Mindfulness meditation is becoming an increasingly common tool suggested not only by psychologists and therapists but also prescribed by medical doctors, specifically psychiatrists. Are mindfulness and meditation just part of some new age phenomenon loved by yoga practitioners and energy healers, or is there something more behind this ancient practice?
What is Mindfulness?
Buddhists have practiced mindfulness for thousands of years because it alleviates suffering. Buddhism presupposes that everyone suffers but an individual may choose how to react to her or his suffering. Mindfulness, which seems like a simple practice but is deceptively involved and requires patience, encourages us to change our relationship to suffering. Instead of allowing regular life events or changes in our environment to get us down, mindfulness operates by helping us learn to focus on what is happening in the present moment. As practitioners of mindfulness, we are asked not to focus on what happened in the past, how an event in the present is similar to or different from an event in the past, or even whether an event in the present will change our plans for the future. Mindfulness asks us to focus on an event for what it is—something that happened right now. Mindful attention helps us to acknowledge, without judgment, the task at hand. And, in so doing, it energizes us, develops clarity, and incites joy.
The Brain, the Mind, and Mindfulness
We often think of the brain and the mind as the same thing. Neurologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals, however, distinguish the brain and the mind as two separate entities. The brain is comprised of approximately 3-pounds of tofu-like gray material containing 1.1 trillion cells, including 100 billion neurons; it is a part of the body. By contrast, the mind is a process regulating energy (within our bodies and between our bodies and other people and our environment) and information. To over-simplify an extremely complex process, the mind develops throughout the lifespan as a result of neurons firing, establishing patterns of connections to other neurons in the brain. As neurons become connected or linked, patterns often form among neurons such that certain neurons typically fire together. Our mind, then, learns to process new information based on which neurons fire, employing a “top-down” process. In other words, we begin to interpret and understand something even before we have fully observed it because of how our minds quickly and automatically categorize information. When we train our minds through practices like mindfulness, we are able to prevent our brains from automatically engaging in a top-down process. Instead, we are more fully able to observe our environment and process information using a bottom-up approach—observing and processing before interpreting or classifying. This allows new systems of neurons to link or operate together, thereby providing for a more integrated brain. A more integrated neuron structure then leads to more flexibility, adaptivity, and cohesiveness in our brain, mind, and interpersonal relationships. Accordingly, mindfulness actually does more than reduce suffering; it alters how our brains and mind conceptualize information and function and often improves our relationships with others.
How do I practice Mindfulness?
A basic definition of mindfulness is “moment-by-moment awareness” (Germer, 2005, p.6). As you begin to practice mindfulness, you may lie down, sit, or stand, though sitting is generally preferred. (If you try lying down, you may find yourself falling asleep.) Beginning practitioners tend to focus on the breath, noticing inhales and exhales. As you attempt to focus on your breath, try not to judge whether you’re breathing slowly or quickly; try not to think about what you were just doing or what needs to be done when you finish your practice. For the period of time you practice, simply sit and attend to your breath—inhales and exhales—without questioning whether you’re doing it “right” or “wrong.” Because of how we have been trained and how busy our lives typically are, you may find your mind wander onto other stimuli or thoughts. This is frequently referred to as “monkey mind,” since monkeys are always swinging from place to place via the treetops. If you notice this, simply refocus on your breath and acknowledge that you, too, are human and your mind will wander occasionally (or, initially, a lot). By practicing mindfulness, you are attempting to train your mind, and you will find your mind more able to focus as you practice. If you practice regularly, you may eventually wish to transfer your focus from your breath to bodily sensations, your emotions, and eventually each activity in which you are engaged.
Germer, C.K. (2005). Mindfulness: what is it? what does it matter? In Germer, C.K., Siegel, R.D., & Fulton, P.R. (Eds.), Mindfulness and Psychotherapy (pp. 3-27). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Hanson, R., & Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, & Wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Siegel, D.J. (2006). An interpersonal neurobiology approach to psychotherapy. Psychiatric Annals, 36(4), 248-256.
Siegel, D.J. (2007). Mindfulness training and neural integration: differentiation of distinct streams of awareness and the cultivation of well-being. SCAN, 2, 259-263.
Siegel, D.J. (2009). Mindful awareness, mindsight, and neural integration. The Humanistic Psychologist, 37, 137-158.