Why Practice Mindfulness?
The average person spends most of the day multi-tasking to the point where they are resentful, forgetful, and exhausted. Task after task makes the days seem to go by without meaning and the months without memory. Often, individuals spend so much time operating on auto-pilot, they literally miss out on life. They are unable to remember what the year, month, or even day before was about. Individuals can remember achieving goals or accomplishing tasks, but the journey of it all is lost in a void of multitasking. Ultimately this results in the loss of a sense of purpose, sadness, loneliness, depression, anxiety, and chronic stress which leads to physical disorders. Although the brain is complex, it requires regular maintenance in order to operate at its full capacity. Mindfulness is likened to closing the apps running in the background on a smart phone in order to increase speed and performance. Slowing down and living in the moment can actually improve the function of the mind, body, and overall life experience (Albeinz & Holmes, 2000).
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is originally from Buddhist psychology meaning “awareness” or “bare attention” (Albeinz & Holmes, 2000). In Western psychology, it is an “adjustment in awareness” where feelings and patterns of thought are promoted through deliberate verbal reflection, as in ‘now I am doing x, now I am feeling y’ (Brown & Ryan, 2003). In therapy, the psychologist or therapist acts as a coach who teaches people how to venture into their unexperienced or forgotten feelings. Techniques of Mindfulness Although beginners would likely benefit most from therapy with a clinician who practices mindfulness, anyone can begin mindfulness in an informal manner. Mindfulness techniques can be adapted as informal or formal (Brown & Ryan, 2003).
Informal (Albeinz & Holmes, 2000)
• Mindful reading
• Mindful meditations (i.e. 3 minute breathing)
• Structured self-help exercises
• Mindful activity (mindful eating, cleaning, driving, etc)
Formal (Albeinz & Holmes, 2000)
• Movement meditations (walking meditation, mindful and yoga stretches)
• Sitting meditations (attending to breathing, body sensations, sounds, thoughts, etc)
• Group exchange (led exercises, guided discussion of experience)
Nine essential qualities of mindfulness (Mace, 2006a):
1) Focusing on the present moment is when you find yourself mindlessly thinking about the past or future, but bring your thoughts back to the current moment and the current reality
2) Being fully present occurs when your mind and your physical body is aware of what you are experiencing in the present moment and engaging your five senses; what you are seeing, hearing, doing, feeling, and even tasting
3) Openness to experience happens when you pay attention to your feelings and you are curious about any thoughts that naturally arise. During the process, you become aware of your experience and watch how they change over time
4) Non-judgment is described as when you refrain from labeling your thoughts as good or bad. It is when you accept the thoughts, because in reality all feelings and thoughts are valid. All feelings have a purpose. Non-judgment helps you extend the non-judging attitude to other people and things
5) Acceptance of things as they are occurs when you don’t try to force or change reality. This quality involves one’s ability to see reality clearly as it is knowing that you can tolerate whatever is to come. Pain is necessary but suffering is unnatural
6) Connection occurs when an individual makes a conscious effort to be connected to meaningful things such as nature, people, sounds, and overall visual stimulation. The final step of connection is to reflect on gratefulness and gratitude
7) Non-attachment happens through allowing things, people, and experiences to be in a constant flow. Attachment comes from fear and is the basis of suffering. This is the ability to learn to gracefully surf the waves of life by going with the flow and by being confident in the ability to adapt. When one door closes, another opens
8) Peace and Equanimity is the quality of mindfulness that allows one to maintain an even keel without being swept up into the highs and lows of life. It is similar to the thought of emotions being like the waves in the sea, sometimes calm, sometimes turbulent, but always changing and always in motion
9) Compassion is not only being gentle and kind with others, it is described as being gentle and kind to yourself without being judging or condemning and by having an open heart and an open mind
Brain Changes Related to Mindfulness
The Harvard Business Review (Davidson, et al, 2003) contributed to a study from the University of British Columbia and the Chemnitz University of Technology in which they found consistent data related to how mindfulness changes the brain. In the study, several regions of the brain showed significant change; however, the most profound change occurred in two regions, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the hippocampus (Davidson, et al, 2003). The ACC is located behind the frontal lobe, the area of the brain responsible for purposeful actions, decision making, attention, and behavior. The ACC is also particularly important when facing fast-changing conditions. When there is damage to the ACC, it results in impulsivity, unchecked aggression, ineffective problem solving, and repeated difficulties with behavioral change. Study participants who were “meditators” or who actively practiced mindfulness showed more activity in the anterior cingulate cortex than those who were non-meditators (Davidson, et al, 2003). The hippocampus is located deep inside of the temple on each side of the brain and is a part of the limbic system, which is associated with emotion and memory and loosely associated with resilience. The hippocampus is covered in receptors for the stress hormone cortisol, which explains why stress can contribute to forgetfulness or memory loss. People with stress-related disorders like depression and PTSD tend to have a smaller hippocampus. Study participants who practiced mindfulness showed increased amounts of gray matter (which signifies activity, processing, and use of the area) in the hippocampus. This is significant because it demonstrates that there is a way to keep the brain healthy, to support self-regulation and effective decision-making capabilities, and to protect the brain from toxic stress, which can be deadly, as toxic stress is directly related to heart disease and other chronic illness (Reibel, et al, 2001).
The Benefit of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is useful for many problems. Current cognitive behavioral interventions using mindfulness focus on the following issues: Mood (anxiety, depression), Intrusions (ruminations, racing thoughts, memories), behaviors (bingeing, addiction, self-harm, violence), problems of relating (attitudes, empathy), or problems of self (self-consciousness, self-hatred) (Mace, 2006a). Studies have shown that when people don’t spend enough time in the moment there is an increase in depression and anxiety. Mindfulness has been shown to improve decision-making. Behavioral psychology explores the phenomenon called sunk-cost bias which essentially explains why individuals have such a difficult time letting go (Brown & Ryan, 2003). For example, people may hold on to stocks too long, or remain in a failing relationship for too long. Another example is if someone orders an expensive meal, is full half-way through the meal, but the person continues to eat due to an underlying problem of letting go. Sunk cost bias is present in so many areas of dysfunction such as obesity, compulsive-hoarding, poor interpersonal relationships, and dead-end careers; however, mindfulness can alleviate these issues. Mindfulness meditation can increase resistance to sunk-cost bias. First, meditation reduces how much people focus on the past and the future and leads to less negative emotion. Then the reduced negative emotion facilitates the ability to let go of sunk costs (Brown &Ryan, 2003). This translates into an overall improved quality of life.
Living in the moment is necessary in order to appreciate life. It requires acceptance of things as they are, non-judgmentally. It means appreciating the small things and appreciating life’s reality without missing out on what is occurring in the present by wondering what could be or what might be. Mindfulness means being present and actively participating in life. A brief period of mindfulness meditation cultivates awareness of the present moment and helps counteract deeply-rooted bias and/or habits (Albeinz & Holmes, 2000). There is power in the practice of mindfulness.
Albeinz, A. & Holmes, J. (2000) Meditation: concepts, effects, and uses in therapy. International Journal of Psychotherapy, 49-58.
Brown, K. & Ryan, R. (2003) The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 822-848.
Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., et al (2003) Alterations in the brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564-570.
Mace, C. (2006a) Long-term impacts of mindfulness practice on wellbeing: new findings from qualitative research. In Dimensions of Well-being. Research and Intervention (ed. A. Delle Fave), pp. 455-469. Franco Angeli.
Reibel, D. K., Greeson, J. M., Brainard, G. C., et al (2001) Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health-related quality of life in a heterogeneous population. General Hospital Psychiatry, 23, 183-192.