Meditation is a buzzword these days, a practice that has massively grown in popularity and has resulted in endless apps, gadgets, books, and services, that now make up a fast-growing industry that sometimes presents meditation as a panacea for all your problems (spoiler alert: it’s probably not!). We read about high performers in a variety of domains who often partly credit their edge to their meditation practice and many corporations have dedicated meditation rooms. But if we look beyond the hype and consider the truly robust research, there really are some exciting scientific studies that offer compelling evidence for why you might want to try meditation. Although it certainly isn’t a cure-all, it has become a crucial tool in my “life toolbox” of skills and practices, that allows me to train my brain in order to build more mental and emotional resilience as well as experience more joy and equanimity.
A very common and popular form of meditation used in secular practice is mindfulness meditation. So what is mindfulness?
Let’s start with some definitions:
meditation refers to a diverse family of mental training (neurocognitive) techniques, often done seated, walking, or lying down alone or in a group.
mindfulness is a quality of the mind and a natural human capacity of being present in a particular way. (More on this below.)
mindfulness meditation is a certain type of meditation, that is, mental training with a mindfulness flavor. This post will deal with this kind of meditation, what it is, common questions and misconceptions as well as felt benefits.
In mindfulness meditation, we often sit or lie down and direct our focus to something, such as the breath, sounds, thoughts, or sensations in the body. Through practice, we develop mindfulness, the quality of the mind that pays a particular kind of attention, or as Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program puts it, “the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally.”
Another way to put it is to say that mindfulness is when your mind and your body are in the same room, meaning you know what you are experiencing when you are experiencing it. That might sound obvious, but the majority of us spend most of our time physically in one location (kitchen table, for example) but mentally somewhere else (planning the upcoming meeting). The ability to do this is of course essential and helpful, but to constantly live in this mode of rarely being present with our current moment experience and often being unaware of where our scattered mind is taking us, can be a great source of distress. With more awareness (mindfulness) of whatever is going on, we can have more clarity and make better choices.
A Buddhist phrase commonly used when talking about mindfulness is that of mental hygiene; Neuroscientist Richard Davidson speaks about practicing mindfulness as mental exercises to cultivate self-regulation of attention and emotion. We also bring attitudes such as curiosity, openness, and acceptance to the practice, not judging anything that we experience as “right” or “wrong”. When we practice, we are training our brains to become more used to this way of being. So what is the deal with mindfulness meditation? Let’s look at some of the most common questions people have.
Is mindfulness meditation religious or spiritual?
No, it’s completely secular. While mindfulness meditation has its roots in early Eastern religions and is often associated with Buddhism, it’s found in many religious and spiritual traditions as well as psychological and philosophical modes of thought. Today, mindfulness meditation is packaged and practiced by many in a non-religious way. As there is nothing intrinsically religious about mindfulness meditation it is accessible to anyone regardless of their personal beliefs.
If I can’t stop thinking when meditating, am I doing it wrong?
A common misconception is that you’re supposed to clear your head of thoughts when meditating. This isn’t possible nor is it the goal! Rather, through consistent practice, you improve your ability to notice when you have become distracted by thoughts and gently return to your point of focus. You also learn to observe your thoughts without judgment and viewing them as merely mental events that come and go as opposed to objective truths. Although they might not disappear, they might fall more or less into the background, meaning they may feel less “loud” or obtrusive.
So what are some felt benefits I might gain from meditating?
The effect of regular practice can be a myriad of positive health changes in your life related to these interconnected factors: awareness of the body, emotion as well attention regulation, and a change in perspective of the self. Here are some examples that many people, including myself, experience:
- It can make you less reactive, both to your own inner dialogue (thoughts) as well as external life events, such as personal conflicts or negative unexpected happenings. Because of this, you might also recover more quickly from upsets. One of the reasons this happens is because we start to be able to bring more awareness and discernment to a situation, as well as begin to view thoughts as passing mental events without needing to get caught up in them – which is often what causes us both distress and hinders us from viewing a situation more clearly.
