You cannot fully control what happens in your life, but with meditation, you can have much greater control over how you respond to those.
Meditation is mental training to improve the ability to focus your attention and control your emotions. There are many ways to meditate. Mindfulness meditation is one of them.
What Is Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is settling down at a place devoid of physical interruptions to focus the mind on the present experiences, usually centered on awareness of the breathing process, with an attitude of openness, curiosity, acceptance, and non-judgment.
In simple words, we do mindfulness meditation when we sit down at a calm and cozy spot, focus on our breath flowing in and out, and gently monitor the motley of thoughts and emotions that pass through our minds.
Most of the time, most people do not know what their minds are doing. They do a lot of activities they are not aware of. Mindfulness is bringing awareness to what our minds are actually doing.
Mindfulness mediation trains our inner observer to be watchfully aware of our thought processes as if we are looking up and watching our thoughts pass by like clouds in the sky. It is somewhat the same as intently watching ourselves in a dream while being aware we are dreaming.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the bestseller Full Catastrophe Living, one of the most famous Western researchers on mindfulness, and the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, explains it in the following words:#Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, to the present moment, and without judgment. — Jon Kabat-Zinn Click To Tweet
Origins of Mindfulness Meditation
Throughout the existence of humans, for thousands of years, people have used mindfulness techniques to build awareness into the present moment with calm acceptance — to deal with the stresses of life. The Buddha and Buddhist teachers methodically codified it as a practice of meditation.
Around 500 BCE, the Buddha studied some of the oldest forms of meditation from early Hinduism and modified them into a new technique called Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation.
The goal of this meditation was not to get closer to the divine or to empty your mind, but to pay attention. This is the traditional form of mindfulness meditation.
Satipaṭṭhāna, from Pali/Sanskrit smṛtyupasthāna, is a compound term that can be parsed as: “sati” meaning “attention” and “upa” meaning inside, and “thana” meaning “to keep.” So, together they mean “to keep your attention inside.”
According to the Theravada Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi, sati-upaṭṭhāna means “the presence of mindfulness” or “the arousing of mindfulness.”
Brain And Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness is difficult initially because, after a few seconds of being mindful, the mind begins to wander. When a mind wanders, it is usually “time-traveling” – calling up a memory going to the past or imagining an event in the future.
This mind-wandering state is also filled with worries, regrets, fears, and overthinking. Some Buddhists call it the “monkey mind.” Scientists called it the Default Mode Network (DMN).
Mind-wandering is the very nature of mind – it usually cannot stay long focused on an activity unless it finds deep interest, gets forced into, or is trained to do so.
The noticing of that your mind has wandered, the distraction from your breath, is a part of your mindfulness practice. It is like a moment of awakening. In that moment, when you direct your attention back to your breath, a part of the brain lights up, as seen in the fMRI scans – the dorsolateral prefrontal coxtrex (dlPFC).
Mindfulness meditation strengthens the connection between the dlPFC to the DMN. The more “muscular” dlPFC now controls the monkey mind better. In support of this, the brain scans of expert meditators show their DMNs are dialed down. In comparison, people with depression or anxiety have more active DMNs.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR meditation therapy, though originally designed for the management of stress, has been successfully used to benefit a wide range of conditions — depression, anxiety, chronic pain, cancer, diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure, HIV/AIDS, skin diseases, and immune disorders.
A study by Linda Carlson and Zenovia Ursuliak found cancer patients who took a 7-week MBSR training had less mood disturbance and fewer stress symptoms, and these improvements held at a 6-month follow-up.
In a review study on the effects of drug-free therapies on cancer patients, Lynette Pujol and Daniel Monti found those trained on MBSR had fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, anger, and confusion. They got less irritable, had more vigor, and could think in a more organized way. They also had fewer complaints related to the heart, lungs, and gut.
The practice of MBSR has been found to improve patients’ coping with prostate cancer, and to decrease stress and mood disturbances in a group of patients with mixed types of cancer. Shifts in immune system markers (reduction in T1 pro-inflammatory lymphocyte to T2 anti-inflammatory lymphocyte ratio) have also been found in patients with breast cancer and patients with prostate cancer following an 8-week MBSR program.— Lynette Pujol and Daniel Monti (Managing Cancer Pain With Nonpharmacologic and Complementary Therapies)
A 2018 study showed Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) reduces the severity and increases the odds of remission of symptoms in patients with depression. It is more effective for depressed patients who have high levels of overthinking.
Mindfulness meditation also has effects at the brain level. Research shows habitual meditation practice is linked to long-lasting changes in our brains. Sarah Lazar and her associates reported the region of the brain associated with emotional reactivity and fear – the amygdala – had decreased grey-matter density in participants of an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program.
3 Big Sensibilities of Mindfulness
Sensibility is defined as an understanding of what is good or valuable. It also means an ability to feel and react to something.
A vital part of mindfulness is developing the three sensibilities of curiosity, non-judgment, and letting-go.
1. Curiosity In Mindfulness
Curiosity is the innate desire to find out something previously unknown and gain new knowledge. A curious person looks around and tries to find out novel things they have not experienced before. Their questions are intent and honest, and are to themselves as well as others.
Curiosity opens us to the various experiences of mindfulness meditation.
Bringing a sense of curiosity to the mindfulness practice helps elevate the experience. Curiosity keeps us open to learning more from our mindfulness meditation experience. It helps us pay close attention to understand the workings of the breath.
