If most of us were to admit it, we spend more time distracted than focused. According to research conducted at Harvard, about 47 percent of the time we’re awake, we’re not really paying complete attention to what we’re doing. Ironically, the study was conducted arming 2,200 participants, ages 18 to 88, with an iPhone app.
At random times during the day, the app would beep in and ask them questions about what they were doing, thinking, and if they were happy. Now, seriously, is there anything that makes your mind wander more than your iPhone? But, the results say, we’re less happy when our minds are flitting all over the place.
Anyone who follows the Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation might treat that news with a very spiritual, “Duh.” The discipline is, technically, simple. It involves staying in the moment, observing your thoughts and feelings, and not judging them. Some teachers liken it to sitting on the bank of a river watching the boats go by, but not jumping on one. Training in mindfulness is being used by psychologists to treat everything from severe anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Science is now telling us, however, that meditation actually causes detectable physical changes in the brain. In fact, there’s a name for the discipline, “contemplative neuroscience.” The study of what happens in the human brain when we meditate. Research in the field shows that brain circuits can be strengthened by working on changing simple habits of the mind.
One study proved increased activity in the left-side anterior region of the brain, which is the source of our positive emotions. Do you have to be a Buddhist monk to get there? No. The change was evident in new meditators who had only been practicing for two months.
What most of us don’t realize is that our brains have a sort of “default” mode — the thoughts we go to when we’re not really focusing on something, but just “wool gathering.” And what do those wandering thoughts do? They get negative and zero in on the things that stress us out and make us anxious. The more you meditate — even just non-judgmentally focusing on your breath — the more you improve the quality of your mind’s default state.
Feel like you could use a mental re-boot? A better version of your current operating system? It may be as simple as taking 15-20 minutes a day engaged in some form of meditation.