Mindfulness, a focus on the present moment without judgment, has proven benefits for health and happiness. Engaging in daily mindfulness workouts can help you assume this mental mode more often in your daily life. Mindfulness exercises additionally are designed to train two types of attention: concentrative focus, a narrowing of your attention, and open monitoring, a broad awareness of sensations and surroundings. Here is an informative article published in the Scientific American Mind magazine by Amishi P. Jha.
Pulling into a parking spot at work, you realize you have no recollection of the drive that got you there. On reaching the bottom of a page in a book, you are frustrated that you have failed to understand what you just read. In conversation, you suddenly become aware that you have no idea what the person speaking to you has said. These episodes are symptoms of a distracted mind. You were thinking about a vacation while reading a report or reliving a hurtful exchange with a friend instead of paying attention to the road or conversation. Whether the mind journeys to the future or the past, whether the thoughts that whisked you away were useful, pleasant or uncomfortable, the consequences are the same.
You missed the present, the experience of the moment, as it was unfolding. Your mind was hijacked into mental time travel. Distinct from deliberate daydreaming, our mind gets off-track in this fashion almost half the time, according to studies in which people report by smartphone what they are doing, feeling and thinking throughout the day. Such mental meandering is tied to negative mood. Chronic psychological stress, suffered by millions, may be built on a mind consumed by rumination, worry or fear about many topics. This type of diffused and unstable focus impairs performance, too. In moments that demand quick decisions and action, the consequences of diverted attention and perception could be deadly. The opposite of a wandering mind is a mindful one.
Mindfulness is a mental mode of being engaged in the present moment without evaluating or emotionally reacting to it. Hundreds of articles lay out evidence showing that training to become more mindful reduces psychological stress and improves both mental and physical health, alleviating depression, anxiety, loneliness and chronic pain. More than 250 medical centers worldwide now offer mindfulness-based therapies for mood and other disorders. Now findings from my laboratory and others have revealed a surprising mechanism for these benefits. Mindfulness training works, at least in part, by strengthening the brain’s ability to pay attention. Although video games and medication can also sharpen focus.
Mindfulness training uniquely builds the ability to direct attention at will through the sea of internal and external stimulation while also allowing for greater awareness of what is happening in the moment. Whether research findings in small groups of individuals can be scaled up to society at large remains to be seen. Yet the overarching message seems to be that the more people engage in such training, the happier and healthier we all will be.
For millennia, Eastern cultures have proffered various forms of what we now call mindfulness meditation as a solution to the conundrum of human suffering. Ancient texts detail precise training exercises to cultivate attention to ongoing perceptual experience rather than conceptual trains of thought. People have been engaging in mindfulness exercises ever since, claiming they improve mental clarity and calm and even promote longevity.
One broad category referred to as focused attention practices, guides individuals to select a specific sensation, tied to breathing, for example, on which to focus. Instructions encourage the practitioner to notice when his or her mind goes astray and simply return attention back to his or her immediate sensations. Another type called receptive or open-monitoring practices, coaches participants to watch what enters, then drops out of, consciousness moment by moment.
Think of hearing the faint sound of a fire truck siren in the distance. The sound becomes louder as the truck approaches, then fainter again as it passes. You may notice that initially the siren is part of a vast sea of sounds, later that it is the most salient sound, only to fade into the background again. Thoughts, emotions, and other sensations may similarly grow and diminish as we remain in a watchful monitoring mode. Many sages, beginning with Buddha Siddhartha Gautama, have advocated repeated engagement in these forms of meditation as a route to increasing mindfulness in daily life.
It was not until the late 1970s that research on mindfulness began to get traction in the psychological and medical sciences. At that time, biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School developed a secular outpatient program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) that includes a manual for trainers. The eight-week program emphasizes two aspects of attention: the ability to voluntarily focus attention, narrowing our thoughts to keep out distractions, and to monitor ongoing thoughts, feelings and sensations—without getting caught up in them—a phenomenon called meta-awareness.
Working together, focusing and monitoring prevent our mind from wandering without our knowledge and escaping our control. In the past decade researchers have established that MBSR and similar techniques can be used to successfully treat a wide variety of illnesses. In 2011 graduate student Jacob Piet and professor of psychology Esben Hougaard of the University of Aarhus in Denmark published a meta-analysis (quantitative review) of six studies with a total of 593 patients, who were given mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to prevent relapse into depression. This technique, developed by psychologist Zindel Segal and his colleagues at the University of Toronto, is modelled after MBSR but emphasizes the idea that the negative thoughts that can spark a depressive episode are fleeting mental events. Their transitory nature means that patients can choose to attend to them or not.
After receiving mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, patients often report noticing that the experience of sadness fluctuates moment to moment and that negative thoughts lose their power over time. Indeed, Piet and Hougaard report that depressed patients with three or more episodes of major depression who undertook this cognitive mindfulness training had significantly lower relapse rates than those given the usual care or a placebo.
Mindfulness training in its various forms has similarly helped alleviate suffering from psychological illnesses such as anxiety, panic disorders and phobias. This article is continued in the next post where we will look deeper into the various aspects of mindfulness meditation and exercises.
- Scientific American Mind, Amishi P. Jha.