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Mindfulness Introduction

Mindfulness & Neurobiological 

Tools for Healing - A Training Resource

By Jim Messina, Ph.D., CCMHC, NCC, DCMHS-T
What is Mindfulness?

The practice of mindfulness involves learning (or perhaps more accurately re-learning) how to be present and aware in a given moment. Mindfulness is teaching yoursefl to be more Aware: to direct focus of attention to something like your body, you mind, or something in the environment

Present: being in this place and moment, right here, right now

Focused: more able to be able to choose and control where people place their attention

Mindfulness is a *skill* that can be learned and can improve with practice. It promotes better patience, compassion, kindness toward oneself and others.

Mindfulness is Focusing Deliberately

Often you don’t really pay attention to your experiences, and you miss what is happening and what you are experiencing. In our culture many things compete for our attention. People are human beings, not human doings. Peoples' minds are often exhausted - doing so many activities, focusing on so many different things, or repeatedly focusing on troubling thoughts. Those with anxiety or depression may be so tuned into a particular channel (worry or rumination) so that they are not even aware of their experiences.

Mindfulness is a type of “self-directed neuroplasticity”

This is because the use of mindfulness is a way that individuals modify their thinking processes in order to change emotional and cognitive responses as well as behaviors.The practice of mindfulness is more familiar to Eastern and more indigenous cultures. We  may need to choose our vocabulary carefully when you begin this introducduction, because you may be wary of it. But mindfulness is an essentially human ability, and all humans are capable of it with training.

Alternative Terminolgy in Describing Mindfulness to Others

Mindfulness is a practice that is not as familiar in American and Western cultures as it is in Eastern cultures and indigenous cultures so you need to be aware that you may have an unfavorable response to the idea. The way you look at mindfulness can make a difference and the terms you use in dealing with it will make a difference. You may not be at the right point in your life to use mindfulness- if you are in crisis or have just recently been through bereavement or a trauma, emotions can be too overwhelming for this mindfulness approach

You might not want to use words like mindfulness and meditation when you tell others what your are working on. You might rather use phrases such as:
  • Living the What-is rather than of the What-if
  • Getting Freed from Habit and Reactivity
  • Prayerfulness
  • Changing the Channel
  • Loving Awareness
  • Tuning into New Perspectives
  •  Moment to Moment Awareness
  • Unplugging
  • Acceptance and Letting Go
  • Focusing on the Moment

A Tool in Mindfulness: Intention

Our intention is like the steering wheel of a car, that allows us to direct ourselves in a certain way. Our past history, our traumas, our experiences, and tendencies tend to PUSH us, almost like a power from behind that it is difficult to resist. But when we set intention, we have more ability to steer ourselves in new directions. Movements do not have to be big - small shifts can start us on a new path that is more under our own control.

GLAD - A process to use in Mindfulness time spent

G  One Gratitude that you have something you are thankful for – major or minor

L   One new thing you Learned today - Something you recognized, or figured out

A   One Accomplishment you did today - Something you feel is meaningful, even self-care

D   One thing that Delighted you today - Something made you smile, laugh, or feel joyful

Change Your Relationship with Your Mind

Instead of being “trapped in the claustrophobia of busy thoughts, you can open up to a bigger space, like puncturing holes in a dense cloud so that the sun can shine through.

Learning to focus is not to avoid your experiences or push them away- it is to be more present and focused on the entirety of your experiences. To be mindful changes your awareness of your experiences- almost like going from a flat screen black and white TV to a three dimensional experience which is vivid and colorful. You can learn to be more grounded in the body and less focused on the mind. Thoughts are not reality - you can take a step back from them and observe and experience them.

The Mind is a Natural Wanderer

The mind goes where it typically goes and this is natural and a part of being human. The mind is like a puppy that needs to move around, and it wants to chew on what it wants to chew on.  You need to accept it with good humor, like you would a cherished pet, and not judge your mind for this. Your brain has learned an expectation of how long to focus on a thought or idea. It can keep focus on certain ideas for hours. It can say “We are done now” and be resistant.

