relationships? I’ve created a basic introduction to mindfulness practice that you can download for free. I hope you’ll take a little time to read why I think this is important, as a neuropsychologist and a rabid fan of well-done scientific research—even though some might initially consider it “fluff.”
(If you’d rather skip this, you can go directly to the download link.)
As recently as fifteen years ago, neuroscience maintained an ironclad rule about neurons in the brain: once you reached adulthood, you couldn’t grow any new brain cells—they only died off as the years went on. This “rule” also meant that old connections within the brain couldn’t be replaced if they were damaged. It was all downhill after the brain “completed” its development at the ripe old age of 25. Yikes.
Well, we found out pretty recently that that idea is wrong. Really wrong. We can, in fact, not only cause the neurons in our brains to change and to grow new connections and pathways, but we can produce new neurons, throughout our entire lives. It’s called neuroplasticity. As a psychologist who has been working with patients for nearly 25 years, I find that radically exciting, since it means you can improve your brain in real, measurable, see-it-on-a-brain-scan ways.
So how exactly do you change those structures and connections into supporters of psychological health?
Recent studies by leading neuroscientists and bio-behaviorists—researchers from Harvard, UCLA, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and Cambridge, to name a few—have shown that mindfulness practice promotes changes in your brain in areas and ways that promote psychological well-being, including healthier relationships with yourself and others. It can even potentially slow down the effects of age on your brain.
The neurological changes seen in the brains of mindfulness practitioners show up in how they feel, how they deal with their feelings, and how they do relationships. And it doesn’t take years of practice—many beneficial effects are seen in the earliest stages of practice, in as little as a few weeks of practicing 20 minutes a day.
Can’t do 20 minutes? That’s perfectly okay; start with two.
Think you just can’t do it at all? About 95 percent of my patients started out thinking the same thing. And nearly all of them found out that they could do it—and much more easily than they thought. You don’t have to become a monk or a vegetarian or spend hours contemplating your navel. You don’t need to hum “Om” over and over, trying to get your brain to be still or empty.
What you do during mindfulness practice is practice simply notice your mind’s busyness (a.k.a. your thoughts and feelings) and practice not getting all tangled up in it. As Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it, mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment.
If you’ve never practiced mindfulness before (or even if you have), you may have some idea that meditation requires being able to sit on the floor with your legs crossed, in a perfectly constructed, perfectly peaceful room, gentle sunlight streaming in while the faint hint of incense wafts over you and the warmth of a candle imperceptibly finds your serenely closed eyes, with your mind completely still.
No wonder so many people think they can’t meditate! Who can achieve that?
Let’s try again—this time, with equal doses of reality and compassion. While meditators in glossy magazine ads always look quiescently blissed out, meditation isn’t always pleasurable. And while it’s simple, it isn’t easy. The good news about the “difficulty” is that the busier your brain is, the more opportunities you have to notice that your mind has wandered and to gently (and non-judgmentally) bring it back. Those actions—the noticing and bringing back—are what neuroscientists like Richard Davidson, PhD, believe may be the brain-wiring “reps,” like the repeated biceps curls a weightlifter does to build muscle.
What do I mean by “practice”? I mean doing it on a regular basis for a reasonable amount of time. The regular basis that’s most helpful for most people is once a day; if you want to practice twice a day, go for it. As for what constitutes a reasonable amount of time, I recommend that you set aside 20 minutes to practice. Longer is great, but not necessary. I’ll say it over and over, though—if you can’t do 20 minutes, start with two. As a wise dental hygienist once told me, “Flossing once a week is better than not flossing at all.” The same goes for meditating.
So, here is the link for my twenty-minute introduction to mindfulness practice. I’ll walk you through the basics, and then help you try it out. I hope you find it useful.
To download it to iTunes, right-click on the link in order to see the menu with a download option (it might say “Save Link As…”). Download it to your computer. Then, with iTunes open, click on the “File” option in the very top of bar of the iTunes window; select “Add to Library” and then select the Mindfulness file you downloaded. iTunes will then add it to your iTunes library.
Or, you can simply listen to the file by left-clicking it to open the audio player.
- You’ll need an up-to-date version of iTunes, which you can download for free here.
- You’ll also need an up-to-date version of your browser (for example, Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Internet Explorer, etc.)
(This post is an edited excerpt from my book, Rewire Your Brain for Love: Creating Vibrant Relationships Using the Science of Mindfulness. It’s available in hardcover, paperback, and digital formats including Kindle, iBooks, and Nook.)
Marsha Lucas, PhD – Psychologist
1350 Connecticut Ave NW, at Dupont Circle
Washington, DC 20036