Can sitting, doing nothing, for 10 minutes a day change your mind and body? Yes, it can.
Mindfulness meditation is an increasingly popular thing. For a few years now CEOs, celebrities and our friends talk about it, telling us how much it helped them. And it’s true: just being in the present moment is truly a powerful tool. Meditation induces in us not only psychological but also biological changes.
But this new social movement also has a dark side. Billions of dollars to be made on people seeking a bit of peace or a way to deal with stress or depression transformed this movement into a market of its own. In some cases, it even provided a way to kill people more effectively.
Buddhists are said to be statistically among the happiest and most peaceful people on the planet. So what does uprooting meditation from its ethical core change? Let’s find out.
Myths and origins
There are countless myths associated with meditation. Some think that it is an escape from the “real world.” Some think that it is practised in total isolation. Others are convinced that it provides supernatural powers.
This is not true.
While there are some forms of mystic or transcendental meditation, in Buddhist terms meditation is a form of a mental culture, a method of getting rid of disturbances and illusions and cultivating concentration, awareness, vigilance and wisdom. Buddhists use meditation to gain an insight into the true nature of reality.
Further still, many of the techniques adapted from Buddhism in secular meditation didn’t need to be changed at all. The most basic form of meditation taught by Buddha as sufficient is the awareness of in-and-out breathing, or concentration on the sensations a breath induces.
What does meditation look like, really?
A usual session of mindfulness meditation will consist of:
- breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth with your eyes open,
- closing your eyes, breathing normally, and being aware of the surroundings, sounds and smells,
- focusing on your body as a whole – its weight and points of contact with the ground,
- performing a “body scan,” i.e. focusing on subsequent body parts from head to toe and being aware of what they feel like – noticing whether they are relaxed or stressed, as well as being aware of your mood and emotions,
- focusing on the sensation of breathing in and out,
- not focusing on anything and allowing your mind to wander,
- focusing on your body as a whole once again,
- once again being aware of your surroundings,
- opening your eyes and staying with your sensations for a moment.
There are two fundamental rules. The first is to be non-judgemental, that it to just notice your sensations and emotions and not think about them – saying “I’m stressed” or “I have an itch on my shoulder” and putting it aside. The second is to notice when your mind wanders and gently turning its attention back to whatever it is supposed to do at that moment.
There are, of course, some other elements that can be added, e.g. remembering your motivation for meditation or using some relaxing visualisations, but what is described above is the basic technique.
But mindfulness is also adapted to the daily routine: being aware of whatever it is you’re doing, like eating, standing-up or making tea. It does not require doing the things you do any different, just focusing on it and being mindful.
Mindfulness and its psychological benefits
The essential goals of meditation are to allow yourself to be in the present moment, aware of anything you might be doing, not being stuck in pondering about the future or the past. You don’t think about what you’re doing, but lose yourself in that action. You have no judging thoughts, but you see things as they are, not unlike a scientist.
But meditation brigs about greater changes in your life.
There is a positive correlation between practising mindfulness and perceived well-being. Mindfulness reduces rumination and worry, the key factors in depression and anxiety disorders. It prevents avoiding or suppressing emotions, as well as prevents over-reacting in stressful situations. It makes you look at difficult ethical or moral situations more objectively. It makes you more efficient, and react to unexpected events faster. It improves attention – both when you have to be vigilant for a long time, and when you have a specific task to perform. It makes you better at discarding irrelevant information. It makes your memory more efficient. Those are only some advantages of mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness meditation has been found helpful in alleviating symptoms of disorders such as chronic pain, different types of anxiety and depression; it reduces stress; it may also inhibit or delay the onset of mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease.
Since the 1970s it is used in a variety of psychotherapies and mental health programmes, as well as in general hospitals, schools, businesses, prisons, etc.
Out of many mindfulness-based therapies, the first and best known is MSBR, or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It combines meditation, body awareness and yoga and was found helpful in reducing stress, relaxing more efficiently, and it also improves the perceived quality of life.
Another well-known programme is MBCT, or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, a combination of cognitive-behavioural therapy, education about one’s disorder and mindfulness. It was found to reduce the chances of having another depressive episode by 50%. Other similar programmes are helpful in treating borderline personality disorder, substance abuse, recurrent suicidal behaviour as well as in helping adolescents with behavioural problems.
Mindfulness and its biological benefits
But mindfulness meditation also induces a lot of physical changes. On one hand, it induces a so-called “relaxation response,” i.e. slows down your metabolism, reduces heart rate and blood pressure, as well as slows down brainwave activity in a way that reduces arousal and increases relaxation.
EEG shows that in-session meditators are not only relaxed but also have sharp awareness. The activity is high in the parts of the brain responsible for autonomic functions, motivation, learning, emotion processing and formation. Due to this activity, the meditator is more sensitive to positive emotions and emotional expression.
Tests using fMRI show that for long-term meditators the density of grey matter, responsible for processing information, is increased in the parts of the brain responsible for body awareness, emotion regulation and memory. The density of white matter, responsible for communication between different parts of the brain, is also increased. This means that people who meditate regularly are more emotionally stable, have better coordination as well as have better information processing powers and memory. All on a biological level.
Is it all sunshine and roses?
But the popularity of mindfulness meditation draws criticism. First, mindfulness became a multibillion-dollar industry, with books, apps, retreats, courses and seminars marketed to individual consumers, businesses and organisations. Some Buddhists say that what’s on sale here is a hollowed-out “McMindfulness,” uprooted from its original ethics and world view. They say mindfulness should come with a fundamental change in one’s actions, provoking an insight into the roots of greed and delusion. But right now, with its popularity, it is used to reinforce those vices. According to those critics, being a commodity, a mass-produced product packaged in a shiny box with a catchy slogan, commercially offered mindfulness does not address one’s situation and thoughts and is nothing more than a Band-Aid.
Second, as mindfulness infiltrated countless institutions, it is sometimes used in ways that are contradictory to the inherently peaceful Buddhist teachings. Take military – the US troops are taught mindfulness meditation to “improve operational effectiveness and build a warrior resilience pre- and post-deployment,” which is to say “make our soldiers kill more people, more effectively, with less stress and trauma.” Buddha wanted to change the fabric of society and help all beings coexist peacefully. Such a thing is impossible to do by killing unless you’re building a utopian world-wide totalitarian regime.
Third, the biological mechanisms behind the changes in our bodies provoked by meditation are still unknown and many early studies of these phenomena were flawed. Some people attributed panic attacks, general feeling of fear or panic to the practice of mindfulness. At this point in time, no research backs up those claims, however it is not surprising that, as with any psychological technique, there are ways to misuse mindfulness and create problems for yourself. Traditionally, meditation is taught by experienced teachers and any unwanted experiences are resolved with their help. Some undiscovered mental health issues may also come into play when one is meditating, so starting to practice alone, learning from a book or an app, and without proper guidance may be risky.
All in all, mindfulness meditation is a technique with a millennia-old, rich history. A technique that changes our minds and bodies in a very positive way. It already helped millions – whether it helped cure them of depression, deal with stress or just become happier and more peaceful – it affected the world and made it better.
So, sit down comfortably, take a deep breath and close your eyes. Just remember to consult a professional beforehand.
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