With its roots in Buddhism, the modern take on mindfulness starts with Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine, who created a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program in 1979. Probably driven by the desire for broader adoption of the program and to make it accessible to everyone, he downplayed the connection to Buddhism. Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness is, “Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment, which can be developed through the practice of meditation and other training.”
The term itself is an English translation from Sanskrit of a word that originally meant “to remember, to recollect, to bear in mind.”
Numerous studies have verified that programs like the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and mindfulness in general lead to positive outcomes. For example, using brain scans with magnetic resonance, the team around Britta K. Holzel showed that even eight weeks long program leads to changes in gray matter. The gray matter concentration increased in the left hippocampus and other parts of the brain responsible for learning, memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective-taking.
When looking at the definitions of mindfulness, you will quickly realize that it is not about removing negative things from our lives. We often don’t have that under control anyway. It is about being able to live through experiences, learn from them, and find ways to cope with them in a healthy manner. This then prepares us for future adversity.
When mindfulness works
According to Daniel Goleman, there is a lot of pseudo research around mindfulness in the corporate world, and very few studies fit the rigorous scientific criteria. From those that do, Goleman concluded that there are four proven benefits of mindfulness: stronger focus, staying calmer under stress, better memory, and good corporate citizenship.
Stronger focus – mindfulness leads to less mind wandering. You don’t get as easily distracted, and you concentrate better. The reason why mindfulness helps is that it calms our amygdala and allows the prefrontal cortex to operate effectively without the amygdala overriding it with fight or flight distractions.
Staying calmer under stress – we are back to the amygdala that is responsible for quick reactions when we are under threat. It reacts to both physical danger when suddenly meeting a bear, as well as perceived psychological danger in the office when being yelled at by a boss. Research supports the notion that people who meditate are able to recover from stressful events faster than those who don’t practice mindfulness.
Better memory – mindfulness has a positive impact on short-term working memory, that deals with in-the-moment thought processing. This then has a positive effect on the processing of complex information and on problem-solving. Together with the calmness noted above, it leads to more clarity and clear thinking.
Good corporate citizenship – meditation is especially helpful in building kindness. People who practice mindfulness often exhibit more generosity and caring for other human beings. It helps with people being willing to help each other.
Goleman suggests that to get these benefits, you should have three ten-minute mindfulness meditations a day when you clear your mind and focus on your breathing. When your mind starts to wander, bring it back to focus. As you build up your ability to concentrate, you can then shift it from your breathing to your inner experience.
A word of warning. Don’t confuse mindfulness with meditation. Meditation is a way how to achieve mindfulness, but they are not synonymous. Let me explain the case of mindlessness as the opposite of mindfulness. Mindlessness happens when you let life happen to you and constantly worry about some hypothetical future events. You are stressed by what may happen and how it may feel. Mindfulness, on the other hand, leads you to realize that it is not the event but your perception of the event that creates the stress.
If you mindfully focus on thinking about the reasons why the event may not happen or if it does that, it can have a silver lining as you remove the stress. Meditation is a way to learn to focus your mind so you can then train yourself to have this type of thought. Mindful meditation is not about getting rid of all thoughts completely, to have a blank mind. It is about being aware of them and removing their negative power over our lives.
Mindlessness is, on the other hand, thoroughly integrated into our lives without any effort on our part. The moment we believe we know something, we stop paying attention. It can even lead to dangerous situations.
You may have experienced something that happens to many drivers. Imagine that you are driving your car every day to work. You take the same road. You do it five times a week for many years. Your journey starts by getting out of your suburb. The whole experience becomes so automatic that you do it mindlessly thinking about other stuff rather than focusing on your driving. It is Friday morning. You start your journey thinking about your plans for the weekend on the first crossroad you get crashed by another car. No one is injured, but you get outraged and start yelling at the other driver that he should have stopped as you were on the main road. He shouts back that you are blind and ignore road signs, and that he was on the main road. You look back at where you came from and indeed, there is a yield sign. It’s been there already several days, and you simply didn’t notice it.
This type of thing happens to us all the time without us realizing it or without admitting to ourselves that we didn’t pay attention. Usually, it has less severe consequences, but it is still there. For example, how often do you get annoyed that someone didn’t tell you important information only to be told that it was shared with everyone in the meeting where you participated? You start blaming your memory that you don’t remember that, but in reality, it was your lack of attention during the meeting that is most likely to blame. You were mindlessly checking your phone and not being fully present.
Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, notes that mindfulness is about noticing new things that force us to be in the moment and have a bigger awareness of the context and broader perspective on things. Mindfulness meditation is there to teach you to be an unconditional present, regardless of the circumstances. The goal of mindfulness is not to feel great and experience only happiness. It is to be fully aware. And that means also being able to name, experience, and be less reactive to the negative emotions like anger, sadness, anxiousness, or loneliness.
Dangers of mindfulness practiced out of context
As Ron Purser and David Loy write, mindfulness, even though often mentioned as having Buddhist roots is completely decoupled from its thousands of years old tradition. Asking people today to dedicate their lives to all the aspects of Buddhism would be too much. It is easier to wrap it up in a couple of minutes a day wrapper and serve as a quick solution to a problem with stress or anxiety. Purser, Loy, and other critics call it McMindfulness.
Mindfulness became a marketing plot. Many consultants, trainers, and self-help gurus are pushing mindfulness as a solution to all your earthly worries. Give us some money, and we teach you how you can quickly improve your life by spending a couple of minutes a day doing nothing. That sounds exciting. People ignore the ethical aspects and focus only on therapeutic potential. Does it help you to reduce stress? Sure. Does it help you to become a better human being? Not really. For that, you would need to connect it to a broader context.
According to Purser and Loy, Buddhists acknowledge two versions of mindfulness. The right mindfulness and the wrong mindfulness. The difference is whether the awareness you get is characterized by positive intentions and wholesomeness that leads to human well-being for yourself as well as for others. Consider that you can use mindfulness in the service of evil, as being a better killer or thief.
By decoupling mindfulness from ethics, you may strengthen your vices. That is why it is so important not to take it out of context and apply mindfulness together with strengthening the fundamental basis of one’s character and virtues.
When seeing in this bigger context, you may realize that what you are trying to solve with mindfulness is the wrong thing. You are trying to lower your stress, but you don’t go to the roots of it. You just deal with consequences. When connecting the dots, you may realize that there is a more significant change needed in the way you live or how your company operates. Standalone mindfulness can only help you to hide that there is a deeper problem.
Putting it all together
Mindfulness, in its core, is nothing more than opening your eyes to yourself. It is about self-discovery. What you find may not always be pleasant. As Dawn Foster writes in an article in The Guardian there are reports of people who had adverse effects to mindful meditation.
You shouldn’t use mindfulness to solve problems in your life that should be addressed in other ways. Removing the sources of stress or distractions is the first step to take. Mindfulness can be used as a part of a holistic approach to life, but you can’t expect much when using it as a standalone tool.
Mindfulness is about being in the moment, paying attention on purpose and without judgment. When you take it for what it is, you can reap an enormous benefit in tranquility, and the quality of your life.
What are your thoughts on the topic? Have you ever tried any mindfulness exercises? What were the results? What problems have you encountered? What benefits did you see?
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