Tips for practicing focusing attention— 

Your mind keeps wandering - You may see this as a failure experience

Here is how to look at it:

1. This is perfectly normal and you are not “doing it wrong”

2. This is a natural process, as when stretching your muscles while working out, then returning to exercise

3. Keep a sense of good humor about it

4. Bring your attention back again and again, knowing that you are exercising the part of brain that controls what you focus attention on, and strengthening your ability to control it                  

Your ability to focus has different settings, like a camera, and you can have a narrow focus or a wide focus (focus on isolated body part vs. whole body).

You may like to think you multi-task but you just shift focus.

This lens also affects emotional management in your mind.

Your focus will influence the nature/experience of emotions.

Once you learn different kinds of focusing, you can use this in a variety of ways to experience your emotional responses differently.

Exercise to Understand Training Your Focus

When you are trying to learn a new way to focus, the part of your brain providing focus is not yet skilled at holding the focus, and it shifts automatically, in the way you typically do during the day

This is normal and even helpful.  But we are trying to get more control over the focus.

Exercise: Training Your Focus

Using muscles in your eyes that control the lens, focus on the lines in your hand in front of your face, and notice how if you move your hand, keeping those muscles tight, you see 2 images of the room.

Practice holding the focus. Try to establish more control over the focus, rather than letting eye muscles automatically adjust without your control.

Mindfulness as Training the Lens

If we think of the brain as having a lens that determines what we focus on, mindfulness is experimenting with that lens. We can focus in on different aspects of our experience in turn. We can also widen the lens to open up our focus to more of the environment, or narrow it to limit it. This lens applies to all aspects of our mind. Remember when we multi-task we just shift focus - This lens also affects emotion management in our mind  Our focus will influence the nature/experience of emotions.

What are Our Emotioninal Responses?

In general, we have three basic emotional reactions to what we experience through our awareness. After we detect something (see it, hear it, think it, even feel it) we have one of these three reactions:

  1. Attachment: liking, craving, wanting to hold on
  2. Aversion:  disliking, pushing it way, avoiding
  3. Indifference: not finding it of interest, not noticing, feeling neutral or switching attention off

In mindfulness, our goal is not to stop or change the reaction, but to notice it and how it affects our body, mind, and behavior.


Bodily Sensations



Direct Experience of Sensations

Where in your body do you react?                   

How does your body react?

What thoughts do you have?

Does your focus shift to thinking?

What emotions come up?

Are they linked to sensations or thought?

Thoughts that come up in reaction to bodily sensations

Where in your body do you react?

How does your body react?

What thoughts do you have?

Does your focus shift to thinking?

What emotions come up?

Are they linked to sensations or thought?

Attachment Response (or other)

Where in your body do you react?

How does your body react?

Where in your body do you react?

How does your body react?

Where in your body do you react?

How does your body react?

The Importance of Breath

Breath helps us to focus on the present moment in a variety of ways.

  1. It is easily accessible wherever or whenever we wish.
  2. Awareness of our current breathing is always rooted in the present: We are focused on breath as it is occurring, not yesterday’s breath or tomorrow’s breath
  3. Focusing on breathing increases awareness of  our body and physicality, shifting us into a new focus
  4. Our body and mind become more synchronized
  5. Some people may have concerns about breathing and should try a different focus (e.g.,asthma, pain issues)

Exercise: Mindfulness of Breath

Good to always begin and end any mindfulness exercise with a focus on the breath

Sit comfortably with a tall spine, let shoulders drop, and hands rest palms up in your lap

  • Close eyes or keep them open with downward gaze
  • Bring attention to movement of the breath
  • No need to change the way one breathes- Just notice how the breath feels as it is
  • Tune in to the physical sensations, not thinking, but being with it, all the way in and all the way out
  • If mind wanders, bring it back to a focus on the breath with good humor and kindness toward the restless mind

Focus on

  • Breath in the nostrils, feeling movement in and out
  • Breath in the torso, feeling chest expand, belly expand

Can put hand on belly to teach diaphragmatic breathing

  • Qualities of breath, long or short, shallow or deep, rough or smooth, changing or steady?
  • Inhale vs. Exhale, looking for differences in the feeling?
  • Breath Dissolving, how does it feel when breath leaves?

