Mindfulness in English is referring to the Pali word sati used as a central tenet of the Buddha’s teachings some 2500 years ago. Sati does not easily translate into English and mindfulness has become common parlance as an approximation of the subtler connotations of awareness, attention and remembering. As such there are varying interpretations of the meaning of sati. Here, I will ascribe to mindfulness the following three elements (1) awareness, (2) of present experience, (3) with acceptance. Only the unified condition in our consciousness of all three of these elements at the same time, creates the ground for healing and integrative capacities of mindfulness. It is a means of relating to the full spectrum of our experience, and its practice reduces our reactivity to what is arising in the present moment. This reduction in reactivity is directly equatable to a reduction in our suffering.
This suffering of reactivity, results from our fighting with, resistance to, ignoring and rejection from awareness, the existential realities of life the Buddha taught as the three Marks of Existence. These being (1) pain – both physical and mental; (2) the impermanence of forms; (3) the lack of a permanent unchanging entity of self-identification.
Mindfulness is experienced as a whole body and mind awareness of the present moment. Being mindful is to be completely present. Mindfulness is a means of relating to the full spectrum of our experience, and its practice reduces our reactivity to what is arising in the present moment. This reduction in reactivity is directly equatable to a reduction in our suffering. This suffering of reactivity, results from our fighting with, resistance to, ignoring and rejection from awareness, the existential realities of life the Buddha taught as the three ‘Marks of Existence’. These being (1) pain – both physical and mental; (2) the impermanence of forms; (3) the lack of a permanent unchanging entity of self-identification.
It is noteworthy that in Asian languages the same word is used for mind and for heart. It is essential then if our understanding and practice of mindfulness isn’t also “heartfulness” something fundamental is missing that could have unfortunate consequences. Our attitude then in practicing mindfulness consists of both curiosity and kindliness.
Mindfulness is most commonly learned in a meditation practice, primarily sitting meditation, though formal practices do exist for walking, standing, and to a lesser extent lying as well. In my own mindfulness practice, I employ all of these as well as a now generalized attitude of mindfulness in daily life. In the practice of mindfulness, we simply pay attention to what arises in awareness moment to moment, and allow it be, just as it is. That said, the only ‘simple’ part is its explanation.
As I shall discuss, the regular and consistent practice of mindfulness increases the capacity for mindfulness. This occurs in part through the repeated activation of the areas of the brain required for mindfulness, such as the prefrontal cortex. This repeated activation strengthens them, much as exercising a muscle strengthens it. Indeed, brain scans have shown the thickening over time of this brain region in those who practice mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is then simultaneously, the aim, the methods or practices, and the outcome all wrapped up together.
Benefits of Mindfulness
Through the practice of mindfulness, we can learn to attune to the somatic experience and felt sense in the body. We also learn to become the observer of the movements of emotion and thought. This nonjudgmental practice of awareness of our experience, the allowing of it just as it is, reduces our tendency to identify with them, and take them as ‘truths’. In this way, the interdependence between an experiencer, and the of objects of experience, the thinker, and thoughts, is clarified not as self, but as part of the constant shifting, moment to moment, incessant process of creating both self and world, which is habitual to a dualistic mind. Across this threshold, we also gain direct experience of awareness that is not carried in this relentless process of identification, in Buddhism called chitta.
A significant benefit of deepening our capacity for mindfulness is becoming increasingly at ease with this relentless state of change of our experience moment to moment. With the development of our capacity to rest in direct awareness we become increasingly less drawn into reaction to arising experience, while remaining more fully, and ideally, compassionately present to it. This is a fundamental foundation to facilitate the healing and transformation of the unhealed pasts we hold within us. This is most effective when our capacity to remain present with our deeper feelings is built up and integrated consistently over time. As a therapist, this capacity to rest in chitta is fundamental to my ability to hold dual awareness of my own and my clients arising process simultaneously. Chitta then is the ground of the therapeutic relational field.
The benefit of mindfulness is increasingly validated in neuroscience studies in which MRI scans detected significantly larger gray matter volumes in meditators in the right orbito-frontal cortex (as well as in the right thalamus and left inferior temporal gyrus when co-varying for age and/or lowering applied statistical thresholds). In addition, meditators showed significantly larger volumes of the right hippocampus. Both orbito-frontal and hippocampal regions have been implicated in emotional regulation and response control. Thus, larger volumes in these regions might account for meditators singular abilities and habits to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior.
Becoming present to our experience of the moment through mindfulness practice, opens the possibility of our having choice. When we are actually connecting to our felt experience of the moment, we create the possibility of choosing our response to what the moment brings. With time, we become more able to discriminate what part of our feeling experience is the activation of past unhealed experience within us, and bring that awareness into our response to what is actually occurring ‘now’. Mindfulness is therefore a developable skill that increases our ability to be less reactive to what is happening in the moment. It becomes a way of relating to all experience – positive, negative and neutral – such that our overall degree of suffering is reduced and our sense of wellbeing increases. This contrast with the findings that several pathological conditions, for example, major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are associated with decreased density of volume of the hippocampus.
Mindfulness is more than the meta cognition – thinking about thinking, of a reflective stance, mindfulness opens the question, who, or what, is it that is thinking the thoughts about thinking. Mindfulness is a means of developing meta awareness, or awareness of awareness.