by Keith Fiveson

Keith W. Fiveson is the executive director and primary coach for Work Mindfulness, and partner at Consciousness Quotient Institute. He is the author of “The Mindfulness Experience – 8 Strategies to Live Life Now”.

Meditation is associated with the East. The West opened up to meditation as a contemplation practice with the advent of mindfulness, and today, mindfulness is free from the spirituality that accompanies religious devotion. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi introduced Transcendental Meditation to California in the late 1950s, and it quickly became a trend in the 1960s, popularized by the Beatles and ’60s culture. I grew up in that time, and it profoundly impacted me as a young teenager. Today, it has again caught the imagination of many.

The significant differences between “mindfulness” and “meditation” are more around form and formality. Mindfulness looks to strengthen the awareness of your awareness of the present moment, wherever you are. Whereas meditation is about setting aside time for visualization, breath awareness, mantras, or guided practice, mindfulness focuses your attention on your breath, body, and sense impressions. It helps to emotionally regulate stressful conditions occurring in the sympathetic nervous system, through noticing and being present with whatever you’re doing. When you are actively mindful of your breath and body, you see the world around you, your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, movements, and the effect you have on those around you.

Mindfulness experience: research insights

In a study, by Chiesa, A., Calati, R., and Serretti, A. (2011), it was found that a Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) program resulted in an increase of gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus and frontal areas such as the anterior cingulate cortex and left inferior frontal gyrus. These changes can be seen on both structural and functional MRI scans of brain activity while practicing mindfulness meditation over time. The researchers of this study claim that these findings may provide “interesting neurobiological correlates” of gains in psychological well-being reported by participants after they completed their mindfulness training. In other words, it reduces the fight or flight response in the amygdala and increases the grey matter (the area of cognitive learning) in the prefrontal cortex.

An additional explanation for how mindfulness practice works and generates changes to the physical structure is offered by researchers looking at the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating the fight-or-flight response, powerfully affected by emotions. This study found that “increased gray matter concentration in the right orbito-frontal cortex” results from mindfulness meditation practice, and may be responsible for downregulating this limbic system, which regulates emotions (Lazar et al., 2005).

As a result of downregulation and tolerance to stressors, one can experience increased stability and feelings of wellbeing. Alterations of brain areas linked with emotion regulation and learning occur after practicing mindfulness meditation over time. The researchers note that their own results accord with other studies at showing how the anterior cingulate cortex (see Creswell et al., 2007; Holzel et al., 2008) increases with meditation practice. The authors also note that their results are consistent with studies reporting an association between amygdala responses and altered activation of this region after mindfulness training (Lutz et al., 2008).

Meditation is associated with increased cerebral blood flow in the prefrontal cortex, suggesting enhanced executive control mechanisms (Tang et al., 2007). Other research shows that mindfulness leads to enhanced cognitive functioning and attentional processing (Moore and Malinowski, 2009; Chiesa and Serretti, 2010; MacLean et al., 2010), which suggests that practicing mindfulness, even in short bursts, might improve working memory capacity. This may be mediated by the anterior cingulate gyrus (ACC) (Brefczynski-Lewis et al., 2007). Mindfulness has also been correlated with increased blood flow to the ACC (Holzel et al., 2007), suggesting that mindfulness leads to enhanced attentional processing through this region. Furthermore, neuroimaging investigations indicate that mindfulness training results in increased functional connectivity between anterior and posterior brain regions, within the default mode network (Brewer et al., 2011), and it is associated with increased activity and grey matter density in frontal executive areas such as dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and superior medial gyrus (Brewer et al., 2010).

Mindfulness has also been shown to increase cortical thickness in the insula and sensory regions, which may reflect an enhancement of sensory awareness as a result of mindfulness practice (Hölzel et al., 2011). In addition, several studies have demonstrated that mindfulness meditation training reduces an individual’s fight or flight response to stress, by inhibiting brain regions associated with mind wandering. For example, individuals trained in mindfulness meditation show decreased activity in the precuneus and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) during rest, which was correlated with reduced mind wandering (Christoff et al., 2009). Mindfulness has also been linked to increased connectivity within the default mode network and between anterior default mode regions and the central executive system, including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the inferior parietal lobe (IPL).

