Learning to disentangle ourselves from distressing thoughts and observe our internal reactions before responding are skills worth cultivating. They can help us cope better with a wide variety of emotions—anxiety, depression, and anger, to name a few—without resorting to avoidance, withdrawal, distraction, or lashing out to deal with them.
Mindfulness, defined by Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) founder Jon Kabat-Zinn as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment,” is a way to change the way we respond to our thoughts. A growing body of evidence from brain-imaging studies suggests that regular meditation practice—one important means of cultivating mindfulness—actually alters the brain structures involved in attention, concentration, and willpower, as well as the areas central to emotional reactions.
These findings have been compelling enough to convince me to develop a personal meditation practice (I’ve described my own experience with MBSR in previous posts) and also to add meditation to my cognitive-behavioral therapy repertoire.
It’s been a hard sell, and I understand why. I was a mindfulness skeptic myself. I’m not a fan of approaches smacking of New Age pop psychology, and the currently voguish “mindful revolution“, which has spawned to date 462 iPhone apps along with the titular Time cover story, carries with it that woo-woo whiff. But, as I said, the science backing it has sold me.
Not so for many of the people I think might benefit from practicing meditation. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “Meditation doesn’t work for me.” I’m always curious to understand what that means. If meditation were “working,” what would be happening?
The most common answers I get to my question are: “I can’t empty my mind,” or, “I’m always thinking,” or “I just can’t relax.”
I suspect the impossible goal of mind-emptying comes from all the yoga teachers who end their classes with Shavasana, inviting practitioners to let go of their thoughts and relax. While relaxation is indeed a major benefit of yoga, it’s not the goal of mindfulness meditation (although it sometimes can be a pleasant by-product). Perhaps, fittingly, Shavasana is also known as “corpse pose,” reminding us that as long as we’re living, breathing, sentient beings, our minds will always be busy thinking.
So if achieving a relaxed feeling and a blank mind aren’t the point of mindfulness meditation, why do it?
The major benefit of practicing mindfulness for emotional health is to learn to let experiences unfold without filtering them through the layers of thoughts, comparisons, judgments, interpretations, and memories often taking us away from the present and into a morass of negative mental activity. It’s not about stopping thoughts but about redirecting them, taking a more objective perspective, and focusing on what’s important in any given moment.
In short, meditation is weight-training for the brain. It strengthens the mental muscles for attention and concentration. And, as with lifting weights, results don’t happen overnight. You can’t expect to become a power lifter after one or two sessions in the gym. Yet many would-be meditators get discouraged and give up when they don’t see immediate changes.
And what if your mind keeps going a mile-a-minute and it wanders and you get lost in thought and your attention can’t stay on your breath (the most common focal point used in mindfulness meditation) for more than a second at a time before you start thinking again about that conversation you had with your boss or what you’re going to make for dinner tonight or how you’ll find the time to finish the project that’s due tomorrow or where you’re going to get the money for your daughter’s orthodontia or whether that weird mole on your arm is cancer or what a loser you are because you can’t even concentrate on your breath and meditate right?
Then I’d say you’ll get lots of practice refocusing, again and again and again, which will help build those mental muscles.
And I’d also say,”Congratulations!” Because you’re alive.
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