- It allows you to step out of the autopilot, the mode we operate in during a majority of our time, doing things automatically and mindlessly without conscious deliberation or awareness. A Harvard University study showed that being on autopilot, meaning mind-wandering, seemed to make people unhappy. Although this autopilot mode certainly is helpful in mundane situations such as driving or shopping, waking up from autopilot and regulating our attention can help us gain more clarity of whatever is present, as well as experience more joy and peace by truly engaging with the world more mindfully.
- It can enable you to break a negative cycle of thoughts or thought patterns by recognizing that you are not your thoughts and perhaps even question the truth of these thoughts. This can be incredibly helpful when having anxious thoughts or in general when managing stress. You will also see that just like everything else in life, your thoughts or emotional mood are in constant flux, much more than you may have previously noticed. Truly realizing the impermanence of your thoughts can help with the feeling that a certain problem will never go away, or that your problem is worse and more urgent than anyone else’s problem. Identifying fleeting thoughts as well as the recurrent stories (your inner voice) your mind tells you and changing how you relate to them can transform your life.
- It can make you more aware of your body, meaning essentially becoming better acquainted with your body’s sensations and its relationship to everything else. It is a great way to become better at understanding how your thoughts and behaviors affect your body, and in turn, become more aware of and regulate your emotions. Body awareness also helps you faster perceive pains or health problems you might not otherwise notice and consequently make better choices for your health. Tuning into physical sensations is also a way to become present when needing a “place of refuge” for a spinning mind and to feel more grounded.
- In addition, just as training a physical muscle makes you stronger and means you can do more with your body, training your capacity for awareness can increase focus, memory, learning, and therefore productivity.
Am I supposed to live in the moment all the time?
No. Mindfulness meditation trains your mind to focus on aspects of your experience such as your breath, thoughts, emotions, or body sensations and builds up awareness of that present moment experience. A common analogy used when speaking of mindfulness meditation, is that this allows you to be safe inside your home observing through your window the storm outside (your constant stream of thoughts), rather than being caught up in the middle of the storm. That is, you are less easily swept away by the storm of thoughts and emotions and therefore less distressed and more calm and centered.
Now, this doesn’t mean your goal is to “live in the moment” all the time, we can’t and shouldn’t do that. But by getting better at being more aware inside and outside the meditation practice and having a fundamentally more helpful way to relate to our experiences, we can ultimately improve the quality of our lives.
So should you give mindfulness meditation a try?
As is often said, the quality of your mind determines the quality of your life. Rather than changing things that are out of your control, it’s simpler to change how you relate to them. When they are in your control, you want to bring as much calm and clarity to the situation to optimize the outcome. Mindfulness meditation is a powerful tool in training your brain to become more equipped to do so. It is also a method for discovering the nature of our own minds and consciousness. Some may have spiritual motivations, but many just seek out mindfulness meditation for its therapeutic potential, as a stress management tool or to reduce anxiety.
It’s worth noting that at its core, mindfulness is experiential. This means while I can highlight some points of this experience, at the end of the day the aha-moments will happen in their own time and way for you when you commit with curiosity to the practice.
Whatever your motivations, if you do decide to give it a try it’s very helpful to work with an experienced teacher when going beyond a low-intensity practice using an app for a few minutes a day. Not only can the teacher guide you along your journey, but she or he can also provide advice with any difficulties that arise and even determine when meditation is not suited for your particular individual situation.
 Bradt, Steve. “Wandering Mind Not a Happy Mind.” Harvard Gazette, 11 Nov. 2010, news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind/
 Goleman, D & Davidson, R.J. (2017) The Science of Meditation, How to Change Your Brain, Mind and Body. Great Britain: Penguin Random House UK. P.167
Ocean photography by Brett Clouser.
Meditation bowl photography by Stefanie Sapountzi.
Interested in the discussion on meditation as industry versus spiritual practice? Check out this lengthy but worth reading piece on Wired.