About Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness Meditation in Practice: The Neurobiology of Mindfulness
Mindfulness, mindfulness meditation, or even meditation are all terms that are thrown around a lot in the media. But what is mindfulness meditation?
Mindfulness meditation describes a concept that involves concentration, being aware of the present moment, and an overall transformation in how we use our minds. Mindfulness meditation originates from Buddhist religious philosophy, though the ideas are usable within any religious or secular community.
Mindfulness practices are being incorporated into all aspects of life. Schools, chronic pain treatment programs, even the military is utilizing mindfulness meditation as a way of calming the body, decreasing stress, and strengthening the brain. Mindfulness techniques like Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy are among the most widely implemented forms of mind-body medicine.
Why the sudden interest in mindfulness meditation? In addition to being a deep spiritual tradition, mindfulness meditation also seems to be effective in treating many physical and mental health
conditions. Where before we only had anecdotal evidence of mindfulness’s health effects, we now have scientific findings that support the benefits the brain can receive in mindfulness meditation practice.
New findings have shown:
- A little over an hour of meditation training can dramatically reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activation. (Zeidan, Journal of Neuroscience)
- Increases in mindfulness correlated with reductions in burnout and total mood disturbance, as well as increased stress resilience. (Krasner, JAMA).
- Participants who received mindfulness training showed a 42% decrease in the frequency and severity of primary IBS symptoms. (G. Andersson,Behavior Research and Therapy)
- Mindfulness meditation is affecting brain activity. Brain waves associated with integration increase during compassion meditation. When meditating, brain scans found increased activity in the following areas of the brain: insula, termporal pole/superior temporal gyrus, anterior cingulate, while the amygdala is less active. Overall, this is consistent with decreased arousal and an increased sense of well-being. (S. Lazar)
- Meditation improves attention. (Jha et al., 2007), (Slagter 2007), (Pagnoni & Cekic 2007), (Valentine & Sweet, 1999)
- You don’t have to be a seasoned meditator to see positive changes to your brain. New meditators who went through an 8-week meditation program saw changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved with learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking. (Lazar, Psychiatry Research, 2011)
- Retrieve from www.nicabm (2015).
Overcoming Fear with Mindfulness
Fear is a natural thing. It’s our organism’s way to try to protect itself, but as human beings, we can spin-out a great deal with it. Mark Twain said, “My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.” When somebody comes in and has anxiety and fear, first of all, I’m very sympathetic because it’s hard to hold, hard to carry, and the stronger it is, the more the separate sense of self grows. In Buddhist psychology, the separate sense of self is sometimes called the body of fear because we feel separate and we have to protect ourselves in worry ... rather than sensing the field of being or presence that is actually well-being no matter what. I then teach people how to sit and acknowledge the fear as if to bow to it – pay respect – because it’s very powerful. How does it feel in the body? What are the stories that it tells? Are they true or not? What are the emotions that come with it? Sometimes there’s grief with fear or there’s loss, or there are various kinds of pains that come, and we can tease those apart and realize that you can be present for them in a spacious way.
The image from Buddhist psychology is if you put a teaspoon of salt in a cup of water, it tastes very salty, but if you put the same spoon of salt in a lake, the water is pure and clear. In the same way, you can make the heart more spacious and open and gracious so that fear and confusion are held in a spacious heart. I’m using the word heart quite deliberately as well as the word mind because we talk about mental health, but it’s also the health of the heart. To be present and to learn, to train oneself in mindfulness, or to offer it to others, you can only offer that if you’ve really found this capacity in yourself. It requires a wedding of love and awareness. I like to use the phrase loving awareness. What we bring to the measure of fear – or confusion or sorrow – is this capacity of loving awareness to say, “Yes, this too is part of the tainted glory of humanity. This is part of life, my life and others. We all share in this.” There’s a field of compassion, and we discover that we can be present with a kind of dignity for it. It doesn’t mean fear goes away, but rather that we befriend our fear and know that who we are is bigger than that.
There’s the societal fantasy that if you have enough money in the bank, or if you have enough possessions, you’ll be happy – that’s a consumer fantasy. Another is that you’ll always have someone who’s going to love you in this perfect way, and even if they do love you...that’s today. You don’t know what’s going to happen next week or next year. Things change. We’re a river of change, and if we try to hold on, what we end up getting is rope burn. It’s a kind of recipe for suffering. If instead, we accept the fact that everything changes and discover that we can float, that we can surf rather than try to stop the waves, then our life becomes more responsive. It becomes more of a dance and there’s a tremendous joy that comes in it. There’s a certain grief and loss that must be honored and felt, but it’s not the end of this story, and it’s not who you really are. That’s a limited identity. You were that for a while. Now, you’re going to be something else and that’s the way life unfolds itself all the time.