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The Science Bit: What are the Benefits of Mindfulness?

Are the benefits of mindfulness really all they’re cracked up to be? We delve into the science to find out if mindfulness really delivers what it promises.
by Juan Salazar | Aug 7 2020

Buddhist monks have been practicing mindfulness meditation as one of the paths to enlightenment for over 2,600 years. Close your eyes and think about mindfulness. It’s easy for our brains to conjure up images of people with shaved heads, dressed in flowing, orange garments, meditating in serene stone temples overlooking a lush, green forest. In effortless introspection, they seem to become one with their surroundings.

Now, open your eyes and look at where you are. Quite the change of scenery, isn’t it? All day we’re bombarded with social media, colleagues, work, children, traffic, noise. We barely have time to spend in quiet reflection. Luckily, you don’t have to become a monk to enjoy the benefits of mindfulness.

You can learn the benefits of mindfulness with Blinkist

The Blinkist library has a wide selection of books that can help you discover the benefits of mindfulness. If you’re new to the whole world of mindfulness and meditation, don’t worry. This ongoing series about practicing mindfulness takes it all a step at a time. If you’re an old hand already, then keep on reading. In this article, we will take a closer look at the science-based facts about the benefits of mindfulness, and how to introduce its practice into your life.

What is mindfulness?

Even though there are many definitions of mindfulness and its practice, Buddhist traditions explain mindfulness as an understanding of time, in which past, present and future moments arise and cease as momentary sense impressions and mental phenomena.

Mindfulness is described as a psychological process of moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. In this state, we turn our attention to our experiences, and our immediate surroundings, focusing solely on the present moment, without judgment. Through meditation and other practices, we can train our minds to reach this state of observance.

Mindfulness in the western world

Mindfulness meditation has been common practice in Buddhist religions for thousands of years. However, it was not until the 20th century that it found its way into Western cultures, thanks to the work of renowned figures such as Thích Nhất Hạnh, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Daniel Goleman, and Richard J. Davidson.

Thích Nhất Hạnh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, who founded a Buddhist monastic center called the Plum Village Monastery. This monastery teaches the Plum Village Tradition, which is known for its lessons in applying mindfulness to everyday activities, combined with a set of rules for community life called the ‘five mindfulness trainings’. These practices are meant to instill an ethical and spiritual dimension to decision-making in day-to-day life. Nhất Hạnh earned an honorary doctorate from the Education University of Hong Kong for his “life-long contributions to the promotion of mindfulness, peace and happiness across the world.” Nhất Hạnh has published over 100 books, including more than 70 in English. Among them is The Miracle of Mindfulness.

In this book, Thích Nhất Hạnh shows us how our constant dwelling on the past and our habit of always keeping an eye on the future consume our attention, rendering us unable to enjoy life in the present moment. Instead of constantly projecting ourselves into the future, we should focus on appreciating the here and now. The Miracle of Mindfulness serves as a guide to understanding mindfulness, with actionable advice for including its practice into our daily lives with meditation, breathing exercises, and other rituals to help us achieve serenity, and awaken our minds to the miracle of life.

Daniel Goleman is an author and science journalist. His 1995 book Emotional Intelligence was a New York Times bestseller in many countries, and is in print worldwide in 40 languages. Goleman co-authored Altered Traits with Richard J. Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, and a researcher on the effects of meditation on the brain.

In Altered Traits, Goleman and Davidson investigate meditation from a scientific point of view. Their research on the influence of meditative practices on the brain bears powerful lessons on the benefits of mindfulness, and how we can take advantage of them. Some of their work and the studies they surveyed for this book have shown that meditation can improve concentration and empathy levels, as well as lower the risk of depression.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. His life as a student of several Zen Buddhist teachers including Thích Nhất Hạnh, led him to integrate their teachings with scientific findings. Based on this, he created the mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR), which is offered by medical centers, hospitals, and health maintenance organizations worldwide, and is described in his book Full Catastrophe Living.

Kabat-Zinn says that one of the key benefits of mindfulness is that it teaches its practitioners the tools to cope with stress, anxiety, pain, and illness, and that it is effective in the treatment of a variety of conditions in both healthy and unhealthy people.

What are the benefits of mindfulness?

Thanks to the work of these advocates, mindfulness has steadily become an integral part of a healthy lifestyle in Western societies. One of the keys to the popularization of the movement in Western contexts is the fact that it has become a secular one. The work of Kabat-Zinn, for example, has been instrumental in opening new doors for mindfulness meditation into the context of the research laboratory, and not just in the monastery.

Since the late 1990s, scientists have increased the amount of research on mindfulness, and their early findings triggered an enormous amount of enthusiasm for meditation. However, both journalists and scientists have overstated the physical and mental health benefits, and some studies have been criticized for employing small sample sizes, or devising problematic experimental designs. This has contributed to mounting skepticism in the scientific community about mindfulness and its beneficial effects on body and mind.

