The Science and Practice of Mindfulness
Mindfulness, in western psychotherapy, is the translation of the Pali term, sati, which connotes awareness, attention and remembering. In addition, there is a sense of nonjudgment and deep acceptance driven by kindness and compassion. Most of the time our minds are not in the present moment. And, the moments that matter most to us – those moments that stir our greater sense of completeness – are the ones in which our minds are fully present. We tend to wander off from the present moment in search of other moments in the remembered past or imagined future to feel the rich layers of completeness, or centered wholeness.
Interestingly, when we have not developed mindfulness, we think ourselves as mindful. But when we develop mindfulness, we begin to notice how much the mind wanders.
In our modern culture it is important to create a consistent approach to mental wellbeing, specifically, a daily time that allows us to unpack the stresses related to family, work and community obligations. Many of us use our outside interests ― activities or hobbies not connected to repeating duties ― as a means of decompressing from our daily responsibilities. While these happenings are important to our overall wellbeing, as they promote a sense of self outside our obligatory boundaries, they most often do not allow us to enter a state of mindfulness. New methods of research involving the mind/body connection indicates the importance of regularly creating a “mindful” state that deeply untangles our mind from patterned duties. If we are to be increasingly effective at life’s tasks, if we are to meet challenges with innovative solutions, if we are to expand our imagination as a means of manifesting a vision of possibilities, then we must focus time to explore the state of mindfulness.
What Is the Mind? Many incorrectly define the mind as the brain ― while the brain is the machine of the mind ― it is not the mind. Others define the mind as the intellect, the ability to reason, brainpower, wits, understanding, judgment, common sense, etc. - it is not. If the mind is not the brain or the intellect, what is it? The human mind is a very unique collaboration of eternal soul consciousness, evolving spirit awareness and the instinctual intelligence of the human body working as one single expression of responsive conscious awareness. The greater part of the mind is a formless continuum that functions to perceive and understand the environment and circumstances of the realm in which it expresses itself. Because the mind is formless, or non-physical, it is not limited by the laws of physics that apply to the reality it is observing. Also, the mind is much larger than its combined aspects, in that, the mind’s formless state allows it to combine with other minds. This ability expands the mind’s capacity for greater knowing through empathy. Each human mind can know beyond the need to be right; each human mind is able to connect to a collective knowledge base that the intellect is incapable of recognizing. The intellect needs proof ― I’ll believe it when I see it ― the mind does not – I’ll see it when I believe it. The rapid advancement of humanity has been solely about its collaborative ability to imagine and adjust its action to manifest its vision into a workable reality.
Side note: Because the brain is the “machine” of the mind, science can observe the shifts and changes within the mind as the subtle energies of the mind impact the information being exchanged between neurons within the brain and along nerve pathways throughout the body. This is the science of mindfulness as proof of its effect.
We define mindfulness as the psychological process of bringing our full attention to experiences occurring in the present moment. This could be further defined as a state in which our thoughts and emotions are focused in the awareness of where we are and what we are doing as opposed to wandering through the unresolved past or imagined future. While we all have momentary episodes of mindfulness during each day’s activities, we can greatly enhance the beneficial effects of mindfulness if we set aside time to practice being fully present for ten or twenty minutes each day.
Other more involved traditional methods of mindfulness activities, such as: yoga, pranayama, tai chi chuan, chi gong, mantra meditation, mudra practice, zin meditation (zazen), etc., require a commitment and a degree of sincerity from the student. Most people will want to start with a simple focusing method as a direct path into mindfulness. It is with this in mind that we offer instruction in basic yogic breathing patterns. Mindfulness practice does not have to be an involved process that takes time to master. It can be simple. Just focusing on a fixed breathing pattern, such as, breathing in for a count of seven, holding for a count of four and breathing out for a count of seven. In this workshop we will cover a few different breathing patterns and the differing benefits of each.
Another example: coloring a page in a coloring book with only your non-dominant hand. This simple activity benefits the brain in many ways, the least of which is a marked increase in the size of the corpus callosum, (highlighted in the illustration) the bundle of nerve tissues responsible for transmitting neural messages between both the right and left hemispheres.
There is an increasing amount of data that indicates we remodel the physical structure of our brains during the times when we practice a mindful state. Again, whenever you bring awareness to what you are directly experiencing via your senses, or to your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions, you’re being mindful. This includes activities such as, any form of creativity, any job in which you lose your self-consciousness to the immediate task at hand. Once more, when we are fully present in the now, we are practicing mindfulness.
Current research using the technologies of functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, and enhanced EEG confirm what has been known by mystics for thousands of years. The practice of a mindful state, no matter the technique, appears to have an amazing variety of neurological benefits – from changes in grey matter volume to reduced activity in the “compulsive-thought” centers of the brain to enhanced connectivity between brain regions.
