Updated: Mar 18
Mindfulness has become the most common English translation of the Pali language's word Sati. It can be described as paying close attention to your experience in the present moment and observing what is happening in an accepting and non-judgemental manner. Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the well known, evidence based mindfulness course, MBSR, puts it simply as 'paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.'
If you look around you'll likely see people who are lost in thought. That little voice inside berates us for saying or doing the wrong thing during an encounter, judges others for saying or doing the wrong things, reminds us of all that we need to get done throughout the rest of the day, gives us a hard time for not sticking to deadlines or for not doing enough, for not being enough, and so on. We replay upsetting scenes from the past like old movie reels and we create scenes in our minds by imagining the future, all of which prevents us from really being in the present moment, from being truly alive. In other words, we're stuck in autopilot, going from A to B, totally lost in thought, without even really noticing how we got there or what happened along the way.
We lead busy lives in today's society and for many people slowing down doesn't seem like an option, but for the sake of our health and for the benefit of those around us, it's absolutely vital that we do.
With mindfulness we can break free from the self criticism, judgement and constant mind wandering. We can start to slow down and take more time to really be with our breathe and body, in the present moment. By doing this we start to notice the beauty around us which we miss so easily when we rush from thing to thing in autopilot. We breathe more deeply, sending more oxygen and nutrients around the body to nourish our cells and improve our sense of wellbeing. Not only can we become more mindful and aware of the present moment, we can learn how to relate to troubling thoughts and feelings in a different way.
We don't try to stop the feelings and thoughts from coming, we let them come, but we change what happens next by learning how to simply be. When the mind wanders away from the breath or the body, we notice this, we catch it happening, and then we gently bring the attention back to focusing on the breath, body, or whatever has been chosen as the anchor. Although we're letting go of thoughts, we're not pushing them away. We're letting them be as they are, as we once again place the breath or body centre stage in the field of awareness. In doing this, we learn to recognise that thoughts aren't really a reflection of the true nature of things but are more like mental events that will soon pass. By relating to thoughts in this way we become less likely to get caught up in emotional storms that can often lead to us acting in ways we later regret. With mindfulness we learn how to respond rather than react. If we respond to situations with mindfulness rather than reacting mindlessly, we will avoid further suffering for ourselves and those around us.
Mindfulness is accessible and even a short sitting practice daily is shown to have many benefits for both the mind and body. Unfortunately some people still regard mindfulness and meditation as 'woo woo' and assume that it's somehow entangled with the supernatural or mystical. By taking a look at the science of mindfulness and meditation, it quickly becomes clear that this isn't the case. There's certainly nothing mystical about focused attention and becoming more connected with our surroundings, more productive, more compassionate and less fearful. By taking a deeper look we can gain more of an understanding about what happens in the mind and the body when we meditate. This give us a greater understanding of why this is something that has been used to promote wellbeing for thousands of years in the East and has now become popular in the west. Mindfulness is now being taught in a wide variety of settings including schools, workplaces and prisons. It has also become integrated in a lot of modern Psychology and is transforming the lives of millions of people around the world.
Here I will look at a few of the main benefits.
1. Reduced stress
We hear all the time that meditation is good for stress, but you might wonder why or how this is possible. The area of the brain that reacts during times of fear or stress is called the amygdala. This part of the brain can become enlarged if people experience prolonged stress or trauma, which can also lead to a cascade of other events being triggered via the pituitary gland, including adrenaline and cortisol secretion. With mindfulness, the size of the amygdala can be reduced, which lessens stressful and fearful feelings and makes us feel more at ease.
The amygdala has shown dampened activity from just 30 or so hours of MBSR practise, and similar benefits have been shown in other mindfulness training courses of this length.
For long-term meditators the benefits are more profound. Not only is the size of the amygdala reduced, leading to a greater sense of wellbeing, but the connectivity between the prefrontal cortex, which manages reactivity, and the amygdala is strengthened. It is well known within neuroscience that the stronger the link is between these two parts of the brain, the less a person will get caught up in emotional storms. In other words, long-term meditators experience stronger equanimity. The more hours of practice you put in, the stronger this connection becomes and the more quickly the amygdala recovers from distress if it does get triggered.
2. Increased compassion
As discussed above, developing quicker recovery from stress can take a bit of time, but the the effects of compassion training are felt more quickly. Studies have shown that in just 8 hours of practice people can become more compassionate, and of course the more we practice, the stronger these tendencies become.
In compassion or loving kindness meditation, we bring to mind people we know well and have an uncomplicated relationship with, people we have neutral feelings about and people all around the world. We also bring to mind people we have a difficult relationship with or those who have wronged us in the past. This type of practice boosts warm thoughts and feelings about others and can be particularly beneficial when dealing with a difficult situation or person in your life. Sending warmth to them dampens negative feelings and makes us more likely to recognise our common humanity and the universal wish that all beings have to be happy and free from suffering. Over time, this type of practice strengthens the brain circuitry for happiness and the prefrontal cortex, which is a brain region that is critical for guiding our behaviour.
For people who are prone to harsh self judgement and criticism, loving kindness practice can be extremely beneficial. In addition to becoming kinder to others, we can become kinder and more compassionate towards ourselves.
3. Improved concentration and attention
Mindfulness is a form of brain training. It can be beneficial to think of the brain as a mental muscle that can be trained the same way as we would train muscles at the gym. When we bring our attention back to our focus of attention after our mind wanders, it is like performing a bicep curl for the brain. The more we do this, the more we strengthen the circuitry in the brain that helps with focus and concentration. This is part of the reason why mindfulness has become so popular in the workplace. By helping employees boost many aspects of their attention, companies have seen improvements in their productivity.
Even beginners can sharpen their attention skills surprisingly quickly. Just 10 minutes of mindfulness can overcome the damage to concentration from multi-tasking, at least in the short-term, and with the MBSR, participants show strengthened selective attention and improvements in the brain's ability to focus on one thing. Long-term practice enhances this even more.
While there are undoubtedly benefits for attention that can be experienced very quickly, without regular practice, these are short term gains. For more lasting benefits it is necessary to keep practicing.
Where to start.
Thankfully there are many options now for people wanting to learn mindfulness. There's everything from free and paid apps to courses, retreats, youtube tutorials, books and workshops.
Having completed the 8 week, evidence based MBSR course myself, I can vouch for it's efficacy. In this course participants are taught entry level mindfulness that covers everything from mindful eating, to mindful stretching and movement, as well as a range of practices and techniques covering all you need to know to get you started on your mindfulness journey.
I decided to train as a MBSR teacher so I could teach people the skills needed to develop all that has been discussed in this blog post. If this sounds of interest to you please get in touch to register your interest or to learn more about my upcoming courses which will be taking place this year. You can also sign up to my newsletter via the homepage of the website.
'You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf', Jon Kabat-Zinn