With studies pouring in on the benefits of mindfulness, psychologists’ attention is turning to why mindfulness works, and the results are fascinating.
For example, mindfulness meditation has been shown to have therapeutic benefits in depression, anxiety, substance abuse, chronic pain and eating disorders.
Its benefits extend out to physical features like lower blood pressure and lower cortisol levels.
How is it that this type of practice can have these beneficial effects on such a broad range of conditions?
A recent study by Hölzel et al. (2011) finds four central components to how mindfulness works:
1. Body awareness
Awareness of your own body has long been taught as one of the foundations of mindfulness meditation.
The Buddha says the mindful monk finds through…
“…his mindfulness that “There is a body” is maintained to the extent of knowledge and remembrance.
And he remains independent, unsustained by (not clinging to) anything in the world. This is how a monk remains focused on the body in and of itself.”
As a result of practising mindfulness, people report higher awareness of the sensations in their body, of the thoughts in their minds, how things taste and so on.
Being mindful may also help with empathising with others because knowledge of the self provides insight into others.
All these are often missed as the mind wanders randomly around.
2. Emotional control
After practising mindful meditation, people typically become much less reactive to things which previously piqued their emotions.
You can measure this through their skin conductance or with neuroimaging.
This is why it can be so useful for anxiety, since anxiety is (partly) a heightened emotional reaction to both thoughts and events.
3. Attentional control
One of the first challenges for anyone learning to meditate for the first time is maintaining attention.
It’s only when you try to concentrate on something as simple as your breath going in and out for any length of time that you discover the full spectrum of your distractability.
With practice, though, it becomes easier and the blossoming of attentional control has all sorts of wonderful knock-on effects.
As the great psychologist William James once wrote, controlling attention is at “the very root of judgement, character and will”.
4. New perspective on the self
Becoming mindful leads to being able to see in action the thought processes that manufacture what feels like ‘the self’ to us.
This can produce a startling revelation that is a central tenet of Buddhism: there is no such thing as a permanent, unchanging self.
What this allows is a kind of meta-awareness: you are watching your own mind in action.
The Dalai Lama says:
“This seemingly solid, concrete, independent, self-instituting I under its own power that appears actually does not exist at all.”
Liberation comes with the realisation that there is no ‘I’.
Studies have found that this realisation leads to greater self-acceptance, higher self-esteem and a more positive self-representation.
These changes can also be seen physiologically in the brain with lower activation of the ‘default mode’ network.
This network has been implicated in our self-referencing mind-wandering (you know, all that worrying about whether YOU said the right things to so-and-so or where YOU are going on holiday or what YOU are going to say to your boss about the project that isn’t completed yet).
Free from some of these endless and tiring concerns, we can find more peace.
Image credit: Mitchell Joyce