The mechanics of mindfulness

How does mindfulness work? Do we even understand it? Are we using something we cannot actually formulate or test? Is there any science behind it? Do we know that mindfulness helps? More reading here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

New age placebo

Many of our new-age buzzwords are placebos. Superfoods are approximately as good as what you put in your salads but cost significantly more. Anything spiritual is very similar to primitive religious practices that could never compete against modern religions. LSD did not deliver the chemical bliss it was designed to bring to the masses. And now we have mindfulness. Is mindfulness a primitive form of meditation or a real thing?

Mindfulness and meditation have a lot in common. Both involve guided visualization and observation of one’s mind. Both require physical tranquility. Only meditation is typically religious, and mindfulness is profoundly secular. There are multiple scientific studies showing that mindfulness practices really help, only they are compared to no practice at all. We do not really know the effectiveness of mindfulness compared with traditional meditation or religious prayer. From what I know they are compatible. So if you pray daily, you might need no mindfulness practice, but if you are not religious: by all means, you should try mindfulness.

The practice itself

To be honest I practiced meditation for years and tried mindfulness only occasionally. The basics look similar. Relax your body, typically in a seating position. Does not have to be a lotus but should be a stable pose. Then focus on breathing. Once you control your focus do something cool with it.

There are several options. You can try a full-body scan, relaxing every part of your body. If you are stressed, you can try visualizing a calm place. For very good weather, you can concentrate on the world around you with all of your senses. And if you are really tired, you can switch off the thinking and focus on the bliss of simply being alive. If all of these fail, and you have obsessive thoughts, you can divide your brain into the part that thinks the thoughts and an observer, getting some sort of serenity.

In a nutshell, these are the mindfulness options. Mindfulness is not trying to solve some impossible question, like freeing all living things from suffering. It simply helps to get in touch with the simple part of you that lives and enjoys living.

Benefits

The benefits of mindfulness are constantly tested and updated. In a nutshell:

  1. The perceived happiness is improved.  There are fewer suicides, reduced use of antidepressants, and a general sense of satisfaction.
  2. Physical wellbeing improves. People notice small symptoms well before they become big problems. Bad practices actually feel bad, and some people report weight loss and effective dealing with addictions.
  3. The stress levels are reduced. The details are a bit sketchy. Mindfulness is often combined with grounding, digital detox, a healthy diet, and sleep. The combination works very well as a complete solution.
  4. The creativity is increased. Possibly due to the pause of obsessive patterns. We get access to deeper resources.
  5. The psychological resilience is improved. As long as we value simply being alive, all other things do not bother us that much. So they kind of bounce off. There are also indications of vagal nerve activation.
  6. Improved compassion and empathy. All living things share the bliss of living. In mindfulness, we get closer to this common ground. In tests, people are more likely to offer help and less likely to do some antisocial acts.

All of these benefits are great and somewhat compatible with religious practice without the annoying commandments, unnecessary holidays, and ambitious goals.  Mindfulness is a very simple practice, and thus easy for most of us.

Focus while breathing

  • Focused attention: When we focus attention on breathing we escape obsessive thoughts about the past and future, doubts, and hopes. We focus on here and now.
  • Responsiveness:   Whatever occurs during that breath – boredom, agitation, anxiety, joy, or physical discomfort – we practice acceptance.  The goal is to stay settled and patient rather than respond impulsively or overcompensate for the restrain.
  • Skillful action:  The more we practice mindfulness, the more room we create to make skillful decisions. Whatever we do is not a mere response but an elaborate practice we plan step by step, wait for the right timing and then execute.
  • Awareness:  Guiding our attention while breathing allows us to observe the way our minds normally work. As the breath slows, it is amazing to see how much the mind tries to achieve in one breath.
  • Compassion:  Mindfulness teachers often tell you that everyone has a hard time keeping the mind still. Breath by breath we forgive ourselves our own mistakes, but also we forgive others the mistakes they make.

Not-judgemental

Does mindfulness alter the personality’s big five traits? Some experts claim that. Openness is increased. Neuroticism is reduced. Possibly the change has to do with non-judgemental observation. A part of the practice involves a sort of diffusion. We observe images, our own thoughts and actions, all peculiarities of our own body. And we learn to do it without any judgment.

Religions are rarely non-judgemental. They often present the duality of virtue and sin, attachment and bliss. Mindfulness is secular and nonjudgemental. Thus it does not prioritize some human activities above others. There is no doctrine, no path, just breathing and life itself. Possibly this is the main benefit of mindfulness with respect to other practices.

Stopping obsessive thoughts

Religious and meditative practices often suggest that they stop obsessive thinking. At least they stop obsessive thinking about material goods. Unfortunately, a new obsession regarding spiritual progress is even darker. This may feel like treating alcoholism with opium. The initial issue disappears, but is that a good thing?

In some meditative practices, if there is no progress within 12 years, the student is allowed to commit suicide. In monotheistic religions, people repent for all their small sins at least once a year. This is a complex accounting system for something we hardly control.

Mindfulness (at least nominally) is not obsessive about spiritual progress or specific achievements. If you get bored, you can acquire a new layer of practice.

Pause is freedom

This is a powerful idea. When we take a pause from our regular activities we get a sense of freedom. We replace reactive behavior with profound and strategies we actively choose. This is an empowering position.

Pause is achieved by finding a quiet place and diverting attention from other thoughts to the breath or pose or relaxing visualization. We do not immediately step into a competing line of thoughts about some sort of spiritual practice. These practices are irrelevant to mindfulness. We simply observe, not playing conveniently familiar Q&A games, trying to analyze the past or guess the future.

There is no hidden insight within the pause, except freedom of choice. And when we return to the daily activities we can start with different perspectives.

Making choices and acting rather than reacting requires courage.  Mindfulness is a good way to build up courage.

Consistency is the key

Meditation is not natural. Animals do not meditate. It is an acquired human behavior. The more we practice any form of meditation, the easier it becomes.

Mindfulness also requires weekly practice for the practitioner to improve. Originally it is very hard to observe nonjudgmentally the same thoughts week after week: fears, aggression, boredom, misery.  With time, these thoughts disappear as we do not find them interesting. Instead, we get a sort of lack of thinking occasionally broken by very elaborate new thoughts which we simply cannot ignore.

Alternatively, we drift away, and sort of wake up when the session is over. It is definitely a pause and a positive experience. Yet it fills with a strong sense of “I want more”. People who practice mindfulness often decide to practice instead more demanding meditative techniques. Yet, this is exactly the opposite of what mindfulness actually is. The search and learning are cool activities, but they are not about being here and now. Consistency means not only not slipping back into zero practice, but also not drifting forward at full speed towards zen koans or kundalini yoga.

For me personally not drifting forward is a challenge I could not withstand for more than a couple of months.

Enhancing health with imagination

One possible way to stay here and now once the obsessive thoughts disappear is guided imagination. Focusing the imagination on various body parts and trying to breathe health into them.

Chevruel’s Pendulum: Take a pendulum (a pen on a string) in your right hand. Start meditating. Imagine the pen making larger and larger circles in the air, while noticing the pen’s actual movement. The cool thing is: the pen starts moving, responding to our thoughts.

When we visualize our body certain things happen. Muscles move, hormones are secreted. We know that the placebo effect is very powerful, and hypnosis reduces pain x8 or maybe more.  When we visualize our body while doing mindfulness we enter a hypnotic state and the body responds. We can actually heal certain diseases.

Bottom line

Mindfulness simply works. Possibly it has to do with focus, or non-judgemental attention, or maybe with a guided visualization. We do not really know. Does that really matter? Mindfulness will improve the quality of your life

 

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