While recuperating from spinal fusion surgery at the age of 17, Shauna Shapiro’s life changed: from a healthy, active young woman to one confined to a hospital bed, unable to walk.
But she says the mental impact was more difficult—the feelings of fear and loneliness her new body inspired, not being able to do the things she used to.
That drew her to Thailand, where she attended her first meditation retreat.
Shapiro, now an author and professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, has conducted two decades of research into the health benefits of mindfulness. In this Tedx Talk from the fall, she talks about her personal journey to learning mindfulness, as well as how meditation and mindfulness can affect our health:
Tedx Talk Highlights:
How self-judgement wreaks havoc
No matter how hard I tried my mind kept wandering off. And at this point I really started to judge myself. What is wrong with you? You’re terrible at this. Why are you even here? You’re a fake. And then not only was I judging myself, I start judging everyone, even the monks. Why are they just sitting here, shouldn’t they be doing something?
Thankfully a monk from London arrived who spoke English, and as I shared with him my struggles, he looked at me and said, “Oh dear, you’re not practicing mindfulness, you’re practicing judgment, impatience, frustration.” And then he said five words that have never left me: “What you practice grows stronger.”
The monk said, “You’re not practicing mindfulness, you’re practicing judgment, impatience, frustration.” And then he said five words that have never left me: “What you practice grows stronger.”
How the neuroplasticity of repeated experiences changes the brain
We can actually sculpt and strengthen our synaptic connections based on repeated practice. For example in the famous study of London taxi drivers: the visual spatial mapping part of the brain is bigger, stronger. They’ve been practicing navigating the 25,000 streets of London all day long.
When you look at the brains of meditators, the areas related to attention, learning, and compassion grow bigger and stronger. It’s called cortical thickening: the growth of new neurons in response to repeated practice. What we practice grows stronger.
Three lessons from 20 years of mindfulness research
1) Mindfulness works: It strengthens our immune functioning, it decreases stress, decreases cortisol, helps us sleep better. When we published our first research back in ’98, there were only a handful of studies. Now there are thousands of studies showing the beneficial effects of mindfulness.
We have this mistaken belief that if we shame ourselves, if we beat ourselves up, we’ll somehow improve.
2) Shame and self-judgment are universal tools for self-improvement: We have this mistaken belief that if we shame ourselves, if we beat ourselves up, we’ll somehow improve. Shame doesn’t work. Shame never works. It can’t work. Physiologically it can’t work because when we feel shame, the centers of the brain that have to do with growth and learning shut down. […] What happens is the amygdala triggers a cascade of norepinephrine and cortisol to flood our system shutting down the learning centers and shuttling our resources to survival pathways. Shame literally robs the brain of the energy it needs to do the work of changing. And worse, when we feel shame, we want to avoid it, so we hide from those parts of ourselves that we’re ashamed of—the parts that most need our attention.
Shame literally robs the brain of the energy it needs to do the work of changing. And worse, when we feel shame, we want to avoid it, so we hide from those parts of ourselves that we’re ashamed of—the parts that most need our attention.
3) Mindfulness is intentionally paying attention with kindness, and transformation is possible through kind attention: Kindness gives us the courage to look at those parts of ourselves we don’t want to see. And second, kindness bathes us with dopamine turning on the learning centers of the brain and giving us the resources we need to change. True and lasting transformation requires kind of attention.
Also in this talk:
- Veterans, PTSD, and mindfulness
- How mindfulness helped her cope with a difficult divorce
- How self-compassion practices are some of the most difficult mindfulness practices