By John Neville, Founder of Mindful Test Taking —
Mindfulness practices have gained momentum in the Western world and with good reason: they are specifically designed to improve our ability to perform under stress and pressure. Through a regular mindfulness practice, we can find ourselves in a state of greater ease and dexterity. The following is a concrete discussion on the theory and benefits of mindfulness.
Mindful Test Taking uses three drills to help its students learn mindfulness. Audios to guide you through these exercises can be found here on our website.
1. The Flow State: The Picture of Presence
Before beginning a mindfulness practice, it is important to ask: how do I experience myself when I am present? Becoming familiar with the state of presence will welcome it into your life with increasing frequency, depth, and duration. Psychology refers to presence as “The Flow State.” Sports calls it “The Zone.” You have probably had powerful moments in your life when you experienced “The Flow State,” when your sense of being relaxed and engaged was profound. These moments may have occurred on vacation, out in nature, or in the presence of loved ones. While your environment is conducive to eliciting this powerful response in you, ultimately these experiences take place in your body and are generated from the inside-out. Mindfulness helps you connect with this state of mind and body that is healthy, pleasurable and conducive to better performance.
Being present is characterized by specific qualities:
- Clear, quiet mind
- Soft, relaxed muscles
- Full, diaphragmatic breathing
- Enhanced blood flow
A drill called a “Peak State Elicitation” involves recalling past memories in which you felt present & focused. During the visualization, because your body responds similarly to your imagination as it does to the physical world, “The Flow State” will re-emerge inside your body and mind, an experience which happens because your body deeply relaxes.
The Foundational Principle of Mindfulness
Progressive relaxation refers to how the ability to relax is a learnable skill that you can develop and sharpen over time. It is also the core principle of mindfulness. The more deeply your body relaxes, the stronger your Flow State. The following chart is a helpful way to understand the process of practicing mindfulness to strengthen your presence of mind:
Whenever your mind is racing, your brain is telling your body to physically tense up, and your feelings are kept locked up inside. The three processes are simultaneous & inextricable. At mindfulness’ core is the practice of using your awareness to feel your physical body, sense your emotions and notice your thoughts. This process helps you access deeper states of relaxation and higher states of consciousness.
2. The Body Scan
The body scan meditation is a classic, trusted way to progressively relax and involves scanning your body from head to toe, feeling each body part one at a time. It is very fulfilling to witness your ability to relax gradually improve over time, as this shift corresponds to enhanced focus, equanimity, and peace of mind. Many meditators believe that relaxing the body is a “warm-up” or secondary benefit to working with your mind. This is not the case. The truth is that the body scan is the main focus for many silent, 10-day meditation retreats and one of the core concepts taught by the Buddha. Using a body scan audio is a great way to start practicing meditation. One body scan usually lasts about 5-10 minutes is a pretty common duration, though you can move as slowly or quickly as you wish. You may scan your body in any posture that feels comfortable for you: lying on your back, sitting in a chair, or on a cushion. If lying down, make sure your head, neck and lower back are supported with blankets and pillows as necessary. If sitting, keep your feet flat on the floor unless your legs are crossed.
3. The Fundamental Way to Be Present
The body scan is a wonderful set of training wheels for the process of activating present moment awareness. We call this practice the “Reset.” The Reset involves doing absolutely nothing, noticing what is happening inside and around you, and allowing your mind & body to relax. The Reset is the foundational practice upon which every meditation technique is based. Meditation does not get any simpler or more profound than the Reset. Once you have become more comfortable with scanning your body, you are ready to begin Resetting. Once you understand how to Reset, you can use the technique to activate present moment awareness whenever you have time to spare, whether it’s 30 seconds or 30 minutes.
The Theory of the Reset
Whenever your mind is wandering, your body is simultaneously carrying extra tension. Noticing that you are thinking is similar to when a massage therapist finds a knot of tension: it is very much a part of the process. When this happens, allow your awareness to drop more deeply into your body, so you can connect with the tension in your body that is accompanying the thinking. As your body enters deeper states of relaxation, your mind will become increasingly quiet.
If you desire to open yourself up mentally and emotionally, seek to do so on the physical level with mindfulness. Taking time to regularly release physical tension will provide you with the behavioral change you seek over time.
Begin with the body scan and play the game of seeing how deeply you can feel your body. Allow this quest towards openness to filter into other areas of your life: boost your stretching regimen, improve your diet, and regulate your sleep schedule.
John Neville and his team at Mindful Test Taking offer individual & group coaching to clear stress related to academic tests. To learn more, visit mindfultesttaking.com.