The Art of Mindful Selfishness

The other day on my long drive home from work I heard a report on KOMO news radio that indicates that working crossword or Sudoku puzzles does not increase or maintain memory, as many believe,. That begs the question, how does one increase or even maintain memory.

That particular report mentions a few websites such as luminosity and Soak Your Head as places to go for games that help you take information that you know and relate it in different ways. This process is apparently necessary for increasing memory skills.

As I was doing my research on mindful self-care, I found three journal articles that indicated that mindfulness, in particular, mindful self-care, increased memory as well as many other mental processes, which lead to better mental health.

Let me start by defining “self-care”: Purposefully and actively taking time for yourself to do something that rejuvenates and energizes you. One important point to this definition is that activities that comprise self-care are frequently different for different people. In other words, the thing that relaxes and energies me might make you tense or board. We each need to discover for ourselves which activities are beneficial.

Self-care might include the following activities:

  • Watching a movie
  • Playing with pets
  • Grooming activities such as putting on makeup, getting a great haircut, taking a long bath (see The Ritual Bath).
  • Talking with friends
  • Writing in a journal
  • Eating right
  • Cooking
  • Exercise
  • Sex
  • Rituals

I’m sure you get the idea. Think about the things that allow you to do the more mundane things in life with more vigor.

I chose the title of this article because our culture teaches many of us, particularly women, that it is selfish to make time for our own enjoyment. It teaches us to nurture others before we nurture ourselves. Interestingly, all of the research I found indicates that self-care makes one a better caregiver.

This research shows that there are several negative results of NOT practicing mindful self-care. The list includes anger, frustration, isolation, sadness, loss of meaning and purpose, lack of joy, guilt, and shame. These feelings lead to poor mental health such as depression and anxiety. These are also feeling found to be associated with atheism.

So what is “mindful self-care” and how is it different from plain old self-care (see Mindfulness)?

We can define mindful self-care as staying present in the moment of self-care, i.e., being highly aware of physical, psychological, emotional, and work domains. One can stay present through your five senses thus making yourself aware of new sources of comfort, pleasure, and balance. Ritual holds this place in Stoic Paganism. Ritual requires change, rearranging lifestyles, planning and discipline. It causes us to develop new habits that can be a great source of renewal.

Mindfulness is a state rather than a trait. It does not include just mindful meditation although that is mainly what Stoic Paganism teaches. Other disciplines teach mindfulness such as some kinds of Yoga and Qigong, a Chinese posturing practice.

One observation you will make during mindful self-care is the thoughts that occur to you during your self-care activity. Observing without judging here is important because many of your thoughts might be lies.

For example, Thick Nhat Hanh, a respected Zen master, explains how his thoughts make excuses for him not to exercise or to cut his exercise session short. Since we think of self-care as being enjoyable, his thoughts might say, “I’m not enjoying this”, or “I’m too tired to do this” when the truth is that he will feel energized only if he completes his exercise period. When he doesn’t he continues to feel tired, and he feels defeated by his lack of discipline.

I can think of a couple of other self-care activities about which my brain lies to me. Housekeeping is a major activity that leaves me feeling better about my life yet my thoughts constantly come up with excuses not to do it. (At present, my thoughts are winning). Eating right for my body is another area that is difficult for me. Nevertheless, when my weight stays within the bounds my doctor and I have set for me, I am eager to do whatever else needs to be done.

Those among us that suffer from long-term health problems find that they must regularly change plans, often without warning, because of pain, fatigue, flair-ups of their disorder or emergency medical appointments. Self-care is of utmost importance to us since learning to give ourselves what we need, instead of fixating on what we want, can be the cure for the feelings that life is passing them by.

So many positive things come from this practice that if the public knew them, I think that our whole culture would change its attitude toward mindful self-care.

Here is a list of what the research shows:

Reduced rumination. Several studies have shown that mindfulness reduces rumination. In one study, for example, Chambers et al. (2008) asked 20 novice meditators to participate in a 10-day intensive mindfulness meditation retreat. After the retreat, the meditation group had significantly higher self-reported mindfulness and a decreased negative affect compared with a control group. They also experienced fewer depressive symptoms and less rumination. In addition, the meditators had significantly better working memory capacity and were better able to sustain attention during a performance task compared with the control group.

Stress reduction. Many studies show that practicing mindfulness reduces stress. In 2010, Hoffman et al. conducted a meta-analysis of 39 studies that explored the use of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. The researchers concluded that mindfulness-based therapy may be useful in altering affective and cognitive processes that underlie multiple clinical issues.

