Mindfulness Practices for the Holidays
I recently listened to an On Being podcast with social psychologist, Ellen Langer. The interview discussed her studies about mindfulness in everyday life, which are now being supported by neuroscience. In other words, practicing with yoga or meditation classes or sitting for 20 minutes in stillness can change us. Practicing in the midst of whatever you are doing, “actively noticing things,” is important for well-being. Not only that, but how we mentally approach an experience shapes the experience itself. What we believe matters. Langer calls it “mind/body unity theory.”
Our experience of everything is formed by the words and ideas we attach to them. What makes a vacation a vacation is not only a change of scenery, but the fact that we let go of the mindless, everyday illusion that we are in control. It’s possible to become physiologically younger through a changed frame of mind, to find joy in what was experienced as drudgery by renaming it as play, and to induce weight loss by substituting the label “exercise” for “labor.”
I highly recommend a listen over the long weekend–whether you’ve got a long car ride ahead of you, or just some extra time at home.
The interview reminded me of a module in my yoga teacher training with Chiara Guerrieri on the topic of neuroplasticity and how mindfulness techniques can rewire connections in our brain. By focusing on certain experiences and feelings, we can cultivate positive states and intentionally use the mind to shape the brain. Positive experiences and feelings can influence our well-being, our happiness.
I’m not a scientist, but here’s my understanding of how this works. Traits are developed by experiences. We must experience something to record it in the brain. The kicker is that we learn faster from pain than pleasure. We more easily hold on to the negative. But, we can engage with positive experiences and shape both our short-term and long-term memory. Experience matters. We feel in the moment and the experience gets woven into our being. A residue is left behind that influences the pathways in our brain.
What does this mean? We develop compassion by repeatedly feeling compassionate. We develop self-compassion by practicing loving kindness to ourselves. We become empathetic by regularly making attempts to simulate another person’s inner world. We become happy and thankful people when we spend time recalling positive experiences and feeling happiness and thankfulness in our bodies.
We’ll all be making resolutions for 2018 soon enough. For many of us, we’ll try and commit to or restart exercise and mindfulness practices. But why not start now? Who doesn’t need extra compassion and empathy and happiness this time of year? I know I do. The weather gets me down and the rush to prepare for celebrations and family time overwhelms and exhausts me. I need to get out of my mental ruts.
The practice for influencing neural pathways is simple. Set aside a few minutes. Close your eyes, take a few full, deep breaths and remember an experience that made you feel thankful or happy. Focus on that experience for 30 seconds, letting yourself feel the sensations of being in that moment. Let the positive experience wash over you. Repeat daily.
Rebekah Papé is a writer, yoga teacher and Riveter member. Join her on Fridays at 11:30 a.m. in the Capitol Hill studio for breath and meditation practice.