Embodying a Secular Mindfulness Practice: The benefits

- October 3, 2023

Mindfulness based stress reduction aka embodying a secular mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is one of the core practices that we embody at New Life Portugal to help navigate the challenges of burnout, stress, anxiety and depression. Many of us struggle with anxious thoughts – ruminate on past events or have a preoccupation with future plans. Thoughts of worry stop us from being in the present moment and can also result in tension and tightness in the body.

When we bring mindful awareness to our activities and observe our experience, with presence and non-judgmental awareness, we then have a solid foundation to dive into the depth and diversity of our emotional experience. We are also more likely to have the mental, emotional and spiritual ability to work with the many sensory and emotional sensitivities we encounter.

Embodying a secular mindfulness practice

What is Secular Mindfulness?

Mindfulness has its roots in Eastern introspective practices and philosophies such as Buddhism, which has been a central focus of my personal healing and transformation over the years.

Although mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism and other spiritual traditions around the world, it has very much become secularized and is not based on any specific belief system or doctrine. At New Life Portugal we don’t follow any particular belief system but endeavor to bring in individual and communities values and ethical principles into our practice.

Recent research in science and neuroscience has enabled us to scientifically validate the benefits of mindfulness practices – showing the impact it has on neural networks within the brain as well as changes in our physiology. There is also significant support for the benefits of mindfulness coming from first-person anecdotal evidence.

Mindfulness Impacts our Brain

The brain is divided into three main divisions: the neocortex, the limbic brain and the reptilian brain. The neocortex is the rational or thinking brain, and it’s the largest and most evolved brain that is responsible for executive functioning. It allows us to do things consciously, such as choosing where to focus our attention, be creative, and solve problems.

The limbic brain is the mammalian or the emotional brain, and it produces emotions. It is the seat of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates things like heart rate, blood sugar levels and breathing – this is where the stress response begins. Mindfulness based stress reduction is very important.

The autonomic nervous system is mainly unconscious and has two major divisions: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Both the reptilian and the limbic brain work subconsciously to protect us from harm and discomfort, and they are responsible for about 80% of our actions.

Embodying a secular mindfulness practice

Embodying a secular mindfulness practice

The Sympathetic Nervous System

The sympathetic nervous system is the ‘fight or flight’ response and this is activated as a natural response to perceived threat or danger. It acts to keep us safe and protect us from any harm. When we experience external pressures in our lives, we may enter a flight or fight response because our sense of safety has been compromised. The ‘fight or flight’ system increases our heart rate, breathing, blood pressure and muscle tension.

The flight or fight response serves a purpose when we must protect ourselves from danger. Yet, the body often cannot identify the difference between serious life-threatening situations or a potential threat to our safety. 

Embodying a secular mindfulness practice can be so important (mindfulness based stress reduction).

A secular mindfulness practice

It is common for many of us to be functioning in a state of high alert, perceiving threats from our environment at work, or experiencing high levels of stress at home. As already mentioned, if this system is activated for too long, it can have a detrimental effect on our body, including a less effective immune system, trouble sleeping, tension in the body, physical pain, and outbursts of powerful emotion.

Chronic stress has a shrinking effect on the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning. While stress can shrink the prefrontal cortex, it can increase the size of the amygdala (located in the limbic brain), which can make it more difficult to regulate our emotions. When we are constantly under stress, our adrenal glands overproduces the hormone cortisol, which can affect our immune system and other systems or organs in our body.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System

The parasympathetic nervous system is related to the ‘rest and digest’ system. This system conserves energy, relaxes the body, slows the heart rate and promotes healing. Our ability to slip into this state is crucial during times of stress, so we can take time to heal our mind and body and handle our emotions more readily. It also improves the functioning of our immune system, and if our body wasn’t able to rest in this way, we would end up reaching a point of exhaustion and start to suffer from more serious mental or physical health issues.

Embodying a secular mindfulness practice

How does mindfulness impact the brain?

Neuroplasticity relates to the brain’s capacity to ‘re-wire’ itself and research in neuroplasticity suggests that the brain changes in response to experience. There are many different mechanisms of neuroplasticity, ranging from the growth of new connections to the creation of new neurons. When we practice mindfulness, we are changing the neural networks within the brain – creating new connections and reducing other ones.

Similar to how we need to go to the gym to keep our bodies healthy – we can do the same with our minds. With regular practice, we can train our minds to maintain stable attention on one particular object and change the scope of our awareness from narrow to open. Mindfulness also changes the structure of our brain and the functioning of our nervous system in the following ways:

  • Causes the amygdala to become smaller
    Regular mindfulness causes the amygdala to become smaller, whereas the grey matter in the prefrontal cortex area becomes thicker. In essence, the region of the prefrontal cortex function better and the areas of the brain that work subconsciously to protect us from harm and discomfort, such as the amygdala, become less active.
  • Make decisions more readily
    When the area of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision making and planning, is functioning better, we can stop, pause and process before acting and can make decisions more readily. We can cultivate space between a stimulus and our response to it to begin to let go of habitual reactions and replace them with intentional decision making. This is incredibly helpful for overcoming destructive behaviours, habits or even addictions.
  • Boosting functioning of immune system
    MRI scans have shown that an 8-week course that includes a consistent and daily mindfulness practice enables us to shift into the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the ‘rest and digest’ response, reducing cortisol levels and boosting the functioning of our immune system.

How does mindfulness impact the brain?

Written by Jules De Vitto

Mindfulness based stress reduction

At New Life Portugal we implement mindfulness into our regular routine, we start the day with a formal practice which provides the foundation for our way of engaging with each other and the world around us – it sets us up for the rest of the day.

We also engage in walking and movement mindfulness practices which enable us to integrate this way of being into our day to day lives.

More about mindfulness, in our blog. Embodying a secular mindfulness practice can be learnt at New Life.

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