Those findings are consistent with evidence that mindfulness meditation increases positive affect and decreases anxiety and negative affect. In one study, participants randomly assigned to an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction group were compared with controls on self-reported measures of depression, anxiety and psychopathology, and on neural reactivity as measured by fMRI after watching sad films (Farb et al., 2010). The researchers found that the participants who experienced mindfulness-based stress reduction had significantly less anxiety, depression, and somatic distress compared with the control group. In addition, the fMRI data indicated that the mindfulness group had less neural reactivity when they were exposed to the films than the control group, and they displayed distinctly different neural responses while watching the films than they did before their mindfulness training. These findings suggest that mindfulness meditation shifts people’s ability to use emotion regulation strategies in a way that enables them to experience emotion selectively, and that the emotions they experience may be processed differently in the brain (Farb et al., 2010; Williams, 2010).

Boosts to working memory. Improvements to working memory appear to be another benefit of mindfulness, research finds. A 2010 study by Jha et al., for example, documented the benefits of mindfulness meditation among a military group who participated in an eight-week mindfulness training, a nonmeditating military group and a group of nonmeditating civilians. Both military groups were in a highly stressful period before deployment. The researchers found that the nonmeditating military group had decreased working memory capacity over time, whereas working memory capacity among nonmeditating civilians was stable across time. Within the meditating military group, however, working memory capacity increased with meditation practice. In addition, meditation practice was directly related to self-reported positive affect and inversely related to self-reported negative affect.

Focus. Another study examined how mindfulness meditation affected participants’ ability to focus attention and suppress distracting information. The researchers compared a group of experienced mindfulness meditators with a control group that had no meditation experience. They found that the meditation group had significantly better performance on all measures of attention and had higher self-reported mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation practice and self-reported mindfulness were correlated directly with cognitive flexibility and attentional functioning (Moore and Malinowski, 2009).

Less emotional reactivity. Research also supports the notion that mindfulness meditation decreases emotional reactivity. In a study of people who had anywhere from one month to 29 years of mindfulness meditation practice, researchers found that mindfulness meditation practice helped people disengage from emotionally upsetting pictures and enabled them to focus better on a cognitive task as compared with people who saw the pictures but did not meditate (Ortner et al., 2007).

More cognitive flexibility. Another line of research suggests that in addition to helping people become less reactive, mindfulness meditation may also give them greater cognitive flexibility. One study found that people who practice mindfulness meditation appear to develop the skill of self-observation, which neurologically disengages the automatic pathways that were created by prior learning and enables present-moment input to be integrated in a new way (Siegel, 2007a). Meditation also activates the brain region associated with more adaptive responses to stressful or negative situations (Cahn & Polich, 2006; Davidson et al., 2003). Activation of this region corresponds with faster recovery to baseline after being negatively provoked (Davidson, 2000; Davidson, Jackson, & Kalin, 2000).

Relationship satisfaction. Several studies find that a person’s ability to be mindful can help predict relationship satisfaction — the ability to respond well to relationship stress and the skill in communicating one’s emotions to a partner. Empirical evidence suggests that mindfulness protects against the emotionally stressful effects of relationship conflict (Barnes et al., 2007), is positively associated with the ability to express oneself in various social situations (Dekeyser el al., 2008) and predicts relationship satisfaction (Barnes et al., 2007; Wachs & Cordova, 2007).

Other benefits. Mindfulness has been shown to enhance self-insight, morality, intuition and fear modulation, all functions associated with the brain’s middle prefrontal lobe area. Evidence also suggests that mindfulness meditation has numerous health benefits, including increased immune functioning (Davidson et al., 2003; see Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004 for a review of physical health benefits), improvement to well-being (Carmody & Baer, 2008) and reduction in psychological distress (Coffey & Hartman, 2008; Ostafin et al., 2006). In addition, mindfulness meditation practice appears to increase information processing speed (Moore & Malinowski, 2009), as well as decrease task effort and having thoughts that are unrelated to the task at hand (Lutz et al., 2009).

-The APA Office of Continuing Education in Psychology. What are the Benefits of Mindfulness, Daphne M. Davis, PhD, and Jeffrey Hayes, PhD.

I would like to see more of each of those traits in my life. I believe that mindful self-care is worth the work it will take to discover what activities inspire you and the discipline it will take to make it a habit.

Exercise: Make a list of those things that make you feel inspired and determine to do at least one a week.

If you have not performed one of the rituals, I would encourage you to do so. They definitely qualify as self-care and will yield the above results is practiced regularly. If nothing else, color a mandela mindfully.



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