06 Apr Mindfulness Meditation – What is it and Why Does it Work?
By: Elizabeth Landau, Provisional Psychologist & Associate MFT
Mindfulness meditation is a particular form of meditation involving present-moment awareness, openness, and non-judgmental curiosity to one’s experiences. Mindfulness encourages you to invite in all experiences, without labelling them as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’
What does this look like in practice?
During meditation, sitting in a comfortable posture and focusing your awareness on an anchor (typically the breath or somewhere in the body), inevitably, the mind wanders away from this anchor to various thoughts and feelings about the past or upcoming events in the future. Ommm, what am I going to have for lunch later? Ommmm, why did my boss never write back to that important email? Ommm, my back hurts sitting like this. Ommm, is this even working?
This is completely normal. The brain loves to process and dissect information, so when you sit down to settle the mind, the brain thinks this is the perfect opportunity to start analysing all those background thoughts and feelings.
Think again, brain! The ‘practice’ of mindfulness is first in recognizing that the mind has wandered to one of these juicy thoughts, then detaching from the thought (without perseverating on its content or meaning), and then bringing the mind back to the anchor; not with urgency or reprimand, but with a sense of self-compassion, acceptance, even humour. A common notion in the practice of mindfulness is that
the mind is like a puppy, it wants to wander.
A goal of mindfulness is to train the mind (i.e., the puppy) to stay when you want it to. Jack Kornfield (an American Buddhist monk and prominent author and teacher of mindfulness-based therapies) notes the challenge of this, writing in his book A Path with Heart, ‘Like training the puppy, you will need to come back a thousand times”1.
Why does it work to improve mental wellbeing?
Mindfulness stands in contrast to the often auto-pilot way of life with frequent mind wandering2, without much self- awareness3, and of automatic suppression of or distraction from unpleasant experiences in daily life4.
When we’re stressed, it’s easy to ‘go down rabbit holes’ of negative thoughts, become consumed by negative feelings, or engage in distraction techniques to avoid unwanted experiences5-6. Mindfulness provides an opportunity to learn a new way to relate to these thoughts and feelings, by allowing (and not avoiding) and detaching from (not identifying with or perseverating on) such thoughts and feelings. If you’re a poor sleeper, too, mindfulness can strengthen your ability to challenge your over-estimation of the consequences of poor sleep, and your tendency to selectively pay more attention to internal threats to sleep (like body aches or anxious thoughts) or external threats to sleep (car alarms, crying babies, etc.), behaviours typically found among people with insomnia7-8.
What are the benefits?
Research tells us that practicing mindfulness can lead to shifts in perspective which allow for improved self-regulation, increased cognitive (thinking), emotional, and behavioural flexibility, increased capability to master unwanted or challenging thoughts and feelings, and clarification of one’s values9.
Do you want to learn more about mindfulness meditation? Check out www.mindful.org for some mindfulness tips, or pick up one of these recommended books to learn more about harnessing the mind to improve your well-being:
Full Catastrophe Living by John Kabat-Zinn
Wherever You Go, There You Are by John Kabat-Zinn
1A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield
The Now Effect by Dr. Elisha Goldstein
Fully Present by Dr. Susan Smalley and Diana Winston
2 Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932-932
3 Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (1999). The unbearable auto- maticity of being. American Psychologist, 54, 462–479
4 Kang, Y., Gruber, J., & Gray, J. R. (2013). Mindfulness and de-automatization. Emotion Review, 5, 192–201
5 Borkovec, T. D., & Roemer, L. (1995). Perceived functions of worry among generalized anxiety disorder subjects: Distraction from more emotionally distressing topics. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 26(1), 25-30
6 Borkovec, T. D., Alcaine, O., & Behar, E. (2004). Avoidance theory of worry and generalized anxiety disorder. Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Advances in Research and Practice, 2004
7 Larouche, M., Cote, G., Belisle, D., & Lorrain, D. (2014). Kind attention and non-judgment in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy applied to the treatment of insomnia: state of knowledge. Pathologie Biologie, 62(5), 284-291
8 Harris, K., Spiegelhalder, K., Espie, C. A., MacMahon, K. M., Woods, H. C., & Kyle, S. D. (2015). Sleep-related attentional bias in insomnia: A state-of-the-science review. Clinical Psychology Review, 42, 16-27
9 Shapiro, S. L., Carlson, L. E., Astin, J. A., & Freedman, B. (2006). Mechanisms of mindfulness. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62, 373–386