Being is Enough: The Neuroscience of Embodied Mindfulness

This blog article was written for Stretch Vancouver

In the summer of 2013, I sustained a brain injury that forced me to drop out of school and take a significant amount of time off work. Many people are aware that a concussion can lead to headaches, nausea, dizziness, pressure in the head, difficulty focusing, and sensitivity to light and noise, but not everyone knows that anxiety and depression are also common symptoms. I had every symptom in the book and was also in a lot of physical pain.

For months my doctors told me to do nothing but rest (we know now that a gradual return to activities better supports recovery than long-term rest). During that time, I barely left my house because I was completely overwhelmed by the outside world and would often break down into tears. I felt imprisoned by my symptoms. My nervous system felt raw and fragile, and I was triggered easily. I remember days where I would lay on my couch and just cry and cry, not really knowing what I was sad about. I felt isolated because my injury was invisible; the people close to me couldn’t understand what I was going through. Unable to do the things I usually derived purpose from, I felt like my entire life was on hold, as if I was waiting around to get my life going again. This waiting caused me emotional distress. Then one day, in a flash of awareness, it dawned on me that my life wasn’t on hold – it was still happening, RIGHT NOW. Life was going to continue ticking along, moment by moment, whether I was present to it or not. I realized that I could either choose to continue resisting the what-is, and spin in the frustration of not being able DO my normal life, or I could let BEING be enough, whatever that looked and felt like in the moment. In the midst of a thick mental and emotional fog, the awareness that I could choose to let BEING be enough was like a beacon of light, and it also challenged my perspectives on self-worth. Like most of us, I had been assigning value to my life based on what I was doing and accomplishing. Despite having an established meditation practice for years, and even taken a week of silence at an ashram, I had never had the opportunity in my daily life to stop doing everything and just BE for weeks on end. I don’t think I have ever really considered the worthiness of my “beingness” in the absence of action, outside of meditation. This difficult time was a blessing in disguise because it became a bridge between my meditation practice and my life, and it deepened my understanding of mindfulness. I returned to a regular breathing and mindfulness practice, and these practices became the medicine that brought me back to myself in a whole new way, with more compassion, kindness, gentleness, and a greater sense of self-worth.

Whether you’ve experienced a head injury or not, you might be able to relate to aspects of my story if you’ve ever struggled with stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, or feeling overwhelmed. If you experience any of the above, I suggest a regular Embodied Mindfulness practice (see below). While a general mindfulness practice asks you to attend to everything that’s happening in the moment, including thoughts and the environment around you (sounds, smells, etc), embodied mindfulness is about attending specifically to your embodied experience. This practice, pioneered over 30 years ago by Michael Lee, the founder of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, is based in the belief that present-centered awareness is indeed body-based, and this theory is now supported by the latest neuroscience which shows that when we are present in the moment, areas of the brain light up that are responsible for noticing the felt sense of the body. This practice of attending to the embodied experience is also aligned with the latest clinical approaches in the treatment of psychological trauma, such as Somatic Experiencing by Peter Levine, Trauma Sensitive Yoga by David Emerson, and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy by Pat Ogden.

Here is a simple Embodied Mindfulness practice that you can do on your own: Start by waking your body up with some vigorous movements (this will help you be more present in the meditation), and then find a comfortable seat and set a timer for at least five minutes. Bring your awareness into your body. What do you notice? Sensation, pulsation, tingling, temperature, discomfort, feelings, emotion…there’s no right or wrong thing to notice. Notice your breathing. Watch your body breathe. No need to fix or change anything. Do your best to simply notice your experience without interpretation. Your mind will want to jump back and forth between the past and future, evaluating and judging, because it’s your mind’s job to DO. Keep calling yourself back into your breath and body, here now. Remind your brain that in this moment, in the absence of doing, BEING is enough. And know, that when you engage this practice regularly, you are literally changing your brain!

Each time you practice embodied mindfulness you are strengthening neural networks that help you shift out of a thinking-state (in your head) and into a present-moment aware-state (in your body). This is because distinct areas of the brain are active when we are present versus when we are distracted and caught up in thoughts. Our default mode is the thinking-state, or mind-wandering, referred to as “narrative self-reference” in neuroscience. This stream of visual and verbal thoughts about the past or future is constantly attempting to make meaning out of our experiences, and to evaluate everything as either good, bad, right and wrong. It is in this state that we get caught up in rumination and worry – the thinking patterns associated with depression and anxiety. On the other hand, when we shift into an aware-state, or an “experiential self-reference”, and we are present to our moment-to-moment experience, areas of the brain light up that are responsible for interoception, the felt sense of being in your body, and exteroception, the feeling of the surface of your body in contact with the environment. The benefits of embodied mindfulness become clear when we learn that deficits in interoception are linked with psychiatric disorders, such as clinical depression and anxiety,, and that psychological trauma often results in a numbing or disconnection from the body. Research has shown that a regular mindfulness practice shrinks areas of the brain responsible for anxiety, while increasing cell density in areas responsible for empathy, compassion, and emotion and stress regulation. Therefore, learning to attend to your embodied experience is not only an important part of mindfulness meditation, but it is crucial for maintaining holistic wellbeing.

Take-home messages:

  1. Learning how to recognize the difference between a thinking-state and an embodied aware-state can support practitioners of all levels, and might make meditation more accessible for beginners.
  2. Waking the body up with some vigorous movements before sitting for meditation can help you drop into an aware-state more easily.
  3. When engaging a mindfulness practice and you notice yourself getting caught up in thoughts, remind your brain that BEING is enough.
  4. Mindfulness doesn’t just have to happen in a formal seated practice. You can bring mindfulness into your daily life, anytime, anywhere.
  5. A regular practice of noticing your present-moment embodied experience, without judgement, can support changes in the brain that enhance your resiliency to stress, anxiety, and depression, and plays an important role in the healing of trauma.

Shivani Wells, C-IAYT, E-RYT 500, is a certified Yoga Therapist in private practice, and a yoga and meditation teacher in Vancouver, BC. She is a Course Director with the Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy school, and is currently conducting research on the effects of yoga and meditation on brain injury with the UBC Psychiatry department. www.shivaniwells.com

References:

1., 2.  Farb, Segal, Mayberg, Bean, McKeon, Fatima, Anderson. (2007)  Attending to the present: mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2007 Dec;2(4):313-22. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsm030.

3. Avery, J. A., Drevets, W. C., Moseman, S. E., Bodurka, J., Barcalow, J. C., and Simmons, W. K. (2013). Major depressive disorder is associated with abnormal interoceptive activity and functional connectivity in the insula. Biol. Psychiatry. 76, 258–266. dos: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.11.027.

4. Paulus, M. P., and Stein, M. B. (2010). Interoception in anxiety and depression. Brain Struct. Funct. 214, 451–463. dos: 10.1007/s00429-010-0258-9.

5. Hölzel, Carmody, Vangel, Congleton,
Yerramsetti, Gard, and Lazar. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res. 2011.

6. Payne, Levine, Crane-Godreau (2015) Somatic experiencing: using interoception and proprioception as core elements of trauma therapy. Front. Psychol., https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00093

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