Last weekend I attended The Beginner’s Mindfulness Workshop at The Centre for Mindfulness Studies here in Toronto with instructor Elaine Smookler. The workshop (which I recommend if you’re interested in learning about mindfulness) covered a few topics including the neuroscience behind mindfulness. For those of you who aren’t familiar, practicing mindfulness encompasses many things such as increased awareness, self-compassion, empathy, curiosity, acceptance and meditation-like practices.
Mindfulness isn’t some new-age trend, it’s a centuries old practice backed by hard science. It changes your brain on a physical level. These changes lead to improved self-regulation (the ability to direct attention and resist knee-jerk reactions), the ability to learn from past experiences and make better decisions, improved emotional regulation, better memory and resilience. You can read more about those changes and others here and here.
Elaine was explaining that the physiological changes don’t happen overnight but they are possible for anyone with continued, daily practice. Your brain may not reflect the impacts of mindfulness on the first week or even month of practicing in much the same way that you can’t expect to walk into a gym and lift five hundred pounds during your first workout. Studies suggest about twenty minutes a day for eight weeks is needed for change to occur. Elaine shared a metaphor with us that illustrates how practicing mindfulness changes your brain (which I loved because I think it also applies to developing a new habit). You’ll have to excuse me as I am paraphrasing from my rushed notes but it went something like this:
Have you ever been hiking along a path in a forest? Not a concrete path or a wooden walkway, but a dirt path. Have you ever considered how many people were needed to walk that same route in order to create that path?
Practicing mindfulness is just like creating a path. The first person to ever walk that route could look back and believe they’d made no impact. The grass and weeds would appear to be perfectly intact. You’d see no trace of human activity.
But slowly, as more people walked that route, the grass would begin to flatten. Eventually, it would be completely worn away by the plodding feet of fellow hikers. The dirt beneath would start to peak through until, at last, just the brown earth was visible. The groove becomes deeper and the path wider over time.
Every time you practice mindfulness you are creating a new pathway in your brain. One journey on it’s own is of very little impact but many journeys over time can lead to big change. Eventually, there is less conscious effort required to choose the mindful path as it is becomes the most obvious one to take.
Whether you’re practicing mindfulness or trying to create a new healthy habit the path takes time to build. Once it’s there, however, it becomes your route. No more thinking about which direction to take – you already know, it’s automatic. It’s normal to feel as though you’re not making progress right away but it’s so important to remember that you will be rewarded for your repeated efforts. Be patient with yourself and have faith that even if it doesn’t always feel like it you are clearing a new path.