During the process focus on being inquisitive, curious

It’s normal to discover how active your mind is

We are not trying to maintain an empty mind, just a focus

Thoughts are not a problem, they just give us practice bringing focus back to breath

Exercise: "Breathing Into"

Breath is essential for life

  • Each breath is bringing oxygen into the body to nourish it, and cleansing the body with the exhale
  • Think of where the breath is taking oxygen, and what parts of the body are being cared for
  • You can focus your attention on that part of the body, as though directing breath to the care of that part of the body

This is called “breathing into” that part of the body

This is useful in coping with stress, pain, healing processes, physical sensations, etc.

Mindfulness as Training the Lens of the Brain

If you think of the brain as having a lens that determines what you focus on, mindfulness is experimenting with that lens

You can focus in on different aspects of your experience in turn

You can also widen the lens to open up your focus to more of the environment, or narrow it to limit it

This lens applies to all aspects of your mind

You like to think you multi-task but you just shift focus

This lens also affects emotion management in your mind

Your focus will influence the nature/experience of your emotions

Exercise: How to Savor the Moment

So many times, we are doing a task for the outcome - studying for the grade, cleaning for the spotless house, working to get paid or promoted

  • Think of a time when you really enjoyed doing something for the sake of doing it
  • By shifting your focus to the details of your experience, you shift to the process orientation instead of outcome
  • What is it like to savor an activity that you typically take for granted?
  • What is it like to focus on being in the moment?

Do the activity without distracting yourself or multitasking

  • Focus, slow down, and notice every detail about what you are doing.
  • Allow yourself to focus on the sounds, sights, smells, motions, sensations as if you have never experienced this task before! Observe!

If you get distracted, simply return attention to the task

  • Notice the items you are working with, notice the motions that you make, notice how the process changes

You are learning that there is more than one way to do something

Mindfulness of Sound

People have  lamented that we cannot clear our ears with as much ease as we can our eyes.

Meditating with noise around you can be a good practice to introduce after the breath exercise.

Similar to breath, you can notice the sounds that are occurring.

Do you label things? Do you resent the sounds?

Can you focus on the direct experience of sounds rather than the interpretation and thinking about sounds

Observe how you react to the sounds.

Help yourself increase awareness of experience, and refrain from judgement.about your experience.

Exercise: Mindfulness of Sound

Good to begin and end with a focus on the breath

  • Sit comfortably with a tall spine, let shoulders drop, and hands rest palms up in your lap; Close or focus eyes.
  • Bring attention to sounds you hear
  • No need to hunt for sounds- let them come to you
  • Sounds may be close or far away
  • Instead of thinking or labeling the sounds, try to focus on the direct experience of the sound
  • Think of yourself as a microphone, receiving the sound
  • Tune in to the experience of the sounds without creating a storyline Focusing on the direct experience of sound
  • Notice the difference between thinking about the sounds and experiencing them
  • Notice the texture, pitch, and timing of sounds
  • Notice the loudness, softness, how they arise and dissolve
  • Are there layers of sounds, how do they fit together?
  • Are they in background or the focus of attention?

Direct experience opens us up to a wider and more vivid world

The sounds come and go, but the mind is not the sounds – it is the space in which sounds are experienced

The space stretches to encompass all of the sounds- this is the spaciousness of awareness

Notice how the mind wants to label and make stories, but bring it back to a focus on the sounds with good humor and kindness toward the restless mind

This is a good exercise is to encourage awareness of how one reacts to sounds

Notice what reactions occur to a sound: 

  • Attachment- interest, pursuit, holding on, fondness, 
  • Aversion-bracing, clenching, tightening, tension, withdrawal, 
  • Indifference- lack of interest, dismissal, ignoring

Cultivate a curiousness about these reactions to observe and learn about them

Where are these reactions felt in the body?