Many skeptics take the position of, what good are a few brain changes if psychological effects aren’t simultaneously being demonstrated? What good is mindfulness practices if we are not better at interpersonal relationships? Again, based on years of data, there is good evidence that indicate distinct patterns of psychological enrichments as well, with studies reporting that mindfulness practices, such as meditation or pranayama helps relieve our subjective levels of anxiety and depression, and improve attention, concentration, and overall psychological well-being. As individuals, we are happier, more productive and lead more balanced lives.
Being human is difficult – I think we can all agree on that statement. Everything changes and loss – both big and small – happens to everyone. We spend an inordinate amount of our life resources attempting to still inevitable changes and lessen the prospects of loss. We spend most of our mental and emotional resources comparing ourselves to others as a means of determining how well we are doing with change and loss. Mindfulness practice has been shown to quiet that part of the brain associated with self-referential thinking.
The Human Brain Our human brain has evolved over millions of years to focus on the demands of our ever-shifting personal circumstances and environment. Because our human spirit is evolving, it uses the frontal cortex of the brain to remember past moments of pleasure and pain and to figure out how to maximize future pleasure and avoid future pain. The evolving human spirit does this by recalling the success/failure strategies from its past incarnations. These evolving strategies alter the genetic coding by switching certain genes on and others off. This is referred to as epigenetics.
Many modern environmental influences are altering how the brain functions ― logic, memory, emotion and sensory processing. Our diets and general overall lifestyles, along with the introduction of artificial substances, such as, food preservatives, artificial food dies, fertilizers, herbicides and genetically modified foods. And, we drink water that has been treated with fluoride and chlorine. What we put on our skin – from chemically-derived clothing to wrinkle-healing lotions – our body absorbs and ultimately effects the chemistry and structure of our brains. We should regularly detox our bodies through fasting – which helps to bring balance to brain chemistry.
STUDIES: The following information is taken from several different studies - the resources are listed in the footnote section at the end of the article.
Meditation Helps Preserve the Aging Brain
A recent study (ftnt 1) from UCLA found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Participants who’d been meditating for an average of twenty years had more grey matter volume throughout the brain — although older meditators still had some volume loss compared to younger meditators, it wasn’t as pronounced as the non-meditators. "We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating," said study author Florian Kurth. "Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain."
Meditation Reduces the Activity of “Compulsive Self-Assessment," and “Wandering Mind”
An interesting study (ftnt 2) carried out at Yale University, found that mindfulness practice (all forms but chiefly meditation or pranayama) decreases activity in the “default mode network,” or DMN, the brain network responsible for self-referential thoughts – a.k.a., “monkey mind.” The DMN is “on” or active when we’re not in task mode, when our minds are just wandering from thought to thought. Since mind-wandering is typically associated with the compulsive self-assessments of “what-if” or “if-only” thought patterns, it’s the goal for people who practice mindfulness to reduce the amount of energy given to looping thought processes. Several studies have shown that meditation or pranayama, though its quieting effect on the DMN, appears to do just this. And even when the mind does start to chatter, because of the new connections that form in mindfulness practices, practitioners are better at recovering from such negative thought patterns. Because of this, practitioners are able to extend the mindful state beyond their determined practice sessions.
Meditation Reduces Personal Anxiety Within Social Consciousness
While the mindfulness techniques we offer in our workshops and classes at Knowing-Inc primarily focus on meditation, pranayama and ritual, we also suggest that people find those activities that allow for mindfulness, if they do those practices consistently. There are decades of data (ftnt 3) to support the benefits derived from consistent meditation in reducing individual and institutional stresses. Research shows that a systemic course of mindfulness meditation, in contrast to pranayama only, can reduce anxiety – and that these changes seem to be mediated through the brain regions associated with those self-referential (“me-centered”) thoughts. Mindfulness meditation has also been shown to help people with social anxiety disorder: a Stanford University team (ftnt 4) found that MBSR brought about changes in brain regions involved in attention, as well as relief from symptoms of social anxiety.
Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Implicit Age and Race Bias
Humans naturally rely on established associations and cognitive shortcuts to navigate through the world. Some shortcuts are necessary--for example, knowing your bias towards what you prefer to eat for breakfast. However, these associations can be destructive when it comes to certain biases, especially related to age and race. In the criminal law context, for instance, it's crucial that everyone involved in the system, from police officers, prosecutors and defense attorneys to the judges, be mindful of their own biases.