What is clear, based on the scientific research, is that mindfulness practices help individuals to attune and adjust themselves to the present moment, by bringing the mind into focus, and this happens on three levels: neurological, psychological, and physiological

Neurological – Mindfulness is associated with decreased activity in the precuneus and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) during rest, which was correlated with reduced mind wandering (Christoff et al., 2009). Mindfulness has also been linked to increased connectivity within the default mode network as well as between anterior default mode regions and the central executive system comprising of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), inferior parietal lobe (IPL), and intraparietal sulcus. The reduction in neural activity has been found to be related to improved attentional control, working memory capacity, cognitive flexibility, even intelligence by some studies. Meditation has also been linked to a significant increase in gray matter concentration in PCC.

Psychological – Mindfulness is associated with an overall sense of improved well-being, positivity, and happiness. It also helps in improving the individuals’ mood regulation abilities. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce depressive symptoms in college students when added with other educational practices. Meditation has also been linked to increased self-control by strengthening the prefrontal cortex

Physiological – Mindfulness meditation reduces both systolic and diastolic blood pressure by 14% in high-risk hypertensive patients. It also induces relaxation through parasympathetic activation, which can lead to decreased anxiety, depression, anger, and stress levels

Implementing a simple practice: mindful breathing

This form of mindfulness meditation does not require any special training or background in practice. Mindful Breathing is a simple, secular, and universal method of mental training that can be practiced by anyone regardless of religious or spiritual beliefs.

Method: Say that you are the participant. You will sit with your back straight, close your eyes, and focus on the sensation of breathing ~ concentrate on each breath as it goes in and out through the nose. You would be asked to let all other thoughts go and maintain focus on breathing for 10 minutes. Then, when the mind wanders, bring it back to the breath. Your overall time commitment would be 10 minutes per day.

This is a practical approach to health and wellness, and these practices have direct and measurable results on the mind, body, and psychology of our day-to-day lives.

Thirty-five mindfulness tips

1. Bring awareness to your breath and body when you wake up in the morning, take a few conscious breaths, and practice half-smiling before getting out of bed.

2. From time to time during the day, bring awareness to your posture and how you transition between body movements, especially when you sit down to eat.

3. Bring awareness to your breathing at various times of the day. Choose to take a few conscious breaths, following the breath in and out. Count ten full breaths and then start again.

4. Use natural mindfulness triggers during the day to return your attention to the present moment: when the phone rings, pass through doorways, stop at traffic lights, when a sound comes into your awareness. Use these moments to breathe, experience your bodily sensations, and feel your feet on the ground.

5. When you eat or drink, bring awareness to the process of stopping, tasting, sensing, and nourishing yourself. Count to ten for each chew before you swallow.

6. Bring awareness to your body sensations as you go about your day, feeling the touch of air on your skin, the parts of the body in contact with the ground, the movement of your limbs as you walk, garden, run, stretch, or lift weights.

7. Notice when you are rushing or hurrying. Bring awareness to your state of mind, emotions, and body sensations in these moments. Notice if tension is arising. See if there is a possibility of choosing a different stance. Whenever possible, do just one thing at a time. Enjoy the present moment!

8. When you find yourself waiting or queuing for something, use those moments as valuable opportunities to stop and tune into your feelings. If you are feeling impatient, bring awareness to that. Don’t turn away from your feelings but look at them with curiosity.

9. Bring awareness to rising tensions in your body during the day or check periodically for pressure in your most vulnerable spots. Use this uneasiness as a barometer for your stress level. When possible, breathe into the uneasiness, and let go.

10. Continue to choose daily activities that you can conduct consciously with mindful attention: brushing your teeth, showering, washing, getting dressed. Pay full attention to what you are doing, and when your mind wanders, bring it back. Stay present with your presence of mind.

11. Bring awareness to your communication patterns: talking, listening, and periods of silence; notice your states of mind during these activities. Especially, notice the silence and the sounds in between the silence.