This exercise introduces awareness of how emotional reactions occur

Allowing the reactions to occur and breathing into them can be introduced

Mindfulness of Thought

In contrast to the approach taken in Cognitive Approaches, thoughts are not seen as a problems to be corrected.

The goal is to observe and accept them as experiences, but not necessarily as reality.

You can see through them, and see that they are impermanent and insubstantial. In the busy mind, thoughts come and go, like clouds in the sky or waves on the beach.

Labeling thoughts when meditating, gets into the habit of saying silently “thinking” whenever thoughts pop up.

Don’t get into analyzing thoughts, just acknowledge them as “thinking” and focus back on the breath or whatever the focus is. Once again, be kind, patient.

Exercise: Mindfulness of Thought

Good to begin and end with a focus on the breath

  • Sit comfortably with a tall spine, let shoulders drop, and hands rest palms up in your lap; Close or focus eyes.

Bring attention to breath and the sensations of breathing

No need to hunt for thoughts – let them come to you

Your mind may register sensations, but keep the focus on the breath

  • Do thoughts immediately pop in, or do they seem to have disappeared?
  • Notice how the thoughts come and go within your awareness
  • When you experience a thought, consider how it appears
  • Is it fully developed. or do you just experience pieces or edges of the thought
  • Are you aware of it immediately or are you caught off guard?
  • Instead of getting caught up in it, acknowledge it and see how long it stays around
  • Explore the thought like you might a cloud that is going by without your influence, simply trying to observe it
  • Notice if different thoughts are arising and how they may or may not be related to the first thought
  • Some thoughts might come with emotions connected
  • Sometimes you feel attachment or aversion to a thought

Notice how the mind wants to babble and make stories and produce judgment, but eventually bring back a focus on the breath with good humor and kindness toward the restless mind.

Whatever happened was a good learning experience

  • Metacognition: process of thinking about thoughts, knowing about your knowing

Tibetan Buddhism:

  • Sem: small mind, the chattering of the mind
  • Rikpa: big mind, the awareness of all the chattering as seen from a place of quiet observation. The mind of wisdom.
Overcome Your Aversion through Mindfulness
As you practice mindfulness, you will notice your reactions to Attachment, Aversion, and Indifference and will be more able to delay reactions
Common Reactions to Aversion (most relevant to anxiety, stress, fear)
  • Freeze
  • Panic, sweat, stomach ache
  • Shout/Get angry
  • Withdraw, hide, run away
  • Clench shoulders, stomach, jaw, chest
  • Feel hurt, lost, abandoned, lonely
  • Blame myself/Blame others
  • Drink alcohol, eat, smoke, drink coffee
  • Overwork, stay busy
Instead of your usual reactions to Aversion, mindfulness encourages you to practice awareness, and instead of avoiding or reacting to the feelings:
  • You direct attention to them.
  • You allow yourself to be with these uncomfortable feelings and observe them with curiosity
  • You allow the feelings to exist and move through you, and learn how they resolve themselves when you don’t react
  • You learn that resisting and attempting to get rid of emotional reactions can produce additional difficulties
  • You create a space where you have more choice about how to respond, instead of just react
What does Mindfulness do to Your Brain?
Some studies look at changes in the brain after 8 weeks of Mindfulness training:Increased thickness of areas in the prefrontal cortex, and cingulate cortex was found after training (Holzel et al. , 2011).The prefrontal cortex is involved in modulating and inhibiting emotional reactions.  The cingulate seems to be an important area for the regulation of mood, and has been implicated in a variety of disorders including mood disorders, anxiety disorders and (Drevets & Savitz, 2008)
Some studies measure a person’s report of Mindfulness and see if it relates to structures in the brain…Way, Creswell, Eisenberg, & Lieberman (2010) found decreased amygdala activity in the resting state for those who had higher scores on Mindfulness. Higher scores on Mindfulness were associated with smaller amygdalas, especially on the right side (Taren, Creswell, & Gianaros, 2013).
Practice Will Change Your Brain
  • The more you focus and refocus, the more your brain learns how to do this.
  • Just like exercising muscles makes them stronger, the more you practice focusing, the better your brain gets at doing it. But it is not an immediate fix however.
  • People who practice Mindfulness have more activity and gray matter in the areas of the brain associated with happiness, well being, and the ability to regulate emotions.
  • You begin to do it more naturally when you have practiced – and only 8 weeks of practice changes the brain.
  • Mindfulness brings you out of rumination and worry into the present.
Avoiding Judgement is Essential for Productive Use of Mindfulness
Cultivating an attitude of acceptance and non- judgement is an essential part of the practice.
Drop judgment and stop looking for results.
Instead of impatience and boredom, you *experience* your life and are more likely to appreciate moments.
  • You may often have a running commentary going through your mind, constantly interpreting what is happening like a sports commentator at sports event. That commentary is influenced by those who have raised you, by how you have learned to cope. Shifting away from that commentary is essential.
  • Notice the internal tone of voice you use when your mind wanders. How do you treat yourself? Do you slap yourself down, respond critically?
  • Can you interrupt this judging and develop a kindness to yourself, even a sense of humor. “Oops there you go wandering off,” like a fond grandparent to a toddler Or like talking to a playful puppy “Hard to sit still, eh?”.It’s normal. The mind is accustomed to being busy.
  • Practicing this process of self acceptance in the process of simply focusing will help you be more accepting of yourself (and others) in other aspects of life.
It’s ok to have your mind wander, to have feelings of irritation or boredom.
Become Embodied
One of the essential aspects of being mindful is to be more aware of your bodily experience.
You will learn how to be in your bodyand experience sensations and perceptions more fully.
Ironically, when you do this, you are more able to tolerate your emotional reactions and accept them.
  • Practice feeling the body *from the inside.*
  • Connect with your direct experience, *experiencing* rather than “thinking” about it.
Let go of the thinking mode, and practice the being mode - learn to be with your physical sensations.
Try the Feeling Your Fingers Exercise.

