Mindfulness is an ancient practice which encourages people to direct their thoughts toward the present, rather than obsessing over the past or worrying about the future. This relatively simple notion is starting to become a more common practice among people concerned with worry and fear.
Scientific studies are starting to provide evidence that the ancient practice of mindfulness can create beneficial physical changes in brains.
"I don't feel I'm very present in each moment. I feel like every moment I'm either thinking about something that's coming down the road, or something that's been in the past.," Anderson Cooper, hosting a special on mindfulness meditation on "60 Minutes", said.
Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He also manages a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program, which lasts eight weeks. Cooper attended a weekend-long retreat at the Center, led by Kabat-Zinn, which forbade electronics and included silent meals. By the end of the two-day session, Cooper became a fan of the technique, which he now reports integrating into his private life.
"We've always been good at distracting ourselves. But now, I mean, you see people walking down the street with ear buds on and looking at this or whatever, talking to themselves. So there's more and more opportunity to never be where we actually are and just be," Kabat-Zinn said.
Mindfulness was first developed as a Buddhist meditation technique, but has become more popular among health care workers and centers without any spiritual basis to the practice. Schools, corporations, and even the military are now employing mindfulness. Positive results have even been observed among people suffering from physical ailments, from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to HIV and cancer.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) reveals that the amygdala, a section of the brain which contributes to the generation of fear, shrinks in patients practicing mindfulness at least once a week. Meanwhile, the frontal cortex grows thicker. This region of the brain, which directs decision-making, awareness and concentration, also becomes more inter-connected with other areas of the brain. Connections to the amygdala become more scarce, reducing the influence of the center over feelings and emotions. These changes grow more pronounced as mindfulness practice continues over time.
"Recent work suggests that mindfulness (and mindfulness training interventions) may foster neuroplastic changes in cortico-limbic circuits responsible for stress and emotion regulation," researchers determined in a 2013 study.
Practitioners undertaking mindfulness strive to accept current challenges, whether social or physical, and learn how to direct their minds toward the present moment.