In a 2015 Central Michigan University study (ftnt 6) by Professor Adam Lueke, participants listened to either a mindfulness or a control audio. In this study, mindfulness meditation caused an increase in state mindfulness and a decrease in implicit race and age bias. According to the professor, “This result was not because the mindful group were able to see the automatic bias and override it, but rather because the automatic bias simply didn't appear as much as it did for the control group.” In a follow-up study, Professor Leuke took these results a step further to see if the same mindfulness intervention could affect conscious behavior as well. Research participants played a game that measures trust levels. Essentially, participants looked at a bunch of pictures of various people of different races and gauged how much they trusted them to help them win money in the game, or potentially steal the money away from them. Control participants trusted white interaction partners far more than black ones, but the mindfulness group trusted both groups almost identically.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) May Prevent And Treat Depression
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) combines elements from mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). According to American Psychological Association (ftnt 7), “MBCT is an eight-week, group-based program that incorporates mindfulness exercises including yoga, body awareness and daily homework, such as eating or doing household chores, with full attention to what one is doing, moment by moment.”
"People at risk for depression are dealing with a lot of negative thoughts, feelings and beliefs about themselves, and this can easily slide into a depressive relapse," says Willem Kuyken, PhD, a professor at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. "MBCT helps them to recognize that's happening, engage with it in a different way and respond to it with equanimity and compassion." Professor Kuyken conducted a study (ftnt 8) which found that MBCT helped to prevent depression recurrence as effectively as maintenance antidepressant medication did.
Increase Body Satisfaction
Body dissatisfaction is a major source of suffering among women of all ages. In a study by researchers Ellen R. Albertson, Kristin D. Neff and Karen E. Dill-Shackleford (ftnt 9), women were assigned to either a meditation intervention group or a control group. Those in the intervention group received three-week self-compassion meditation training. Compared to the control group, the women in the intervention group “experienced significantly greater reduction in body dissatisfaction, body shame and contingent self-worth based on appearance, as well as greater gains in self-compassion and body appreciation.” Interestingly, these effects were maintained three months later.
Mindfulness Meditation Improves Cognition
MBSR is a popular eight-week mindfulness training course. However, the program simply isn't practical for many due to the time and financial commitment. Fortunately, some researchers are finding that even short mindfulness training improves cognitive abilities.
In a 2010 study (ftnt 10) published in Consciousness and Cognition Journal, researchers assigned 24 people in the intervention group. They received four sessions of mindfulness meditation training. The control had 25 people, and this group listened to an audio book. Results showed that both the mindfulness meditation training group and the control group showed improved mood, but only meditation training reduced fatigue and anxiety and increased mindfulness. Moreover, brief mindfulness training significantly improved visuo-spatial processing, working memory and executive functioning. Researchers concluded, “Our findings suggest that four days of meditation training can enhance the ability to sustain attention; benefits that have previously been reported with long-term meditators.”
Mindfulness Meditation Helps the Brain Reduce Distractions
Training the mind to focus and concentrate is becoming more critical than ever in this 24/7 world where our attention is being pulled in different directions. In a Harvard study (ftnt 11), researchers reported that “brain cells use particular frequencies, or waves, to regulate the flow of information in much the same way that radio stations broadcast at specific frequencies. One frequency, the alpha rhythm, is particularly active in the cells that process touch, sight and sound in the brain’s outermost layer, called the cortex, where it helps to suppress irrelevant or distracting sensations and regulate the flow of sensory information between brain regions.” In this study, participants went through an eight-week mindfulness training program. After the eight-week program, those who completed the mindfulness meditation training “made faster and significantly more pronounced attention-based adjustments to the alpha rhythm” than those in the control group.
The Metaphysics of Mindfulness
There are few clinical studies or research projects on the metaphysics of mindfulness. One study that touches on the fringe of metaphysics was published in 1960 as, Psycho-Cybernetics, by Maxwell Maltz. Most modern self-help teachings find their origins in this work as the book defines the mind-body connection as the core in succeeding in attaining personal goals.
The body-mind connection more accurately put is the full collaboration of consciousness, awareness and instinctual intelligence. The mind not only surrounds the body as a nonphysical structure, the mind also radiates from the tissue of the body. If we could “see” the mind it would on average look like an upside-down egg some six meters in width and nine meters in height. Within this energetic field are all the memories of each and every moment. Because the eternal soul and evolving spirit incarnate separately, they each contain the full memories of all their incarnations. Side note: If I suggest that you imagine a tree, not only do you picture a tree from this lifetime, but the power of your mind prioritizes a very long list of trees from every time you have encountered a tree. Therefore, it is stated that imagination is superior to intellect. Intellect concerns itself with this lifetime; the power of our mind can integrate knowing from all lifetimes. When we practice being present in each new moment, we automatically allow the combined memories of all those incarnation to be available when they are most needed.
As with all beneficial practices, the hardest part of mindfulness and meditation is to make it a daily habit. Like other good habits, such as exercise and eating healthy, well balanced meals, having the information for these practices is very different than actually engaging in it.
If you are curious about mindfulness and meditation, commit to a daily practice. Start by committing to a timeframe that you can easily achieve (for example, 2-10 minutes per day). After practicing for a week, reevaluate and see if you'd like to meditate longer (or perhaps shorter). The most powerful proof of whether these practices will “work” for you isn't a study, but direct experience.