Mindfulness & Meditation
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness has become a popular mainstream topic in recent years. To understand why mindfulness or mindful awareness is so beneficial to mind, body and soul, you have to understand what mindfulness is, for its depth and breadth encompasses far more than simply “being conscious or aware of something.” Those ‘somethings’ involve the very qualities that make us human and enable us to live rich, fulfilled lives.
Mindfulness is a quality of consciousness that can be characterized as the ability to self-regulate one’s attention to focus on the present moment with curiosity, openness and acceptance.
The ability to pay attention to the present moment includes self-awareness — the ability to observe and monitor your thoughts, feelings and sensations as they are happening and to be in touch with your actual felt experience. You can think of mindfulness as nonjudgmental awareness, focusing on the present moment without the stress of judging it.
Mindfulness is often described as a feeling of being fully present and alive in the moment. In this present-centered awareness, each thought, feeling and sensation that arises in one’s attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is. We can observe our thoughts and feelings merely as events in our minds, without over-identifying with them or reacting to them automatically or habitually. This calm, dispassionate state of self-observation inserts, in essence, a “space” between our perceptions and our responses. That open space allows us to respond to situations reflectively, rather than reflexively (Bishop, 2004).
Examples of mindfulness qualities include:
- Focusing attention on one thing at a time
- Self-awareness; awareness of one’s thoughts and deeds
- Staying in touch with the present moment and actively participating in that present, rather than living life on autopilot
- Not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. We’re not caught up in elaborate, ruminative thought streams about our experience and its origins, implications, or associations; rather mindfulness is a direct experience of events in the mind, body and soul.
- Nonjudgmental, objective observation of one’s experience with no need to label it
- A realistic perspective; seeing things as they really are while opening our minds to new possibilities and new experiences rather than prejudging events, which prevents us from connecting to the real and true experience
- Being attuned to the emotions of others
- Self-compassion, as well as compassion for others
The two key components of mindfulness — self-regulation of attention and openness, curiosity and acceptance of our experiences in the present moment — are often at odds with living in the modern world. In today’s busy, technologically-driven culture, our attention is easily consumed by a multitasking frenzy of activity that leaves us constantly doing, with no space to breathe and just “be.” It’s easy to become too future-focused, constantly evaluating options… what’s the next item on the to-do list? How can we accomplish more in less time with fewer resources? The opportunity to simply pause and appreciate the amazing gifts that life has to offer are lost.
A relentless focus on productivity and accomplishment — especially when the ego engages — can, in fact, foster mindlessness rather than mindfulness. We all have beliefs, attitudes, memories, impulses and biases that can control our thinking and prevent us from being mindful. This information flow is sometimes referred to as top-down processing, in which analysis begins with the brain and flows downward, filtering incoming information through our experiences and expectations to ultimately produce perceptions which may or may not represent reality. (In bottom-up processing, information flows from our sensory receptors upward to the brain, unfiltered by experience and expectation.) People who commit inconsiderate, “mindless” acts — whether it’s rudeness in rush hour traffic or mass destruction such as war or genocide — are allowing themselves to be controlled by top-down forces that prevent them from considering how their actions will impact others. Such mindlessness can result in acting on destructive ideas or impulses without considering the greater good.
Mindful awareness is not one-dimensional. It is a state of being that allows us to experience life more fully and to be aware — and appreciative — of the fullness of our experience, cultivate our personal strengths and better manage our self-limiting or self-damaging thoughts and feelings.
Mindful awareness enables us to not only refine our awareness of the present moment, it throws open windows in the mind through which the mind can come to know itself — that is, we have awareness of awareness.
As we become aware of our awareness, our focus on the present sharpens, enabling us to feel our feet as we travel the paths of our lives (Siegel, 2007). Our connections to ourselves and to others suddenly feel more authentic.
Attuned and Integrated
A mind connects with other minds via neural circuitry in our brains that’s hardwired to send and receive signals, bidirectionally. The human mind is both embodied and relational. It can be aware of and attuned to both the flow of energy and information within itself, as well as to the minds of others, for relationships, after all, are the vehicles through which we share energy and information flow with others. So mindful awareness is a form of intrapersonal attunement, as well as interpersonal attunement: it promotes healthy relationships with the self and with others.