Exercise: Feeling Your Fingers

  • Without looking at them, take a minute to visualize your fingers– how they look, their shape, fingernails
  • Take some time to think about your thoughts about your fingers – perhaps whether you like them
  • Let go of *thinking about* your fingers -focus on what it is like to *feel* your fingers from the inside
  • How much space do they take up? Are they warm or cold? Are they tense or relaxed? Are they tingling?
  • Be inquisitive… focus on curiosity…
  • Bring your awareness to your left thumb. Is it touching anything? Can you feel the contact? What sensations does it have? Do they change as you focus awareness?
  • If your mind wanders as you are doing this exercise, that is normal. Notice the thoughts. But just keep bringing your attention back.
  • Bring your awareness to the fingers on the left hand. What sensations do they have? Do they feel moist or dry? Cramped or relaxed? Heavy or light?
  • Can you feel the fingernails? Fingertips? Joints?
  • Are they touching each other? Can you feel the contact? Do you feel the air around them? What parts of the fingers is your attention drawn to? Do the sensations change as you focus awareness?
  • Expand your awareness to your fingers and thumb of the right hand. You aren’t supposed to feel anything in particular. Just notice the sensations that are there.
  • Expand your awareness to your whole hands. The palms, back of the hands, the wrists
Take a moment to let the experience of your fingers fade, and take some time to reflect on the exercise:
  • What is the difference between *thinking about* the fingers and *feeling* them from the inside?
  • What was the experience like?
  • Could you keep your focus there?
  • Was it easy or difficult to stay with the experience of your body?
  • Were you judging yourself or your fingers as you were focusing on the feeling?
  • Did you try to change the sensations or just let them be?
Becoming Embodied
  • When you have an emotion, it too can be experienced more directly if you focus on the direct sensations.
  • When you feel uncomfortable feelings, you are most likely to try to push them away, ignore, or act on them by shouting, running, fighting, hiding.
  • Allow yourself to feel these body sensations, including the difficult ones, You can experience them, respond to them in new ways.
  • You can let go of the *thinking* mode and focus on the *being* mode, allowing yourself to simply experience the feelings.
  • This helps you learn you can handle your feelings like anxiety and don’t have to avoid, repress, or act on them.