12. Try to be more present during the moments of your life: feeling the breeze on your skin as your walk, noticing the small flower that is growing out of the crack in the wall, the call of the wild geese flying overhead as they start their long journey homeward.

13. Practice turning your mind toward a more positive frame: reflect on everything you feel grateful for today, reflect on the positive moments and what has gone well.

14. Before falling asleep at night, bring awareness to your breathing and your body sensations for at least five full breaths, all the way in and out. These deep breaths will activate the parasympathetic nervous system and help you to rest.

15. Take five to thirty minutes in the morning to be quiet and meditate: sit or lie down and be with yourself, gaze out of the window, listen to the sounds of nature, or take a slow, quiet walk. Be with yourself and remember what is important to you.

16. While your car is warming up, take a quiet minute to pay attention to your breathing. Before you put your foot on the gas, remember the brake; you don’t always have to go forward. You can stop, pause, check for traffic, and then proceed.

17. When you drive, be aware of any body tension, your hands on the steering wheel, shoulders, stomach, etc. Consciously work at releasing and dissolving any tensions. Feel what it is like to be relaxed.

18. Decide not to play the radio and be with yourself. Be aware of where you are in the car and how the world is moving around you. Be present where you are now, and let that be enough for the moment. Your GPS is in control.

19. Experiment with driving a little slower than you might usually. Take your foot off of the gas and go in the slower lane.

20. Pay attention to your breathing, the sky, and the trees, or the quality of your mind when you stop at the traffic lights. What does the environment outside look like? What can you appreciate?

21. Take a moment to orient yourself to your workday. If you are driving to work, once you park your car, walk across the car park to step into your life: know where you are and where you are going.

22. While sitting at your desk, computer, etc., pay attention to your bodily sensations and consciously attempt to relax and rid yourself of excess tension. Remember to be present to whatever you are working on and focus your attention on your breath.

23. Use your breaks to relax rather than simply pausing from your work. For instance, instead of having coffee, a cigarette, or reading, take a short walk outside. Go around the block, look at the sky and the trees, and be aware of your feet as you walk.

24. At lunch, changing your environment can be helpful. If you take your lunch, or work at home, go to another room. Try eating at different times and being aware of the sensations of hunger or satiation.

25. Close your door (if you have one) and take some time to relax consciously. Close your eyes and breathe, counting your breaths and letting go of the day behind you and ahead.

26. Decide to STOP for one to three minutes every hour during the workday. Become aware of your breathing and bodily sensations, allowing your mind to settle. You are not a human doing; you are a human being.

27. Use simple cues in your environment as reminders to center yourself—the telephone ringing, sitting at the computer, bathroom breaks, walks, etc.

28. Take some time at lunchtime or other moments in the day to speak with close friends or associates. Choose topics that are not necessarily work-related and be aware of when it’s just surface talk (weather, sports, news), which is okay.

29. Choose to eat one or two lunches per week in silence. Use this time to eat slowly and be with yourself. Focus your attention on chewing your food, slowly tasting each bite before you swallow.

30. At the end of the workday, try retracing the day’s activities. Acknowledge and congratulate yourself for what you’ve accomplished, and then make a list for tomorrow. You’ve done enough for today!

31. As you walk to the car, pay attention. Breathe in the air, feel the cold or warmth of your body. Can you be open to and accept these environmental conditions and body sensations rather than resisting them? Listen to the sounds. Can you walk without feeling rushed? What happens when you slow down?

32. While your car is warming up, sit quietly and consciously transition from work to home, from the store to home, from one place to another. Just take a moment to be and enjoy it for a moment.

33. While driving, notice if you are rushing. What does it feel like? What could you do about this or that? Remember, you’ve got more control than you might imagine.

34. When you pull into the driveway at home, take a minute to orient yourself to being with your family and entering your home.

35. When you get home, change out of your work clothes, and say hello to each of your family members, the people you live with, your pets, plants, even your couch. Take a moment to look and take five to ten minutes to be quiet and still. Wash your hands as if you are starting a new phase of your life. If you live alone, feel what it is like to enter the quietness of your environment.

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