Nita Sweeney (author of Depression Hates a Moving Target) provides resources and tiny exercises for us to practice mindfulness daily.
HOW MUCH MINDFULNESS MEDITATION IS “ENOUGH?”
As part of the 200-hour meditation leader training I recently completed with Sage Institute for Creativity and Consciousness, I researched brief periods of mindfulness to find an answer.
This question has long intrigued me.
At the very first meditation retreat I attended, several decades ago, the teacher directed us to sense our thoughts and body sensations. We slowed our movements and maintained silence to focus on how thoughts and body sensations arose and passed away. She also invited us to practice equanimity. We attempted to allow whatever came into awareness to ebb and flow without pushing or pulling on the experience.
That weekend taught concrete, workable tools to help keep my head where my feet were. I was learning to “stay in the moment.” My husband, Ed, and I continued a near-daily meditation practice, but I found myself dropping into states of awareness during the day.
I wondered if these tiny “doses” of mindfulness might be helpful.
A few years later, after hearing others lament their inability to meditate (I don’t have time. I can’t concentrate. It’s boring. My mind won’t still.) I began to write a mindfulness meditation book. Every page of this not-yet-published book ends with a “Daily Practice,” a small “dose” of mindfulness.
“Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.”-Bruce Lee
I once worked work with a man who never wore an overcoat, even if it was ten below with a stiff wind. One day as we struggled to cross an icy parking lot against a strong breeze, I asked if he wasn’t cold. “A little,” he replied. “But if you don’t brace yourself against the cold, you don’t feel it.” He said he relaxed into the cold instead. “Don’t make yourself rigid against it.”
I tried it and found he was right. I still wear a coat on cold days, but when I remember to relax and not grit my teeth or stiffen my body, the weather isn’t as challenging.
The next time you’re in inclement weather or a room that feels too hot or too cold, notice any tension in your body. Where do you sense it? Let your shoulders drop. Soften your jaw. What do you feel? How far can you sink into these sensations? Instead of bracing yourself, can you feel the sensations? What happens?
Each “Daily Practice” is a tiny exercise. It takes only a few minutes, sometimes on the cushion, but more often, not.
Meditation teacher Shinzen Young specifically addresses this type of short-interval meditation practice. He calls it “Micro Practice” and refers to these bursts as “microhits.”
His instructions state:
Micro Practice: Attention: All attention on technique. Duration: Under 10 minutes, i.e., you give yourself “microhits” during the day; 30 seconds here, 3 minutes there (emphasis must be quality over quantity; if need be, use spoken labels to assure this).
“An Outline of Practice” by Shinzen Young, May 2014, updated August 2016.
WHY MIGHT MICROHITS BE BENEFICIAL?
Tiny doses of meditation can serve as an entry point for beginning meditators. People put off or intimidated by Buddhist lingo and retreat settings can practice these on their own. Microhits might also introduce experienced meditators who have grown bored with their practice to something new. And, a different approach might bring back meditators who have fallen away from consistent practice.
Most importantly, the effectiveness of microhits removes the “I don’t have time” barrier.
During the Sage Institute training, I reread Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman & Richard J. Davidson. I came away concerned Goleman and Davidson wouldn’t think much of the “Daily Practices” in the book I was writing or of Shinzen’s “Micro Practice.”
Specifically, on pages 270 to 271 of Altered Traits, the authors list elements crucial to “altering traits” which they felt was the real purpose of meditation. The authors opine, based on their analysis of the research, that people who meditate “on a path to renewal—a kind of inner vacation—rather than a lifelong calling” will not achieve the “altered traits” that are the subject of their book. I worried that brief mindfulness practices might be ineffective, even discredited by scientific study.
I turned to “Google Scholar” to test my theory.
My search for “brief mindfulness” revealed 9,200 abstract entries. Limiting the search to dates between 2019 and 2021, narrowed the results to 3,560. Adding the words “5-minutes” to the search, brought the number down to 199 abstracts.
IT TURNS OUT I’M NOT THE ONLY ONE INTERESTED IN THIS TOPIC!
I did not review each of the 9,200 abstracts. Within half an hour of reading the more recent results, I found enough support for my theory that brief sessions of mindfulness, even five minutes, can improve one’s life.
MANY OF THE ABSTRACTS BEGAN IN A SIMILAR WAY:
Although research has found that long-term mindfulness meditation practice promotes executive functioning and the ability to sustain attention, the effects of brief mindfulness meditation training have not been fully explored.
“Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: evidence of brief mental training,” Fadel, et al. Conscious Cognition, 2010, Jun;19(2): 597-605.
That abstract from 2010 opened the floodgates of research on this topic.
WHAT DID RESEARCHERS MEASURE?
Researchers used both “soft” and “hard” measurements. Among the “soft” measurements, they observed positive changes in empathy and compassion. They looked at stress levels, pain tolerance and relief. They documented accomplishment perception, self-awareness, time urgency, and emotional exhaustion. And they measured anxiety, attention, mood, memory, listening skills, emotional regulation and processing, mental state, and well-being.
In the “hard” measurement category, they looked for positive changes in brain hub, gray matter volume, brain plasticity, salivary oxytocin, electrophysiological markers, cortisol and a-amylase levels, prefrontal and hippocampal functioning, blood pressure, pulse, galvanic skin response, and skin surface temperature.
WHO DID THEY STUDY?
The groups studied included palliative care patients and their family members, college level psychology students, high school students, veterinary medical students preparing to do surgery on live animals, hospital patients, teachers, nurses and patient care technicians in an emergency department, pediatric ICU nurses, otolaryngology residents, and members of the general population.
WHAT TECHNIQUES DID THEY STUDY?
The most reputable studies contained a control group. Some control groups were given no instruction at all. Others were offered affirmations, hypnosis, guided imagery, listening to a podcast, listening to an audiobook, psychological explanation, emotional regulation education, and active listening exercises.
WHAT COUNTS AS A “BRIEF” PERIOD OF MINDFULNESS?
In some studies, the “5-minutes” of mindfulness was offered one time while in other studies it was repeated daily for several weeks. Researchers found merit in any session of mindfulness meditation regardless of how often (or little) it was repeated. This was true even if the meditation practice instruction was delivered by a computer.
Goleman and Davidson might be right that these microhits alone won’t bring about the “altered traits” of which they speak. Ideally, we incorporate these short practices into a more comprehensive approach to meditation.
But a cursory review of “brief mindfulness” abstracts from scientific research, shows that as little as five minutes of mindfulness can have a positive impact.
How Running With My Dog Brought Me Back From the Brink (Running Depression and Anxiety Therapy, Bipolar)
It’s never too late to chase your dreams. Before she discovered running, Nita Sweeney was 49-years-old, chronically depressed, occasionally manic, and unable to jog for more than 60 seconds at a time. Using exercise, Nita discovered an inner strength she didn’t know she possessed, and with the help of her canine companion, she found herself on the way to completing her first marathon. In her memoir, Sweeney shares how she overcame emotional and physical challenges to finish the race and come back from the brink.