Cutting through the ‘woo’ to bring you the science behind why you need to sit up and pay attention to mindfulness, to the moment, to you.
To give you the upper hand in life you need to know how to meditate. In practice, this means understanding what mindfulness is. Bear with us. This isn’t another article expounding the great hype of meditation without some scientific back-up. In fact it’s the opposite. We know that many people are put off the idea of mindfulness, thanks to negative preconceptions founded on new age spiritualism. However, you can’t refute the evidence: Even the studies of the studies recognise that mindfulness is powerful. The ‘godfather’ of western mindfulness, Jon Kabat Zinn, grew his practice out of medical school. It’s not woo, but it is science. It’s also a good thing, but why?
Cast your mind back to a moment when you were either under extreme stress, or complete ease, and became aware that your focus got intense. It may have been a situation of danger where your intensified focus made you able to think clearly and logically. That moment was a moment when you were fully aware, fully concentrating.
Imagine being able to harness that power of focus all the time, not just when things are extreme. That’s what mindfulness is about. It’s not about the hippy sitting cross-legged on a cushion (although it is to them – fair play to them). It’s about your connection to your own wellbeing. We could even use the word ‘happiness’. And the reason it works is due to neuroplasticity – science.
So before we take you on a quick 101 of how to meditate, let’s explore two key things: what is mindfulness and why does it work.
What is Mindfulness?
Before you whip out the cushion (or more likely hide it down the side of the sofa) and start meditating, let’s explain mindfulness. Yes, there’s the element of finding peace through mindfulness meditation, but mindfulness training is about far more than this. In short it is your ability to harness that intense focus on the present. This is paramount to our wellbeing because, as Sam Harris (one of mindfulness’s western aces), states:
“How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives.”
That’s right, the quality of your life – another way of thinking about the term happiness’ – comes down to learning how to practice mindful awareness in everyday life. You don’t need to be in crisis, you don’t need to be staring down the barrel of life’s problem, but your everyday life, every moment, can be enhanced when you take a mindful approach to it. Given the challenges of modern life, with its constant and on-demand nature, it couldn’t be more needed.
To get a more tangible grasp of what it means to cultivate mindfulness, let’s consider the definition of Unified Mindfulness as offered by Shinzen Young. He defines the system of mindfulness as one of “concentration power, sensory clarity, and equanimity working together.” So it’s about harnessing that focus through awareness of what’s happening both around you and inside you, and being at ease with that. This helps us to understand that mindfulness is about far more than just paying attention or an awareness of our thoughts.
So why is it important? What are the benefits of mindfulness? Again, let’s look at Shinzen Young and the 5 Dimensions of Happiness that he attributes to mindfulness:
- Reduce perceived suffering.
- Elevate sensual fulfilment.
- Understand yourself at all levels.
- Make positive behaviour changes.
- Cultivate/discover a spirit of love and service. (Think of this as compassion to yourself and others).
But what about the science? Isn’t this more akin to Buddhist meditation rather than real scientific fact?
The Science of Mindfulness
The reason mindfulness works, whether it’s wrapped up in religious practice or not, is because of neuroplasticity. Neuroscience is what enables us to understand why mindfulness gets such rave reviews and why you need to practice mindfulness awareness in your life.
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain, the mind, to change. Things aren’t set in stone. But they kind of are if you don’t do anything to change them. That means that you will likely always react in the same ways to the same everyday life triggers and events unless you actively choose to reprogram what’s going on at a cerebral level.
This time, let’s use an example offered to us by another mindfulness proponent, Upasaka Culdasa in his article ‘The Magic of Mindfulness’. Here he draws on an event where a disagreement occurs with a partner, neighbour or boss. Your reactions, in real-time, feel automatic. That’s because they are. They are based on the programming of your mind that has occurred from a lifetime of other experiences. The emotion of the moment causes you to act, all based on past experience. Things don’t improve, you make the same mistakes, and you’re stuck in a perpetual cycle.
However, that programming is not as set in stone as we once believed. Yet you can’t just wake up and think ‘right I’m going to change that’ because you need to get in to the programming and rework it. That’s where mindfulness and meditation practices come in. As Upsaka Culdasa goes on to explain: “Ultimately, it is mindfulness that will determine whether you live your life reactively, out of past conditioning and unseen programming, or overcome that programming and live with wisdom.”
This has been demonstrated in the medical field. Research has demonstrated physical neuroplasticity changes due to long-term practice of meditation, such as increased cortical thickness, and increased grey matter in the brain stem to name just a few.
Now this is really important to understand if you’re heading after that elusive goal of ‘happiness’ because the reality is that our evolutionary programming doesn’t predispose us to happiness at all. It predisposes us to survival. That means we’re naturally more likely to sit up and pay attention to something threatening us or posing danger, and set some hardwiring down based on that. If we want to change that programming we’ve actively got to do something about it by looking at our thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental way.
How to Meditate
How does it work in practice? Well the clue is right there in the term ‘practice’. It does require some learning. That’s why you’ll generally find that people start with learning to practice mindfulness ‘on the cushion’ (or chair, or bed, or train) and in so doing learn to incorporate it in to every facet of their life. This ability to pay attention on a deeper level, even when the mind wanders, comes about by learning the techniques in a concentrated way first.
First of all, do yourself a favour and throw away the preconceptions. They aren’t going to help you. The good news is that you don’t need anything special, you have all the resources you need with you, right now, you just need to know how to access them. If you’d feel more confident then you can easily access a myriad of online guided mindfulness tracks, and meditations, such as Headspace.
Start by cultivating a meditative practice, and from this you’ll be able to naturally start growing awareness of your thoughts and emotions in the everyday. To get started you can:
- Give it time: Set aside a window of time, space and privacy each day to start your practice.
- Observe: Don’t try to shut down your thoughts, instead view yourself as a passive observer fuelled with curiosity. So let the thoughts come and go, but don’t act. Simply pay attention to the here and now and let go of the judgment. Be aware of where you and your body and mind are in time and space. The simplest way to do this is to put your attention on your breath. It’s utterly connected to the moment so concentrate on it.
- Let go: You’ll find this tricky at first and the judgments will pile on, don’t berate yourself. Simply acknowledge the judgment then let it go moving back to a non-judgemental awareness and back to the focus on the breath.
- Keep coming back: It’s completely normal for your mind to wander, so gently bring yourself back to the present and the breath. You’ll need to do this over and over. Struggling to ‘concentrate’ is not a failure in meditation, it is a part of it.
- Practice: It often sounds simpler than it is, so it takes practice. A little each day and you’ll soon notice it spilling over in to other moments in the day.
In time being mindful will allow us to, as Upsaka Culadasa says, “recognise our options, choose our responses, and take control over the direction of our lives”, indeed you will be “more likely to respond wisely and less likely to react mindlessly, and that eventually will become your new conditioning.” Practice it routinely, and then it will become your new programming, allowing you to turn towards life’s experiences.
Start Practicing Mindfulness Today
You don’t need anything except a realisation that you want to use neuroscience to your advantage. Getting started can happen anywhere, anytime. In time you’ll notice that your mindfulness training does indeed apply in every moment of every day and starts to happen more naturally. Your brain is changing, and with it you improve your wellbeing.
Through my personal experiences, I have always held a strong interest in human suffering and satisfaction; this greatly influenced my career path. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London.
I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT(Acceptance and commitment therapy).
I’ve spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.