What is Mindfulness?
The founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Jon Kabat-Zinn, defines mindfulness as:
“Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”
Each part of this sentence can then be broken down and elaborated. Paying attention: we see that our attention is a bit like a flashlight beam, illuminating this and that as it moves around. How well do we hold it still when we try to focus it in a particular way by taking a moment to just pause and breathe? Does it settle down where we place it on purpose, on the sensations of breathing in the present moment, or does it move all over the place? Chances are, it's all over the place. Buddhists call this "monkey-mind" and I prefer to think of it as a little puppy - cute maybe, but pretty all over the place and not very well behaved.
This is where the last stage comes in. Can we observe that puppy-mind or "monkey-mind" non-judgmentally? Can we be kind when the puppy bites our thumb or pees on the carpet? Or anger arises or loneliness settles in? We are habituated as judging-beings, and there's nothing wrong with the idea of "developing good judgment," but it can get out of hand. When we don't acknowledge our anger or sadness it's a way of neglecting ourselves the way a not-so-great owner might neglect a puppy. When we pile on anger at ourselves or other kinds of harsh judgment, we're like the owner who is really harsh on the poor little puppy who just doesn't know any better.
If we can change our approach to ourselves, our puppy-mind, we can instead work on training it to "just sit" on the breath. This takes patience. We have years of habituation (some more than others) toward jumping from one thing to another in constant succession. But, like training a puppy, if we use rewards rather than punishment - little smiles when the mind rests on the breath for a few moments - we end up with a much happier, healthier being in the end. In this way we change our human-being from a judging-being to a happy-being.
All of that said, Behavioral and social sciences professor and director of Brown University’s Mindfulness Center Eric Loucks warns us that there will be no one definition of mindfulness because there is no one single experience:
“One element in defining mindfulness, if considering its roots in Buddhism, is…the Buddha's recommendation that descriptions of concepts like ‘mindfulness’ are like a finger pointing at the moon,” he explains. “It is important not to confuse the finger for the moon. There will always be variations in people's understanding of mindfulness. It is a personal experience.” (Scientific American, Oct 2017)
What are the benefits?
Mindfulness programs for kids have been developed to start as young as kindergarten. One Boston father has created "Boston Buddha" - teaching mindfulness to K-grade 5 students in the Milton Mass., School District. An NBC news story in 2015 chronicled San Francisco schools that were "transformed by the power of meditation." Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, a more focused, one-on-one form of mindfulness training has been shown to help improve attention and reduce behavior problems and anxiety in kids with high anxiety.
Read this blog post on three ways meditation is being taught to young people.
Mindfulness has been found to reduce depression and loneliness. A UCLA study found that seniors who took an eight-week meditation program significantly decreased rates of self-reported loneliness. They report, furthermore, that "Feeling lonely has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, depression and even premature death." So the ripple-effects of the mindfulness are likely to spread into other areas of life. In fact, one other study traced a direct link between mindfulness and improved mood in seniors who added the practice to their lives. If the bottom line is your main interest, it's also worth pointing out that mindfulness was found to reduce healthcare costs over a 5-year period by approximately 25%.
And everyone in between:
Some meditators have reported improved attention spans, more creativity and better overall health. Although we cannot guarantee these results for every participant, we can offer personal guidance for each student to help them with their personal mindfulness goals.
3 Ways Mindfulness Can Make You Less Biased
According to an article by the University of California, Berkeley, mindfulness can be helpful to reduce bias:
- Mindfulness helps us see the full contexts of another's life;
- Mindfulness helps us decrease our negativity bias;
- Mindfulness reminds us that we are all equal.
Additional groups that have found significant benefits with mindfulness:
As reported in the Epoch Times (April 2017):
In 2015, the National Institutes of Health awarded Pacific University a grant of $379,500 over a two-year period to study MBRT (Mindfulness Based Resilience Training) with police officers in the Portland area.
They found significant improvements in mental health, physical health, anger, fatigue, sleep disturbance, and emotional regulation.
From the Main Line Today (April 2017):
To some, the idea of meditation and yoga, as well as the Center for Contemplative Studies itself, sounds too crunchy and like a new-age hoax. In reality, the entire concept has had tremendous success in helping to limit anxiety and removing some of the stresses that impede achievement.
Since Croce was raised a Roman Catholic, some might consider all of this a step away from his faith. Can a person be true to the church while also pursuing a Zen path and quoting the Dalai Lama? Croce says he has great discussions about spirituality with his aunt, who is a nun. Further, he asserts that he and Diane haven’t had an argument in two years. Seinfeld fans might remember Kramer’s “serenity now” mantra that ended with his throwing a sizable tantrum, but Croce points to “his shift in consciousness” that allows him to see each situation in the moment and not as part of a larger narrative that can sometimes torpedo relationships. “This isn’t self-help stuff,” he says. “It’s about understanding one’s self.”
From the Guardian (June 2017):
"[a study] included 30 women in the third trimester of pregnancy who were randomly assigned to either mindfulness training or traditional childbirth classes. The lead author, Dr Larissa Duncan, associate professor of human development and family studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that, given the fairly large body of research showing that mindfulness can reduce depression and anxiety, she hypothesised it would protect the mental health of mothers and fathers.
The study showed women in the mindfulness group had lower scores for postnatal depression and were less likely to use opiates during labour, although the evidence comes from small pilot studies. Certainly, mindfulness intuitively sounds helpful – the pain of labour is a means to an end – and building confidence to deal with it is likely to reduce anxiety. This doesn’t, however, mean mindfulness encourages women not to have pain relief in labour."
After all of this, and all that is out there on the internet, in magazines and books, and beyond, one might think mindfulness is a magical panacea, a cure for all of humanity's ills.
Like a healthy diet or reasonable exercise, it is just one part of leading a meaningful and fulfilling life. And, like any particular diet or exercise plan, it might not be for everyone. If you have a history of trauma, for instance, mindfulness practices might lead you into repressed or forgotten experiences, which would likely be better handled by a trained therapist or counselor. In very rare cases, mindfulness might lead to a great sense of disconnection or despair.
Do not come to mindfulness thinking it will magically alleviate your need for antidepressants or blood pressure medicine. However, it may be an excellent practice to take up, under supervision of your doctor, to help with depression or blood pressure.
Also, don't expect it to necessarily 'work' or even make perfect sense right away. I'm currently a Kantian and a Buddhist, and I know that my first impressions of both of these were mostly very negative. If I just gave up after 2 weeks of study, those negative impressions would be all I have. Give yourself the time necessary to understand the practice: its history, application, study, and how it works for you.
Is Mindfulness Safe?
The Oxford Mindfulness Centre offers an extensive discussion of this question, worth reading in full. In general, adverse events have been rare and may be associated with pre-existing / underlying conditions.
Research on serious adverse events and harm from such programmes is just beginning. In trials where the population of clients are well defined and the mindfulness teachers well trained, preliminary research suggests there is no evidence of harm (Kuyken, Warren et al. & Dalgleish, 2016). Adverse events occasionally occur, but have not been attributable to participation in the mindfulness programme. However extensive qualitative research suggests that people do experience difficulties and challenges with their practice, and that learning to manage these difficult experiences can be empowering (Allen, Bromley, Kuyken, & Sonnenberg, 2009; Malpass et al., 2012).
It is essential to recognize that mindfulness teachers are not mental or physical health professionals. Some are, which should be made known when you encounter them, but mindfulness training itself is not identical to, nor a replacement for understanding mental health frameworks.