I’ve always loved the start of a new year because it feels like an opportunity to create new habits or improve old ones. One of my resolutions this year was to become more mindful and intentional. The more I thought about it though, I realized that I’m not really sure how to achieve this goal. HOW do I become more mindful? With the hope of gaining clarification, I attended a lecture by Professor Norman Farb on “Mindfulness and Neuroscience: Practical Tips on how Mindfulness can Promote Resilience in the Modern Age.” This event is part of the Multi-Faith Center’s Interfaith Meditation Series and it focused on how mindfulness can improve the function of the brain and so improve our wellbeing.
Stress is something that each of us faces in different capacities throughout our lives and that affects us to varying degrees. Professor Farb’s lecture highlighted the effectiveness of contemplative practices, such as mindfulness, in managing our everyday responses to stress in order to allow us to be the best and happiest versions of ourselves.
He outlined a three-step process that can help maximize the benefits of mindfulness practices. First, it is important to recognize that you are stuck in a habitual stress response, especially when these habit responses can be harmful to us. He highlighted that when we become stressed our brains turn off sensations. As we continue to suppress and avoid new sensations our responses become ingrained, forming habits. Habitual responses engage limited real-estate in the brain, demonstrated by MRI scans that show when performing habitual actions, brain activity is limited to the midline of the brain.
An antidote to this habitual stress response and the second step of the process is to let a new sensation in. Sensation usually occurs in the back of the brain and so this engages a greater cross section of the brain’s real estate than habit does. By shifting away from a habitual response, you are now able to become more present within yourself and allow change to begin happening. Contemplative practices such as mindfulness and meditation encourage you tune into your breath and into sensation. This allows you to quiet your internal turbulence, engaging more of the brain, and providing an opportunity to engage with new sensations and responses. With more practice and expertise, you learn to allow some regions to remain open and aware and this allows change in, the third step of the process.
We then put this theory into practice. First, we were invited to set an intention. Mine was to try and focus on the feelings in body as we went through the meditation. As we breathed, Professor Norm encouraged us to focus on one specific place within your body to be aware of your breathing, holding an attitude of non-judgement and openness towards the experience. Professor Farb guided us through the practice, reminding us to remain focused on our breath and to really engage the sensation of our own body. I found this extremely helpful as I was able to connect with myself and recognize some of the underlying stresses and anxieties I’ve been holding on to, making it easier to release some of that tension.
Professor Farb’s lecture was both informative and enjoyable. I feel as though I’ve come away with a greater understanding of the task I’ve set myself and also a plan for achieving it. As we begin a new semester that will undoubtedly come with its own stresses, for any of you looking for new ways to check in with yourselves I would definitely recommend the Multi-Faith Center’s Meditation series!