Mindfulness Practice Improves the Anatomy and Function of the Brain
Brain scans are now revealing that mindfulness practice actually improves the anatomy and function of the brain. In fact, so profound are these changes that it is now clear that the brain evolves after as little as eight weeks of mindfulness meditation. The evidence from numerous controlled trials has proven that mindfulness meditation actually increases gray matter density as well as cortical thickness—in other words, it actually causes the brain to grow and evolve.
For an explication of all the research, see chapter 7: The Health Benefits of Mindfulness Practice in my book.
Mindfulness Practice Defined
In his book Full Catastrophe Living, arguably one of the best books on mindfulness ever written, author Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness: “It is the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.” This definition is intended to describe what is meant by the practice of cultivating mindfulness through both formal and informal meditative practices, which become a way of life. He describes that mindfulness is the goal; it is also the method; the term is inclusive of numerous practices; it is also the outcome. He also describes it as “a living practice, a way of being.”
Kabat-Zinn makes it clear that the essence of mindfulness is denatured or lost if viewed as a concept rather than as a practice and way of life. The practice, in his words: “emphasizes that it is a living, evolving understanding, not a fixed dogma related to a museum honoring a culturally constrained past.”
Again, in Kabat-Zinn’s words: “The heart of mindfulness-based interventions lies in a deep silence, stillness and openheartedness that is native to pure awareness and can be experienced directly both personally and interpersonally. The consequences of such cultivation may go far beyond symptom reduction and conventional coping adjustments, defining new ways of being in the body and in the world that are orthogonal to the conventional perspective on both health and well-being.”
The single most important thing to understand about mindfulness is that it is a practice rather than an idea or construct. Studying Buddhist texts is not a substitute for practice. The practice is very uncomplicated, yet almost impossible without training and guidance. Both are available at Buddhist meditation centers or from Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) classes.
Mindfulness and the Power of Choice
One of the great health values of mindfulness practice is that it helps us to become aware of habitual and problematic behavior. Once we become aware of our behavior, we have choices that were not previously available to us, and we can decide to take action that is in harmony with our personal life values.
Mindfulness practices help us develop freedom from knee-jerk reactions to our thoughts, feelings, and external events. The goal is to respond with choice rather than react automatically. This helps us to stop reinforcing what we don’t want and to start reinforcing what we do want. If our intention is clear, all that is needed is to bring attention to our inner experiences and sensory input; then, positive change happens.
Mindfulness, Psychophysiological Self-Regulation and Health
The practice of mindfulness provides us with a means to directly observe the nature of our thoughts, sensations, and emotions in real time without getting caught up in analyzing them. The practice also allows us to see how thoughts, sensations, and emotions create changes in physiological functioning. An example would be to notice our heart rate speeding up, or a slight increase in sweating as certain thoughts arise.
One of the key advantages of mindfulness practice for maintaining health is that it allows us to detect prodomes: early, subtle signs and symptoms of disease. Given the frequency with which colds and more serious diseases follow episodes of emotional distress, it is useful to view the signs of emotional distress themselves as potential prodromes of illness. Of course, we must first learn how to develop the awareness that we are in fact feeling distressed, and this, too, is where a mindfulness practice proves useful. Biofeedback can be useful in the beginning as a training tool to help us develop an awareness of physiological and emotional changes that are so subtle as to not ordinarily reach our conscious awareness.
Mindfulness heightens all forms of sensory awareness and this amplified awareness allows us to tune in and act on considerable amounts of useful information that would normally escape our conscious awareness. For example, an almost undetectably slight tickle in the throat is a common prodrome of a sore throat. Once we become aware of extremely subtle early signs, we can then be careful to take better care of ourselves in order to give the immune system the best chance to keep us healthy.
Mindfulness and Behavioral Mastery
Through mindfulness practice, we learn to focus so intently on present-moment experience that obsessive and ruminative thinking is eventually observed in such a neutral way as to have no effect on our behavior. This is because it is not possible for the mind to be fully present and to simultaneously be in the past or future.
Everything we practice changes the brain for better or worse. For example, people who (unconsciously) practice hostility every day have been found to develop cardiovascular and neurological problems at greater rates than non-hostile types.
Mindfulness Practice Increases Wellbeing
The Dalai Lama has said that if practitioners are not experiencing greater happiness, they should take a close look at their practice. As negative automatic thoughts and old patterns of thinking gradually lose their strength, suffering should diminish.
Once we are able to recognize that our thoughts are nothing but insubstantial mental constructs or brain secretions, we no longer get as triggered as we used to by stressors or by the actions of other people.
Most of us go through every day concentrating on several things at once, both at work and at play. The most important reason to practice mindfulness is to learn how to fully experience the present moment. Through mindfulness practice, many of us living with chronic pain, malaise, fatigue, or disability are now able to reduce the suffering related to our symptoms by learning to fully experience them.
It is natural to want to avoid anything unpleasant, yet, the more we try to avoid an experience, the more we suffer. This is why acceptance of our thoughts, images, sensations, and emotions results in enormous reduction in suffering related to them.
As we become more accepting of our inner subjective experience, it naturally follows that we become more accepting of ourselves without any preconditions.
Paradoxically, when we accept our inner experiences—including shame, rage, and other emotions that we previously may have tried to reject—we inadvertently accept ourselves without trying to reject any part of ourselves. Acceptance of pain or other symptoms leads to their diminution.
When we practice mindfulness, we learn to avoid getting caught up in unnecessary analysis and judgment of our current moment experiences. By learning how to fully experience our thoughts and feelings rather than to analyze them, we can learn to experience everything as new and exciting, as we did when we were babies. Doing so allows us to improve performance, effectiveness, efficiency, and joy in everything we do throughout the day. Everything is easier when we give our complete attention to the activity at hand.