Attunement lies at the heart of all kinds of caring relationships (including one’s relationship with oneself).
Someone who is attuned to another is able to focus his or her attention on the internal world of the other person; for example, a parent attuned to his or her child or being attuned to a spouse, a friend or a professional colleague. This focus on the mind of another person engages neural circuitry that enables two people to “feel felt” by each other, to feel connected (Siegel, 2007). This sense of feeling felt makes us feel understood, at peace, vibrant and alive, and connected to ourselves and to the universe. When we can see ourselves reflected in the eyes of someone else, and when that reflection is attuned, we have an authentic sense of ourselves.
Attunement and mindful reflection nurtures secure attachment, which in turn promotes these capacities for reflection and attunement in others with whom we share close relationships (Fonagy, 1997). (For more about attachment styles, see EI’s Impact on Personal and Marital Relationships.)
Not only does attunement strengthen emotional bonds, it allows us to nurture in each other an access to a core self that lies deeper than personal identity, that core of being that we all share beneath the adaptations of everyday life and the constrictions of personality traits. The ability to maintain attuned relationships has been found to promote resilience and longevity (Siegel, 2007).
Neuroscientific research has shown that mindfulness activates certain neural circuits, harnessing the social circuitry of the brain in ways that enable us to be better attuned to both ourselves and to others. The reflective nature of mindfulness has been found to enhance neural connectivity in the prefrontal cortex, an integrative region that is, effectively, the neural hub of our humanity (Lazar et al, 2005; Davidson et al, 2003). Reflective skills have been found to enable flexibility and self-understanding by harnessing the prefrontal cortex’s capacity for executive attention, social behavior, empathy, and self-regulation. Reflection lies at the heart of social and emotional intelligence. It allows us to be aware of our own internal states, as well as the internal states of others so that we can share life with others in a more flexible and compassionate way. (For an in-depth look at empathy and compassion, see How Sahaja Meditation Cultivates Empathy and Compassion.)
Developing mindfulness through Sahaja meditation helps us take control of our attention and prevent it from being fixated on evaluative language, which enables nonjudgmental, metacognitive awareness of thoughts and feelings. We are able to let go of the past and fears about the future that are based on habitual patterns of thought.
Several neuroimaging studies have shown that the regular practice of Sahaja meditation increases traits such as self-awareness and mindfulness by increasing gray matter volume in areas of the brain that regulate these traits (Hernández et al, 2016) and by exerting top-down emotional regulation (Reva et al, 2014).
One study found that the emotional stability of Sahaja meditators is more than a general flattening of the emotional responses to external events; rather it results from the ability to prevent intense, full-scale, potentially harmful, physiological reactions in response to strong adverse conditions (Reva et al, 2014). Through the practice of Sahaja meditation, our ability to appraise an event’s emotional-motivational significance improves, which allows us to control our emotional reactions, and over time, this ability can gradually become automatic. Emotional appraisal transforms into cognitive appraisal, thus allowing more flexible responses to emotional challenges; e.g., our rational, objective problem-solving skills kick in, rather than leaving us at the mercy of emotional overreaction.
Attunement plays a role in neuroplasticity and helps promote emotional self-regulation through neural integration, the process of communication (neural connections and complex patterns of firing) between disparate parts of the brain responsible for everything from cognitive to sensory functions. For example, interpersonal attunement in adult-child relationships enhances the development of prefrontal functions in children. Interpersonal (internal) attunement with the self harnesses neural integration in the prefrontal regions of the brain to promote a reflective, adaptive mind, a resilient brain, and empathetic, compassionate relationships (Siegel, 2001).
Mindful awareness gives us a subtle, individuated awareness of the various aspects of mental functioning (e.g., perception, memory and the senses), which allows us to link them together in new combinations. This is the essence of integration in the prefrontal regions in our brains. And these regions have been found to grow and evolve with meditation-induced mindfulness (Lazar, et al., 2005). The practice of meditation repeatedly activates this neural circuitry, enhancing the neural connections in prefrontal regions, which, over time, can help convert temporary positive emotional states into a long-term traits.
