Twenty years ago, the concept of mindfulness and practices like meditation or yoga were in the realm of hippies, eccentrics, of the quirkiest of us. Since then, a revolution has taken place. While MRI and FMRI machines have become mainstream and scientists have finally been able to peek into this “black hole” – our brain in action – there has been a renewed interest in one of the oldest mind practices in the world – the practice of “being present” or, known by its (now) very popular label – Mindfulness. As the effects of this very special state of mind have been more and more thoroughly documented, word has spread, countless applications have been developed and we’ve now come to a point, which seemed almost inconceivable two decades ago, where Mindfulness has become a hot topic, it’s benefits discussed and its practice applied from boardrooms to hospitals and from the army to elementary schools.
So, what is Mindfulness and why all the sudden hype about it?
Mindfulness is the ability of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis. Meditation is a practical way to achieve Mindfulness.
Studies show that people spend almost half of their waking time thinking of something other than the present moment. Our minds wander all the time, lost in thought and, because of the innate predisposition of our brain to prioritise the bad and the ugly (a remnant from older days when our species kept looking out for and running away from sabre toothed tigers), our thoughts are often not happy ones. We are three times more likely to worry (or, as scientists say, to “ruminate”) than to think happy, hopeful thoughts, regardless of the objective circumstances of our lives. Therefore, when our minds wonder uncontrollably, our level of personal happiness tends to drop.
“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Killingsworth and Gilbert write. “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
For some time now it has become obvious that there is no direct connection between standard of living and personal level of well-being. Studies show that, from a point onward, the level of happiness fails to increase even as countries get wealthier and wealthier. This phenomenon has been named the “Easterlin Paradox“and there are many proposed explanations for it – some are systemic, but some have to do with the way our human mind is built.
The widespread use of FMRI machines has made it possible for scientists to study the brain in real time, a feat that opened magical door into the world of the most fascinating organ in the human body. Neuroscience became the rabbit hole into the wonderland of our minds.
For the first time, our inner mechanisms of creating happiness or unhappiness have started to be researched, broken apart and understood. Positive Psychology – the branch of psychology which studies human well-being and how it can be cultivated instead of human misery and how it can be avoided – was also born twenty years ago and questions on how we can lead happier, more meaningful lives have moved from the realm of philosophy into that of science. Neuroscience has been informing psychologists’ research more and more and has been a valuable tool in the search for the holy grail of human flourishing.
In their quest to solve puzzles such as the Easterlin Paradox, scientists have turned to some very ancient traditions and re-visited their wisdom in a totally new light.
They discovered our brains develop what scientist call a “baseline of happiness”, which tends to remain stable over time. Even when our life conditions improve, we tend to get used to it very quickly and things we used to strive for (or believed would make us very happy) quickly fail to do so soon after we’ve acquired them. This is called “hedonic adaptation” and is the downside of our brain’s adaptability and its capacity to equally get used to harsh conditions. Within 6 months after an extremely happy event (such as winning the lottery) or an extremely unfortunate one (such as a debilitating car accident) people tend to return to their previous baseline of happiness.
Another surprising discovery was that certain people are able to increase their baseline of happiness and keep it there. One special category of people able to do just that were Buddhist monks. In a series of groundbreaking studies, monks were invited to some of the most prestigious research institutions in the world and asked to meditate inside an FMRI machine.
“Meditation research, particularly in the last 10 years or so, has shown to be very promising because it points to an ability of the brain to change and optimise in a way we didn’t know previously was possible.” When one relaxes into a state of oneness, the neural networks in experienced practitioners change as they lower the psychological wall between themselves and their environments, Dr Josipovic says.
Monks are able to consciously direct their attention exactly where they want it to be, unlike most of us, who are unable to focus too long on anything, too caught up in the whirlwind of multitasking. They are more able to regulate their emotions, calm themselves when stressed and achieve states of tranquility and inner peace at will – a skill that would come so handy to so many stressed out, overworked professionals, struggling with the demands of jobs and raising families.
The wonderful news that came out from more and more studies on mindfulness over the past decade is that it’s not necessary to become a monk and meditate 16 hours per day to reap it’s benefits. With as little as 10 or 15 minutes of meditation every day there is, within three months, a marked increase in positive emotion, cognitive and emotional resources and level of wellbeing and even a measurable boost of the immune system.
With more and more evidence piling up on their positive effects, Mindfulness and the main practice for cultivating it – Meditation – have slowly been stripped of their spiritual clothes and turned into a life skill that anybody can use. Training protocols have been developed and applied in countless contexts – from supporting people who suffer from chronic pain to better manage it and increase their life quality or those suffering from depression to manage their anxiety, to helping people in the workplace lower their stress and improve their concentration and even for increasing preschoolers’ abilities to emotionally self-regulate.
Just as everybody agrees that, in order to maintain a healthy body, one has to eat a balanced diet and practice sports, lately more and more people understand that cultivating a healthy mind and balanced emotional life takes work. Meditation is one way to get there. It’s result, Mindfulness, is one amazing way to step off that “hedonic treadmill”, which makes so many people chase happiness as an ever elusive external goal, and start looking inside for more sustainable well-being. Mindfulness offers the promise to actually start building a joyful, fulfilled life, from the inside out.
The extraordinary popularity of Mindfulness can also have its downsides – some have rightfully warned against turning Mindfulness into some sort of junk food for the brain by practicing it without any regard for its ethical roots, so deeply emphasised in the Buddhist traditions. In other words, learning to be present without a positive intention might end up doing more harm than good.
However, all in all, the benefits seem to far outweigh the risks. Most evidence points to the value of cultivating a regular Mindfulness practice for creating more meaningful, healthy and happy human lives.
For those of you wanting to take up meditation and start building your “mindfulness muscle”, here are some great resources to get you started on the journey: http://www.positivityresonance.com/meditations.html and https://insighttimer.com
Also, if you’re in Brisbane at the end of January, check out the 2 day, four module Masterclass I’m co-facilitating with Kate Peardon – Mindfulness is one of the four key topics for self-development that we are going to explore.