Not too long ago, useful knowledge regarding mental health and its maintenance was typically only circulated amongst mental health professionals and those who actively sought the information. Now, the recent surge in mental health awareness has made words and phrases like ‘boundaries’, ‘self-care’, and ‘coping mechanisms’ popular amongst the general public. Of the mental health-related verbiage that has made its way into our everyday vocabulary, mindfulness is arguably one of the most important.
What is Mindfulness?
The origins of mindfulness dates back about 2500 years as it was first popularized by ancient eastern cultures’ religious and spiritual institutions, especially Buddhism. As it gained popularity in western cultures, the concept of mindfulness gradually shed its inherent religious association and is now practiced secularly by many. Though the word mindfulness can be used to describe a psychological trait, a practice, a state of awareness, or a psychological process, the most widespread western understanding of mindfulness is experiencing a profound, heightened sense of awareness for one’s environment(s) – internal and/or external – without applying any judgment. It is often appropriately dubbed as a bare awareness. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leader in popularizing mindfulness in the West, outlined what are now considered by many to be the 7 pillars of mindfulness. They are:
- Non-Judging. The ‘bare’ in ‘bare awareness’. This means to be an impartial witness to your own experience and neutrally acknowledge the insistent habit we have to judge ourselves, our experiences, and others. The non-judging pillar of mindfulness emphasizes approaching our thoughts, feelings, and emotions from a purely place of neutral curiosity.
- Patience. This pillar of mindfulness centers on understanding that we cannot control the path or outcome of everything in our lives. It is the overarching wisdom that accepts the fact that some things simply unfold in their own time and we must allow for it to happen.
- Beginner’s Mind. Think of how children often seem fearless in their pursuits because they remain unbridled by social norms, schemas, etc.. Adopting a beginner’s mind when practicing mindfulness enables an experience marked by curiosity and openness. In doing so, a beginner’s mind allows us to be more receptive to new possibilities and prevents us from getting stuck in a rut.
- Trust. Think of trust as a form of betting on yourself. In betting on yourself, you demonstrate that you believe in yourself, your abilities, and your agency. Therefore, developing a basic sense of trust in yourself (e.g. thoughts, emotions, behaviors) is integral to practicing mindfulness. This also includes acknowledging that it is okay for you to make mistakes.
- Non-striving. This pillar suggests mindfulness practice should not be tied to strict outcomes or purposes, such as becoming a less reactive person or getting rid of anxiety attacks. Instead, the pillar of non-striving emphasizes the ‘goals’ of mindfulness is to simply be present with yourself, separate mindfulness from an expected result, and to pay attention to what is unfolding without trying to change anything.
- Acceptance. Contrary to what may be initial thoughts, this pillar does not endorse complacency or taking a passive attitude to things you do not like. The pillar of acceptance emphasizes learning to see things as they actually are in the present moment, instead of being clouded by factors like biases or past experiences. This then encourages us to think and behave appropriately in our lives no matter what is happening.
- Letting go. In being especially focused on our inner experience during mindfulness practice, we often discover a pattern of thoughts, feelings, and/or situations the mind frequently revisists and insists on holding onto. These can be positive or negative. The pillar of letting go centers on observing such patterns and letting them go or letting them be, which allows for a greater capacity to focus on our present experiences.
Mindfulness can be practiced in a variety of ways and what works for one person may not be the best option for another person. For some, practicing deep breathing or yoga enables their mindful state. For others, exercises like walking, running, or swimming are best at helping them practice mindfulness. One of the most widely known – and our focus for today’s blog – is meditation.
What is Meditation?
Meditation, like mindfulness, dates back thousands of years and has religious foundations although it is a secular activity for many today. Meditation involves clearing one’s mind of extra noise and being highly intentional about where one’s attention is directed. There are several ways to meditate, and different forms may be more beneficial for different problems. For example, certain types of meditation can help you sleep better while others are more beneficial for reducing specific anxieties. Some common forms of meditation include:
- Body-centered meditation. This form of mediation involves exclusively focusing on one’s physical sensations. It is often referred to as “body scanning” and can be executed in segments for increased focus. For example, you may start with the sensation of socks on your toes and move up the body until you feel a hair on your cheek.
- Contemplation. This involves focusing on a question or conflict without allowing your mind to wander. Intentionally or unintentionally, many avoid dealing with a situation or making a decision until absolutely necessary. This form affords you a more focused time and space to confront such situations.
- Emotion-centered meditation. As its name suggests, this form of mediation involves focusing on a specific emotion. This may be an emotion you are experiencing, frequently struggle with, want to improve, etc. Examples include focusing on what makes you happy, why you often feel angry, or how to be kinder to others.
- Mantra meditation. This form of meditation involves repeating a previously chosen word or phrase and focusing on its meaning in an attempt to internalize it. Mantras can be spoken aloud or in one’s head, and they often evoke a sense of well-being, such as “I am enough.”
- Meditation with movement. This form involves focusing on the physical activity you are participating in. Examples include one’s natural breathing, forced breathing patterns, touching each finger, walking, etc.
- Mindfulness meditation. As previously discussed, mindfulness involves a sense of bare awareness. This form of meditation involves focusing on the present and noticing thoughts about the past and future without engaging with them. Additionally, it can include components of body-centered meditation in that a person can focus on their physical sensations to develop greater awareness for their environment.
- Visual-based meditation. This form of meditation involves focusing on an image. The image can be something you are looking at or a mental image.
The Research on Meditation
Though it may seem clear why/how mindfulness and meditation can benefit overall well-being, research involving such themes began relatively recently in the late 1970s. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn was a pioneer in the application of mindfulness meditation as a form of behavioral intervention for clinical problems, such as chronic pain and anxiety. He developed the first mindfulness-related treatment called Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) which is an 8-week program that involves body scanning, secular meditation, yoga, and other activities that promote mindfulness. Since the inception of MBSR, several other treatments that use practices and principles related to mindfulness have been created, such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
As researchers continue to conduct studies investigating the effects of mindfulness practices, it becomes increasingly apparent that they can significantly benefit physical and psychological well-being. In one study looking at how meditation affects the brain’s response to pain, researchers found that subjective ratings of pain did not significantly differ between groups of long-term meditators and healthy controls. However, long-term meditators showed 40%-50% less cerebral blood flow to brain areas involved in pain response than the controls did. Moreover, when control group participants practiced meditation for 5 months after the initial result scans, their pain response also decreased by 40%-50%. These results suggest that meditation aids in reducing the emotional dimension of pain when practiced over time. This finding is significant because although pain ratings were not reduced by meditation, the results did suggest practicing meditation can reduce the distress one feels as a result of their pain.
In another study looking at the effect of meditation on stress, anxiety, depression, and perfectionism in a college population found that students’ self-reports of all variables (stress, anxiety, etc.) significantly decreased after two semesters of practicing transcendental meditation. Such findings are especially significant as mental health continues to worsen among adolescents and young adults nationwide. Meditation may be an effective technique to supplement the counseling, psychotherapy, and medication resources several universities provide. An impressive amount of research on the effects of mindfulness and meditation has been conducted since it first began in the 1970s, but researchers continue to study the mechanism by which mindfulness and meditation impact physical and mental health. Still, an overwhelming majority of evidence already supports the claim that it is beneficial for overall well-being. Meditation may seem intimidating to first-timers, but there are several resources like YouTube, podcasts, and books that can help guide your exploration of mindfulness and meditation.