Awareness: Changing the Brain Through Mindfulness

A woman closes her eyes and takes a moment to breathe.We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
-Buddha

Recently I have been reflecting on just how much we may not only want to be, but believe that we should be (even must be), happy and healthy, surrounded by loving friends and family, really enjoying it all—especially during the holiday season. It’s wonderful when we can feel that way. But the same expectations make it so much harder in light of illness, concerns about money, the inability to feel loved or loving, or difficulties at work. Maybe we’re lonely—or even feel like loneliness would be a relief, if it’s difficult to be with the people we’re with. Maybe the people we love are gone, or live far away. It can be easy to get lost in feeling sad, anxious, or annoyed, judging others and—even worse, sometimes—ourselves.

If you check the way your breathing feels right now, you may notice that it’s gotten a little constricted or faster. Just reading about stress or difficult emotions can trigger stress and unpleasant feelings to arise. How does your body feel? Is there noticeable tightness or tension anywhere? If you feel tightness, try this:

Stop. Close your eyes and find where you can feel the sensations of breathing most easily in your body. Then, gently breathe in and out three times, saying silently to yourself: “breathing in, I know I am breathing in, breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.”

The “I know” is very important. If someone asked you, “Do you know that you’re breathing?” at any random moment, of course you’d say yes. But that knowing tends to exist below the level of conscious awareness. Conscious attention to breathing usually happens only when there are noticeable changes, or something feels uncomfortable.

Noticing now what has come into your awareness, and without analyzing or thinking about it, (i.e. describing, not explaining), see if you can find:

  • any body sensations of tightness or ease, warmth or coolness, moistness or dryness, or tingling on your skin? (“I’m noticing I’m feeling ___”)
  • a thought or an image in your mind’s eye? (“I’m noticing I’m seeing ___”)
  • sounds or a conversation in your mind’s ear? (“I’m noticing hearing ___”)
  • an emotion you can name? (“I’m noticing I’m feeling ___”)
  • an inner movie running? (“I’m noticing the inner film with/about ___”)

Returning to conscious breathing, ask yourself: “What happened? What did I notice?” “How am I feeling now?”

Pay attention to what arises. This is a way to experience conscious awareness not just of your breathing, but also of what is happening in your own mind, in your body, and in the emotions taking place in your body and in your mind. Noticing with conscious awareness allows the emotional brain to quiet down as the observing mind engages with it.

When we pay attention consciously, we “know” or “notice” in a very different way. This difference is at the heart of mindfulness practice.

PxR = S

There is a very useful formula that comes from mindfulness training: P x R = S, or “pain times resistance equals suffering.” What we resist does persist.

Recognizing and naming difficult thoughts and emotions—allowing them to be there, without resisting them—can surprisingly create a feeling of some relief. For example, if it’s worry you’re experiencing, 1) say: “I’m noticing that I’m feeling worried.” Or, if you prefer, “Hello my worry, here you are, you’re part of me. I may not want you, but here you are.” Acknowledging the feelings like this, then, 2) immediately anchoring your attention back in body sensations by breathing, noticing sensations, stretching, releasing tightness—stabilizes the mind, releasing us from the grip of emotional reactivity. This calming practice enables us to pay attention to thoughts and emotions with more clarity of mind, to respond, instead of react.

Try it, if you like, the next time you notice you’re feeling a difficult emotion. Don’t insist that it “must work” the first time through, just notice. What happens? What do you feel in your body, what thoughts do you notice, what emotions do you recognize?

Mindful acceptance of things as they are involves cultivating the capacity to be consciously aware of difficult emotions or stress without unconsciously resisting them (which seems to be the human condition). This changes everything about how we experience life in many good ways. Because there’s less resistance, suffering is reduced, even in the presence of unchanging pain.

Neurons That Fire Together Wire Together

Noticing and not resisting difficult experiences changes the wiring in our brains. It’s not just a subjective feeling, the physical structure of the brain changes. Our minds are naturally “Velcro for negative, Teflon for positive” (Hanson). With mindfulness practice, we retrain our brains to get un-stuck from the negative, to focus more on what’s positive without ignoring or suppressing the difficulty.

Extensive research in the growing fields of cognitive, contemplative, and interpersonal neuroscience demonstrates that mindfulness practice (such as meditation, yoga, and scanning for body sensations), done regularly, rewires the brain in important ways. Improved learning, memory, resilience, ability to manage stress, concentration and emotional control, kindness and compassion, sleep, immunity, and less suffering from chronic pain and illness—all of these are benefits of doing mindfulness practices.

The more minutes, the better, but even ten minutes a day makes a palpable difference.

Breathing in, and breathing out, what are you noticing now?

© Copyright 2010 by Renee Burgard, LCSW, therapist in Palo Alto, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 3 comments
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  • T.Sully

    November 29th, 2010 at 2:37 PM

    I have tried supressing the negative and unpleasant feelings inside of me before,and trust me,it’s not good at all.It leaves you feeling like you’re sitting in a volcano while you deny it’s very existence.

    I reached out for professional help and have now realized that it is much better to acknowledge the presence of the issue and try to resolve it rather than supress it.Life does feel a lot better when you’re not sitting on a volcano :)

  • trav good

    November 30th, 2010 at 5:47 AM

    When I compare myself to others and what they have that is when I inevitably end up feeling the worst.

  • Elaine. S

    October 18th, 2014 at 1:44 PM

    Thank you for such a concise, wonderful overview of mindfulness. I teach it regularly and was so impressed with how you packed so much salient into into one piece! Fantastic. I also appreciated your passion and energy for this work. Again, thank you, I’d love to know more about who and where you are? Or where else I can read your writings? … but in the meantime, thanks for offering your sharp awareness, in such a lovely, succinct way.

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