Post No.: 0676
There are many benefits to practising mindfulness, but it’s worth mentioning that it’s not a panacea for all our problems, not everybody likes doing it and it doesn’t work for everybody. Also, not all but many opportunists, who’ve jumped onto the modern western meditation trend in an attempt to flog their self-help books, classes or other products, have misunderstood what actually constitutes mindfulness and have thus partially corrupted the practice. This happens frequently – something new (to a time or place at least) presents some promise according to the scientific literature, but then those who want to make a quick commercial buck swarm in and over-extrapolate and over-state the benefits in order to attract our attentions onto their particular goods or services in a competitive market; often to the point of peddling total pseudoscience.
Although the evidence for mindfulness meditation is mixed – if done properly and practised consistently and for a long enough time – the strongest evidence is in reducing depression, anxiety, pain and stress, boosting the immune system, improving sleep, reducing skin inflammation, blood pressure and slowing some of the effects of ageing, of the body as well as the mind. So practising it can improve our mental and sometimes physical health, lower anxiety and increase our resilience to stress and negative thoughts. It may also possibly help reduce feelings of anger, contempt and hostility, sharpen our attentions and in turn judgement skills, help reduce self-criticism, make us more mindful of others, better at judging emotions and better at recognising the good in others.
The effects on boosting positive emotions like joy and hope are currently less clear but it has been shown to be beneficial for increasing self-compassion and compassion towards others. Mindfulness can improve our emotional intelligence and can benefit anyone who’s in a stressful career or situation, or where people skills are important. It’s a skill arguably worth teaching to children as young as possible, to benefit their school years, as well as their adolescence and adulthood.
Strangely, being aware of your feelings and thoughts can give you distance to them, and help you to tolerate and work through them calmly rather than become overwhelmed by them. It’s like being aware that ‘this is me’ and then ‘these are the feelings that I happen to be feeling right now’. Some people with mental health disorders similarly find it helpful to be aware of their conditions as if separate from them, such as ‘this is me’ and then ‘this is the addiction that is trying to lead me astray’.
Feelings of resistance and anger towards pain may help temporarily but can serve to increase and prolong that pain and distress. With mindfulness, we observe and notice with non-judgemental and non-reacting acceptance. Acceptance is the opposite of desire – it’s equanimity, contentment and being thankful of what you do have right now. Grant more acceptance and be less judgemental towards your own thoughts too – there isn’t always a right or wrong way to think or feel in a given moment. Acceptance is also considered the final and most important stage of grief – see Post No.: 0557 for more about coping with loss.
When things or people don’t behave as we expect or want, it can make us angry and frustrated – so it’s good to notice one’s feelings, accept them and then be able to take the reins of them instead of being controlled by them. Being aware of our feelings, of what we’re feeling – as if we’re looking at ourselves from a third-person perspective – can put space between us and those feelings (self-distancing). And instead of being a negative or angry feeling, we can be the master of it. Woof!
So mindfulness practice enables us to uncouple the sensory dimension of a pain experience from the affective and evaluative alarm reaction to it – one will still feel the pain but will be less distressed by it. It’s a higher state of consciousness – being conscious of what’s usually subconscious, such as our breathing, or how we direct our attention.
You must be able to first recognise if and when you’ve dipped into a negative or unhelpful pattern of thought, such as ruminating, blaming, catastrophising or thinking that danger is always looming, before you can consciously do anything about it. Also, the more you understand your own mind, the more you can understand the minds of others too and, say, put their thoughts into better context and forgive them more easily if they’ve wronged you.
Mindfulness is a tool for deliberately focusing our attention onto the present without evaluation or judgement, and whether it helps us to focus our attention onto others or onto ourselves depends on whether we’ve been primed to think outrospectively and communally or introspectively and independently. Consequently, mindfulness can make us either more generous towards others or selfish – and the latter is one of the risks.
This is one way how some modern western influencers tout a corrupted version of mindfulness because it actually derives from Buddhist traditions, and Buddhism teaches us to deconstruct the ego and express unconditional compassion for all beings.
