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 is the Science behind it?

Amygdala: this part of the brain is associated with the body's 'fight or flight' response, which hijacks higher order thinking in times of danger.  It is believed that having a well-tuned amygdala, one that could send us into a sprint or fierce battle quickly, was necessary for our hunter-gatherer ancestors and perhaps even war-hungry forefathers of not too long ago. However, in our modern society the 'triggers' of the amygdala are more likely to be car horns or TV shows, things that shouldn't 'switch off' our higher order thinking but nonetheless do.

In regular meditators, the amygdala shrinks and the pre-frontal cortex grows, suggesting a decrease in reactivity in the brain and an increase in creative thought:

The “functional connectivity” between these regions – i.e. how often they are activated together – also changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger.

The scale of these changes correlate with the number of hours of meditation practice a person has done, says Adrienne Taren, a researcher studying mindfulness at the University of Pittsburgh. (Read more at Scientific American)

And key points from UC Berkeley's Greater Good Institute:

Attention:

It’s not surprising that meditation would affect attention, since many practices focus on this very skill. And, in fact, researchers have found that meditation helps to counter habituation—the tendency to stop paying attention to new information in our environment. Other studies have found that mindfulness meditation can reduce mind-wandering and improve our ability to solve problems.

There’s more good news: Studies have shown that improved attention seems to last up to five years after mindfulness training, again suggesting trait-like changes are possible.

Loving-kindness helps raise compassion:

Meditation does appear to increase compassion. It also makes our compassion more effective.

While we may espouse compassionate attitudes, we can also suffer when we see others suffering, which can create a state of paralysis or withdrawal.

Many well-designed studies have shown that practicing loving-kindness meditation for others increases our willingness to take action to relieve suffering. It appears to do this by lessening amygdala activity in the presence of suffering, while also activating circuits in the brain that are connected to good feelings and love.

Relationships: from maintaining them, to break-ups and divorce, to raising great kids:

Mindfulness could have a positive impact on your relationships.

There are many, many studies that find a positive link between mindfulness and relationship quality, which is probably a byproduct of the effects we’ve already described.

Psychological bias:

We are seeing more and more studies suggesting that practicing mindfulness can reduce psychological bias.

For example, one study found that a brief loving-kindness meditation reduced prejudice toward homeless people, while another found that a brief mindfulness training decreased unconscious bias against black people and elderly people. In a study by Adam Lueke and colleagues, white participants who received a brief mindfulness training demonstrated less biased behavior (not just attitudes) toward black participants in a trust game.

Modest physical health benefits:

Many claims have been made about mindfulness and physical health, but sometimes these claims are hard to substantiate or may be mixed up with other effects. That said, there is some good evidence that meditation affects physiological indices of health.

We’ve already mentioned that long-term meditation seems to buffer people from the inflammatory response to stress. In addition, meditators seem to have increased activity of telomerase, an enzyme implicated in longer cell life and, therefore, longevity.

What are the benefits?

 

For Kids:

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.

For Seniors:

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: 

  1. Mindfulness helps us see the full contexts of another's life;
  2. Mindfulness helps us decrease our negativity bias;
  3. Mindfulness reminds us that we are all equal.

Additional groups that have found significant benefits with mindfulness:

Police: 

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.

University Students:

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.”

Pregnant Women

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."


A Cure-all?

 

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.

It's not.

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. 

An article of warning at "The Greatist" by Lisa Kirchner details When Meditation Can Actually Be Dangerous. In part, she writes that 

Meditation has a history of problems.

Last year, researchers at Brown University released a study showing that meditators often report feelings of fear, anxiety, panic, and paranoia. This isn't news to experienced meditation teachers, who will readily acknowledge that meditation students often experience bad effects, and say that they are to be expected.

Brown isn't the first to publish research that delves into the potentially problematic nature of meditation. The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? cites an older study, which suggests that 63 percent of participants in meditation retreats have suffered at least one negative consequence, such as anxiety, confusion, and disorientation.

Of course, there are challenges associated with these kinds of studies, including the self-reported nature of the results, the relatively small number of studies themselves, and external factors, such as the fact that people drawn to contemplative practice are often already in crisis

and: 

We need to stop hyping meditation as a cure-all.

As the juggernaut of wellness rolls forward, the emphasis on the feel-good benefits of meditation has reached ludicrous proportions. Meditation has become so mainstream that Oprah and Deepak Chopra offer a 21-day class, and it's touted as a cure for everything from sleep deprivation to heart disease. I've seen numerous classes advertising that you can "create the life you want through meditation."

and finally:

There is no style of meditation that's guaranteed to resolve specific trauma, so if you're experiencing difficulty, it's important to find a teacher you trust to guide you—even if it means moving onto another form of practice.

The most important thing to realize is that meditation-related anxiety is real and can have devastating consequences. The challenges don't mean there's something wrong with you or that you need to "push through." The concept that life is suffering is unrelated to self-induced misery—especially if you want to get to the joy that can come with regular practice.