WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
If you're more skilled at working with your feelings, thoughts, mind, moods and mental states then you deal with both the ups and owns of life with greater competence and ability - for you, and everyone you're in contact with.
What are these skills? How can you get them?
Mindfulness and meditation training are some of the most effectiveness means available to gain these skills - skills of awareness, attention, supportive empathy, resilience, generousity and well-being.
Mindfulness is a way of paying attention - in the present moment - to yourself, others and the world around you. Derived from the Buddhist and Indian meditative and yoga traditions it is now increasingly finding its way into secular contexts. Anyone can train in mindfulness and we now know that such training literally re-figures your brain and, for example, with people with depression and how we experience sadness.
Studies at a broad range of independent Universities, for example, have shown that after eight weeks of training there is a significant increase in brain grey matter concentration in areas associated with sustained attention, emotional regulation and perspective taking. The training also increases activity in your left prefrontal cortex - a predictor of happiness and well-being and it improves your immune response.
Mindfulness training gives you more awareness of your thoughts and feelings, and from this you gain insight into your emotions. It increases your level of attention and concentration. It's been shown to help with stress, anxiety, depression and addictive behaviours and it has a positive effect on issues like hypertension, heart disease and chronic pain. It has also been shown to raise one's level of emotional intelligence and improve relationships. Those completing a course of mindfulness training show significant improvements with respect to emotional intelligence, perceived stress and mental health compared to others.
These days even the police and the US Marines use it. A study carried out in the US Marine Corps found that those Marines who trained in mindfulness experienced improved mood and working memory. Under pressure, they were more capable of complex thought and problem solving and they had better control of their emotions. When Marines are on less of a hair-trigger, that makes for a better world for all of us.
Given the benefits on offer, it's hard to think of any reason not to give mindfulness training a go
Farb, N et al., Emotion © 2010 Minding One’s Emotions: Mindfulness Training Alters the Neural Expression of Sadness American Psychological Association, 2010, Vol. 10, No. 1, 25–33
A more detailed view
The operational definition that Jon Kabat-Zinn has offered around 'mindfulness' is that it is the “intentional cultivation of mindfulness (or access to mindfulness) is that mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally (JKZ 2003 Mindfulness-based interventions in context: past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice. Non-judgmentally does not mean that there will not be plenty of judging and evaluating going on—of course there will be. Non-judgmental means to be aware of how judgmental the mind can be, and as best we can, not getting caught in it or recognizing when we are and not compounding our suffering by judging the judging.” (Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness, June, 2017).
Mindfulness is normally taught in an 8-week program as it is these programs that have been used and tested in the research. Mindfulness also needs to be taught by an informed, experienced trainer who has been through the program, then undertaken a train the trainer and worked under supervision for at least one program.
The research, in summary, states that people who undertake the work will have less negative thinking cycles (rumination), deal with stress differently and more effectively, better working memory, improved emotional regulation and so on. The research is reported below.
Cognitive researchers theorize that mindfulness meditation promotes metacognitive awareness, decreases rumination via disengagement from perseverative (repetition of ) cognitive activities and enhances attentional capacities through gains in working memory.
Neurophysiology scientists report changes to brain structure
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Empirically supported benefits of mindfulness - the research
Mindfulness has many benefits including:
Several studies have shown reduced rumination.
In one study, for example, Chambers et al. (2008) asked 20 novice meditators to participate in a 10-day intensive mindfulness meditation retreat. After the retreat, the meditation group had significantly higher self-reported mindfulness and a decreased negative affect compared with a control group.
They also experienced fewer depressive symptoms and less rumination. In addition, the meditators had significantly better working memory capacity and were better able to sustain attention during a performance task compared with the control group.
Many studies show that practicing mindfulness reduces stress. In 2010, Hoffman et al. conducted a meta-analysis of 39 studies that explored the use of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. The researchers concluded that mindfulness-based therapy may be useful in altering affective and cognitive processes that underlie multiple clinical issues.
Boosts to working memory
Improvements to working memory appear to be another benefit of mindfulness, research finds.
A 2010 study by Jha et al., for example, documented the benefits of mindfulness meditation among a military group who participated in an eight-week mindfulness training, a non- meditating military group and a group of non-meditating civilians. Both military groups were in a highly stressful period before deployment. The researchers found that the non- meditating military group had decreased working memory capacity over time, whereas working memory capacity among non-meditating civilians was stable across time. Within the meditating military group, however, working memory capacity increased with meditation practice. In addition, meditation practice was directly related to self-reported positive affect and inversely related to self-reported negative affect.
In considering how mindfulness meditation affected participants' ability to focus attention and suppress distracting information. The researchers compared a group of experienced mindfulness meditators with a control group that had no meditation experience. They found that the meditation group had significantly better performance on all measures of attention and had higher self-reported mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation practice and self-reported mindfulness were correlated directly with cognitive flexibility and attentional functioning (Moore and Malinowski, 2009).
Less emotional reactivity
Research also supports the notion that mindfulness meditation decreases emotional reactivity. In a study of people who had anywhere from one month to 29 years of mindfulness meditation practice, researchers found that mindfulness meditation practice helped people disengage from emotionally upsetting pictures and enabled them to focus better on a cognitive task as compared with people who saw the pictures but did not meditate (Ortner et al., 2007).
More cognitive flexibility.
Another line of research suggests that in addition to helping people become less reactive, mindfulness meditation may also give them greater cognitive flexibility. One study found that people who practice mindfulness meditation appear to develop the skill of self-observation, which neurologically disengages the automatic pathways that were created by prior learning and enables present-moment input to be integrated in a new way (Siegel, 2007a). Meditation also activates the brain region associated with more adaptive responses to stressful or negative situations (Davidson et al., 2003). Activation of this region corresponds with faster recovery to baseline after being negatively provoked (Davidson, Jackson, & Kalin, 2000).
Mindfulness has been shown to enhance self-insight, morality, intuition and fear modulation, all functions associated with the brain's middle prefrontal lobe area. Evidence also suggests that mindfulness meditation has numerous health benefits, including increased immune functioning (Davidson et al., 2003).
Paul Grossman reviewed the physical health benefits (Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004)
Improvement to well-being (Carmody & Baer, 2008) and reduction in psychological distress (Coffey & Hartman, 2008).
In addition, mindfulness meditation practice appears to increase information processing speed (Moore & Malinowski, 2009), as well as decrease task effort and having thoughts that are unrelated to the task at hand (Lutz et al., 2009).
Recent research – genetic influence
Holzel, B 2009
“The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.”
Carlson, L. 2015
Psychosocial interventions providing stress reduction and emotional support resulted in trends toward TL maintenance in distressed breast cancer survivors, compared with decreases in usual care.
Cresswell, D., 2016
These findings provide the first evidence that mindfulness meditation training functionally couples the DMN with a region known to be important in top-down executive control at rest (left dlPFC), which in turn is associated with improvements in a marker of inflammatory disease risk.
In the end, mindfulness and self-compassion are about taking care “of what truly needs tending, with tenderness, and with resolve. And that is only everything” (Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness, June, 2017) in today’s world.
Unsure about which program to do? If you would like to learn more about mindfulness skills or self compassion, then check out our introductory program. (Please note that this is just an exploratory group, it may not have significant benefit but provides a taster of both mindfulness and mindful self-compassion. This group occurs for one hour a week over four weeks. It costs $110.00.
All programs can be booked from our 'What's On' page.
Copyright Thinking Healthy - John Julian