Although we can psychologically distance ourselves from our own thoughts, feelings and memories – our thoughts, feelings and memories are physically one and the same as the neuronal structures and electrochemical processes happening inside our brains. And since learning corresponds with physical changes to people’s brains – we find that, via the brain scans of Buddhists who’ve meditated for years, their brains become rewired for more interoceptive awareness (the sensing of internal bodily changes) and empathy, plus other areas involved in attention, emotions and the ability to bounce back from stress. This leads to shifts in habits of thinking towards being more optimistic, resilient and pro-social.
Meditating can even increase our set point level of happiness. This suggests that changing our external circumstances does not change our set point but changing our internal landscape can. This is possibly because in order to change our set point we must change our brain itself, via training our minds, and this cannot be achieved by buying stuff – the hedonic adaptation to purchases and possessions means that the brain never changes for the long-term via buying new things. We must therefore practise our way to greater lasting happiness – we cannot buy our way to it. Similar to how we must get sweaty and exercise our way to physical fitness – we cannot buy our way to it! A happier state of mind and mental well-being therefore really does come for free in a material sense, or at least for less than what we may have been led to believe in a capitalist culture; but it does require some praxis.
The earlier in life one starts this practice, the easier it’ll be. Practising anything gradually develops alternative neural pathways and connections in the brain, which get physically reinforced and thus stronger with more training. And as these particular pathways get stronger the more we use them, we increasingly automatically use these pathways, akin to a ball rolling along a newly worn groove, rather than the old and unhelpful pathways of depressive or negative thoughts we used to automatically default to. New mental habits of thinking, such as positive thinking, acceptance, kindness, forgiveness and compassion, are skills that can be literally cultivated, due to the neuroplasticity of brains.
To develop a new mental habit, one must overcome the existing default habit of not doing that new habit; and breaking an old habit is typically difficult. This is why it’s recommended that one should start small, to not over-exert too soon, to build it into one’s schedule and to have a conducive environment for enabling the new habit to flourish. Mindfulness meditation aims to interrupt our existing conditioned habitual responses (e.g. our angry reactions to petty things) that prevent us from exploring new ways of thinking (e.g. more productive responses like forgiveness and acceptance).
Our brains are constantly being shaped, wittingly or unwittingly (mostly unwittingly). We are pawns to forces around us, like the constant messages of consumerism and ‘you must buy this to be respected and happy in life’. Mental training, such as via meditation and practising acceptance, takes some of that power back into our own paws. (‘Meditation’ can be called a ‘mind hack’ if one prefers.) Also, because brain and body are intertwined (both are physical after all) – changing one can change the other. Gene expressions may also be altered through what we do or via our environments too.
Mindfulness exercises and programs come in many forms thus they shouldn’t be generalised as all identical – there are 5-minute exercises per day at home to intensive meditation retreats that last for months. There are also many different types of meditations, like ones that focus on our breathing to improve our emotional regulation and acceptance, and ones that focus on self-compassion to help us feel connected with a common humanity and be less harsh on ourselves. Some people may experience adverse reactions to meditation hence it’s not for them – although with some programs, some level of temporary discomfort is considered an indicator of progress in one’s practice.
When primed to understand that life is unpredictable, we’re more likely to stop to savour what’s in front of us right now, compared to when we think that life is certain. This is probably because we’re going to take advantage of what we have now, and take whatever the present moment can offer us, because it might be the only chance we can do so. The downside of this, however, is that we might seek too many immediate or short-term pleasures that will cost us in the long-term – like seizing every high-calorie snack one can find! So uncertainty can make us focus on the present more, but a risk is that it can make us focus too much on our immediate desires at the expense of the future.
Hence no one is suggesting being mindfully present all of the time – it’s just that most of us would benefit from being a bit more mindful in our modern lives that’s all. We should still learn from the past, and we should still care about and plan for the future rather than just live for the now.
And although mindfulness helps increase our non-judgemental and non-reacting acceptance of things – we must still be motivated to fight tooth and claw for correcting the injustices we experience rather than acquiesce or passively accept these. Therefore it’s really about drawing upon mindfulness to increase the acceptance of the things we cannot change, while drawing upon courage to change the things that can and should be socially changed.
Woof. So mindfulness meditation isn’t a fluffy panacea but it can help improve our mental health when included as part of a broader strategy to improve or maintain our mental health – such as when practised alongside regular physical exercise, a healthy diet, gregarious social interactions, sufficient and regular sleep, creative exercises, and perhaps therapy and prescribed medications if required.