Indigenous Mindfulness on the Brain

Printed with permission from the Native Language Community Coordination Training and Technical Assistance Center, which is a resource of the Administration for Native Americans. Contribution by Cree Whelshula, NLCC TTA Director

The concept of mindfulness is much older than the word itself. Indigenous peoples have been practicing mindfulness for millennia, and is at the core of cultural practice. Mindfulness is defined as, “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.” Diving deep into indigenous pedagogy and spirituality, you will find an importance of one’s own emotional and spiritual effect on others. We all hold power can heal or harm. When creating, harvesting, cooking, singing, dancing, preparing for our families, people, loved ones, we are told to have good thoughts, feelings, and put prayer into what we do. If, for example, you are angry when you cook for others, you can make them sick. If you are happy, think about good things for others, and pray then you can nourish others. This practice facilitates the state of mind that modern western culture has termed “mindfulness.” We think about what we are doing, how we are feeling, and work toward creating a positive frame of mind.

Western science has studied the concept of mindfulness using magnetic resonance imaging brain scans. These scans track the neuronal (brain cell) activity as a result of mindfulness practice and they reveal that mindfulness practice results in increased grey matter (neuron density) in the learning, memory, and emotion center of the brain called the hippocampus. In addition, neuron activity that pertains to controlling executive function such as decision making, emotional regulation, and memory improves. “Neuroscientists have also shown that practicing mindfulness affects brain areas related to perception, body awareness, pain tolerance, emotion regulation, introspection, complex thinking, and sense of self” (Congleton, 2015).

Indigenous language revitalization is a ceremony of healing. In ceremony, we carry ourselves with a positive mind, spirit, and intention. Move forward in this ceremony knowing that cultural practices and values are not only good for the spirit, but for the mind as well. Know that implementing these practices into our children’s education does not take away from their education, but gives strength to it.

Resources cited:

Congleton, C., Holzel, B., & Lazar, S.W. (2015, January 08). Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain. Harvard Business Review,