There’s an overwhelming body of research demonstrating that meditation significantly enhances mindfulness, and that mindfulness can directly alleviate suffering in our lives (e.g., the many studies of Jon Kabat-Zinn and R.J. Davidson). Let’s look at the practice of mindfulness-based meditation and the state of meditation-induced mindfulness in our daily lives…
Forms of Meditation based entirely on Mindfulness
While there may be some variation between techniques and results, all variations of mindfulness driven forms of meditation are designed to both facilitate mindfulness during meditation sessions, as well as enhance ongoing mindfulness in daily life. In other words, in such forms of meditation, mindfulness is both the ultimate goal for the outcome, as well as part of the meditation technique for accomplishing that goal.
The practice of mindfulness based meditation does not involve spirituality or clearing your mind of all thoughts.
The technique typically involves focusing attention on the breath or bodily sensations and simply noting distracting thoughts and feelings as they occur without judgment or emotional reactivity. The practitioner then gently returns to the object of focus, whether it’s breathing during a formal meditation session or an everyday activity like drinking a cup of coffee.
Mindfulness during meditation does not directly address the content of thought; rather, it changes our relationship to our thoughts.
Meditation allows us to note thoughts and feelings without viewing them as frightening, catastrophic or depressing. When distracting thoughts and feelings arise during mindfulness-based meditation, they’re acknowledged, then the meditator directs his or her attention back to the breath, rather than engaging in elaborate cognitive processing. Attention has a limited capacity, thus when the mind is released from such elaborate secondary processing of thoughts and feelings, more attentional resources are available to process information related to current experience.
Emotional problems can be caused by thoughts and feelings that are merely “mental events ” — perceptions — rather than realities. Mindfulness gives us the ability to tell the difference. Conducting our lives mindfully, with openness, curiosity and acceptance, helps decrease our reliance on nonconstructive coping strategies such as repression or other defense mechanisms in order to avoid painful aspects of our experience. (For more about How Sahaja Meditation Breaks Down Defenses see Playing Defense: Where Defense Mechanisms Come From and How to Know When They’re Hurting You and The Defense Mechanism Guide.)
Learning to accept painful or unpleasant thoughts and feelings can change the psychological context in which these events are experienced — you’ve just created a more constructive relationship with your thoughts and feelings and diminished their power over you. And you’re poised to gain insights into the true nature of those thoughts and feelings; for example, you might come to view them simply as passing events in the mind rather than valid reflections on reality (Teasdale, 1995).
The meditation technique itself need not include mindfulness to provide the benefit of mindfulness in daily life.
Bishop, Scott R. Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice; Autumn 2004; 11, 3; Health Module pg. 230.
Fonagy, P., & Target, M. (1997). Attachment and reflective function: Their role in self-organization. Development and psychopathology, 9(4), 679-700.
Hernández SE, Suero J, Barros A, González-Mora JL, Rubia K (2016) Increased Grey Matter Associated with Long-Term Sahaja Yoga Meditation: A Voxel-Based Morphometry Study. PLoS ONE 11(3): e0150757.
Kabat-Zinn, J., (1990) Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your mind to face stress, pain and illness.
Kabat-Zinn, J.., Lipworth, L., & Burney, R. (1985). The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self regulation of chronic pain. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 8, 163-190.
Lazar, S.W., Kerr, C.E., Wasserman, R.H., Gray, J.R., Greve, D.N., Treadway, M.T., McGarvey, M., Quinn, B.T., Dusek, J.A., Benson, H., Rauch, S.L., Moore, C.I., Fischl, B. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 16(17), 1893-1897.
Linehan, M.M. (1993a). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York: Guilford Press.
Reva NV, Pavlov SV, Loktev KV, Korenyok VV, Aftanas LI. Influence of Long-Term Sahaja Yoga Meditation Practice on Emotional Processing in the Brain: An ERP Study. Neuroscience. 2014; 281:195.
Siegel, M.D., Daniel J.. (2001). Toward an interpersonal neurobiology of the developing mind: Attachment, “mindsight”, and neural integration. Infant Mental Health Journal, 22, 67-94.
Siegel, M.D., Daniel J.. The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being (New York: WW Norton 2007).
Teasdale, J.D., Segal, Z., Williams, J.M.G., & Mark, G. (1995). How does cognitive therapy prevent depressive relapse and why should attentional control (mindfulness) training help? Behavior Research and Therapy, 33, 25-39.