Criticism notwithstanding, there is conclusive evidence that mindfulness indeed has very beneficial effects on those who practice it.

Mindfulness positively affects memory and focus

It should come as no surprise that our ability to focus would be positively affected by practicing mindfulness. A group of researchers found that mindfulness meditation affected their study participants’ attentional performance and cognitive flexibility, by testing groups of meditators and non-meditators alike. They found that the meditation group had significantly better performance on all measures of attention and had higher self-reported mindfulness.

Similarly, a 2010 study found that mindfulness can improve our working memory when we find ourselves in stressful situations. The study examined three groups of subjects (military and civilian) who were tested for working memory capacity over time. One of the military groups participated in an eight-week mindfulness training, while the other two groups — another military and one civilian — were non-meditating. The military groups were in a highly-stressful period before deployment. The non-meditating military group was found to have had decreased working memory capacity over time, while the non-meditating civilian group showed stable working memory capacity. The military group that participated in mindfulness training showed an increase in working memory capacity, as well as an increased ability to regulate emotions under stress.

Mindfulness is a promising way of treating anxiety and stress

There has been extensive research on the effects on mindfulness in stress and anxiety reduction. In a 2013 Massachusetts General Hospital study, a group of 93 individuals were randomly selected either to undergo an 8-week group intervention with mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) or to a control group. The MBSR-group was associated with a significantly greater reduction in anxiety. A meta-analysis of 39 studies that survey the effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction and cognitive therapy found that they could be an effective way of treating the affective and cognitive processes that underlie issues such as anxiety, stress, and mood disorders.

In Altered Traits, Goleman and Davidson suggest that long-term mindfulness practice fundamentally changes our ability to handle stress: “These changes are trait-like: They appear not simply during the explicit instruction to perceive the stressful stimuli mindfully, but even in the ‘baseline’ state” for longer-term meditators, which supports the possibility that mindfulness changes our ability to handle stress in a better, more sustainable way.”

Practicing mindfulness also has positive effects on physical health

The benefits of mindfulness aren’t exclusively related to mental health. A study by Harvard researchers found that patients treated with relaxation-response treatment (including mindfulness) showed significant changes in the expression of genes that regulate inflammation, circadian rhythms and glucose metabolism, leading to a significant decrease in blood pressure.

In addition, there has been research suggesting that mindfulness bolsters our immune system, improving our ability to combat many types of diseases. Mindfulness training has also been proven to help individuals with sleep difficulties to improve the quality of their sleep. Practicing mindfulness also promotes healthy eating behavior, improves weight loss in overweight or obese individuals. It has also been proven to enhance athletic performance in some disciplines.

How do we incorporate mindfulness into our lives?

Many practitioners often admit that mindfulness training can be challenging. It requires discipline to train the wandering mind to keep coming back to the present, and accepting this without judgement. A 2014 study said that many people would rather apply electroshocks to themselves than be alone with their thoughts. Another study showed that most people find it hard to focus on the present and that the mind’s wandering can lead to stress and even suffering.

The good news is that you don’t need to invest all of your time into meditation in order to enjoy the benefits of mindfulness. Practicing daily is considered to provide the most benefits; you could start with 10 minutes per day, to work progressively to the recommended 20 minutes twice a day.

Mindfulness as a daily ritual

Formal meditation isn’t the only way to practice mindfulness. In Wherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn introduces informal meditation as a way to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life, for example, by practicing lying, standing, and even walking meditations. The key is to focus your attention on the movement of your body, or on the surrounding landscape.

In A Monk’s Guide to Happiness, Gelong Thubten offers simple ways in which we can turn mindfulness into a habit, by practicing it in everyday situations. For example, he suggests taking everyday activities that you do mindlessly, such as brushing your teeth or doing dishes, and applying to them the cycles of anchoring and drifting that we go through when we meditate. By paying attention to the individual elements and experiences of these activities, letting our minds wander, see where our thoughts landed, and bringing them back to the task at hand, we can practice mindfulness. Combined with meditation and other training, we can turn mindfulness into a state of mind that can be accessed easily.

Mindfulness can manifest itself in art, too, and Zen art is a perfect example. Alan Watts encourages us to try our hand at haiku poetry or sumi painting in The Way of Zen. Zen art uses emptiness to make a powerful impact, which is exactly what mindfulness training aims to achieve. A calm mind that is devoid of judgement is free to wander in thought while remaining in present, just as Zen art uses momentariness and spontaneity to bring the artist, and the viewer, face-to-face with the present moment.

By being able to focus our minds on the present, we are able to experience life fully. Incorporating the practice of mindfulness into our lives can be a simple act that could make for a very healthy habit for years to come. The only things that mindfulness requires are stillness and consistency, as its effects can be better felt over time.

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