Meditation is not, as many think, controlling the mind or clearing out the thoughts. Rather, it is about watching the emotions and thoughts arise and examining them with curiosity. We can learn the underlying reasons by observing how the thoughts arrive and how we react to them instinctively.
Mindfulness meditation is the practice of sitting with all the thoughts that come up, pleasant or unpleasant, and notice them for what they are with a sense of wonder. Curiosity allows us to learn something deeper, even when thoughts take us to an unpleasant experience from our past, instead of avoiding them or getting up from meditation.
Curiosity can be a driving force to maintain regularity in our mindfulness meditation practice. On the days we do not feel motivated to sit down to meditate, curiosity can prod us to explore what is it that is making us avoid it.
In the end, being curious while in mindfulness can help us learn more about ourselves, and cultivate the habit of observing our feelings and waiting before reacting to situations.
2. Non-Judgment In Mindfulness
Judging is our tendency to classify an event, a person, or an experience as good, bad, or neutral. Our minds are judging things so we might survive — by bonding close to the good things, turning away from the bad things, and ignoring the neutral things. This is an automatic process.
In mindfulness meditation, we train our minds to stop judging the thoughts and emotions that arise. We call it non-judgment. With non-judgment, we relax our minds.
When we say mindfulness is about a non-judgmental awareness, it does not mean our mindfulness will stop us from making judgments anymore. Non-judgement does not aim to banish all judgments from our minds. We always fail at it because it is the nature of the mind to judge automatically.
What non-judgment means is we become aware of how critical, fussy, and fault-finding we are about most things. While we cannot pull the plug on them, but once we get to know them, we could stop judging those self-righteous thoughts.
Non-judgement is about changing our attitude to our judgments. Once we accept the judgments are mere thoughts, we can treat them as temporary visitors in our minds. We no more need to store them or get influenced by them.
While judgments make things easy for us, but we could be exhausting our brains trying to judge constantly. More so, because most of the situations in the modern world do not threaten our lives. We live in far safer environs than our hunter-gatherer ancestors. So we do not need to judge everything for survival value.
When we reign in the judging process, we set free a big chunk of our mind that used to work at filtering and sorting every experience. A mind made to feel relaxed thus opens up to accept the present experiences as they are. We wake up to the reality that we do not need to sift or control the present moment. We can accept it fully as it is, and just be.
3. Letting-Go In Mindfulness
We might think of letting as the opposite of clinging to or grasping on to something. We often get fixated on an opinion, a concept, a relationship. Letting go means we can stay distant and impassive from holding on to the things we want in our lives.
It also about not trying to push away the things we do not want. Since unpleasant experiences are unavoidable in life, letting go is permitting them to be whatever they are, with no attempt to pit against them.
All mindfulness activities must involve letting go. According to Michael Fox:
Letting go is what we do when a function, service, or activity previously performed is discontinued, when ongoing work is modiﬁed …, or when we lose tangible resources, such as colleagues.
South-Indian Monkey-Trap: Jon Kabat-Zinn often recounts a story about how people used to trap the monkeys in old times. They made a small hole in a hollowed-out coconut, put a banana inside, and tie the coconut to the tree’s base.
The monkeys come down from the trees and put their hands through the hole to grab the banana. But the hole is of such size that a monkey’s hand can go in or out, but it cannot get out when it forms a closed fist grabbing the banana. The monkeys do not let go of the banana and get trapped.
Similarly, when one gets caught up in their attachments, and desire things the exact way they want them, it is a painful trap. Letting things be and letting go of the hankerings is the acceptance that becomes the door to freedom.
Letting go is recognizing the thoughts, especially the judgmental thoughts that arise in our mins, and let them pass without denouncing them or clinging to them.
Letting go is about letting things be. It means allowing thoughts, ideas, and people to be as they without trying to get too caught up in making or expecting them to be a certain way that suits us. When we let go, we do not strive to shape things to fit our vision.
We can learn the art of letting go from the process of our breathing. Each breath we take, however long we keep holding it in, we have to let it go, or else there can never be another breath.
Mindfulness Without Meditation: 7 Types of Mindfulness Activities
Since mindfulness is the nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment, we can be mindful in many ways. We do not always need to meditate to be mindful. We can also reach a state of mindfulness without meditating.
All mindfulness is not meditation. Also, all meditation is not mindfulness.
Some of the most common activities to practice mindfulness are:
- Mindful breathing
- Mindful walking
- Mindful eating
- Mindful observation
- Mindful awareness
- Mindful listening
- Mindful savoring
Breath Mindfulness Meditation
Here is a simple way to do breath mindfulness or Ānāpānasati:
- find a secluded space. sit down with your back erect. close your eyes and take slow and deep breaths.
- bring your full attention to your incoming and outgoing breath. as you breathe in, know you are breathing in. as you breathe out, know you are breathing out.
- withdraw your attention from the external things and relax. your whole intention is to practice paying attention to your in-breath and out-breath, over and over again.
- if your mind wanders off from your breath a thousand times, be mindful and kind enough to bring it back to the present moment a thousand times.
Being mindful means you are paying attention to and conscious of what’s happening around you and inside you. While you are curiously aware of your passing thoughts, you must make sure you also examine them with no judgment and let go of them.
All of us can practice mindfulness and learn to become more present. All we have to do is pay close attention to the present moment and encourage ourselves to be with what exists in the now and here.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy – a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related medical topics.
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