Mindfulness Lessons from Science and Children
There are some human characteristics that we describe as childlike. In growing up, we gladly leave behind many of those qualities. Adults shouldn’t throw tantrums in supermarkets and cry about parents’ tyrannical desires to prevent accidental deaths in the playground. However, some childish adjectives are earnestly used as compliments for adults. When we describe an adult as childlike, we usually refer to some innocent or charming quality about them. That’s a nice sentiment, but some features of children’s mindsets may even be profoundly healthy for adults to cultivate. So in what ways do we need to be more like a child again?
I don’t yet have my own children, but in interacting with my many young cousins, there is always one particular trait that stands out. That is their ability to live and experience life in the moment. Children seem to be able to have fun with just about anything. The other day, I saw a child screaming with laughter at the noise they were able to create by hitting a can with a stick. They did not worry about the latest disaster in the news or the state of the economy. They simply made the most of what they found in front of them, and appreciated every second as they experienced it.
Of course, none of this is to say that children are Zen masters. Far from it. If you’ve ever been in an airplane with a child around, you’ll know all too well that children do not hesitate to scream for what they urgently crave. Nevertheless, they seem to be able to engage wholly with an activity in a natural way that adults no longer find so easy.
This psychological quality of children is reminiscent of a mindset widely discussed in the sciences and the media: it’s called mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn was a pioneer in bringing mindfulness into the sciences, and he defines it as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment”. You can think of it as a mindset in which your attention is entirely locked on what is happening right now. Not what happened moments ago. Not what might happen in the future. What is happening now.
Why should we care about the science?
It took a while for mindfulness to be taken seriously in the scientific world. This is because the principles within it were originally developed in a religious context, especially in the Buddhist tradition. It wouldn’t take you long to find a scientist who frowns upon the concept of religions. This frowning is due to the many religious premises and claims that cannot be supported by objective evidence. But the frowning often goes too far and becomes a phobic barrier to ideas that can actually be tested scientifically. Mindfulness occasionally still hits this barrier, but now features prominently in neuroscience and psychology studies. If you search for ‘mindfulness’ on Google Scholar, you’ll be reading papers for the rest of your life.
You will still find people who reject the scientific idea of mindfulness because of its religious baggage, and they will often lock horns with people who argue science has no place in discussing mindfulness. I’m in the camp who believe both teams are being too absolutist. Without scientific evidence, mindfulness will never be clearly distinguishable from the snake oils that do more harm than good for humanity, and it certainly won’t ever become a valuable part of our mainstream health services. And without an open and unbiased mind to take mindfulness seriously in the first place, you’ll never fairly weigh up the evidence to understand its true value. If we’re being practical and trying to avoid personal biases, we should enjoy any benefits of mindfulness in our personal lives, while acknowledging the value of emerging evidence through scientific scrutiny.
We don’t necessarily need evidence to believe that mindfulness is good for us personally, but we do need it to truly understand the extent of its benefits across different people, problems, and interventions. We cannot confidently and honestly recommend mindfulness as a useful intervention for others, unless we have independent research to back us. We have to rely on something more than the beliefs, feelings, and words that come from our own mind or the minds of those who agree with us. Clearly defined methods, testable hypotheses, and replicable experiments provide us with the material to convince a sensible doubter. Intercessory prayer has been around for thousands of years, with many religious people attesting to its value in improving the health of their loved ones. But with no scientific evidence to back up that claim, good doctors will never prescribe prayer as an intervention to support your loved one who may be suffering from a medical malady. Mindfulness, on the other hand, has growing scientific support replicating across independent research labs, and may eventually fall into that bucket of widely prescribed interventions. Science and evidence-based medicine have been crucial in our progress as a species. We cannot afford to dump them now.
The mechanics of meditation
Many of our anxieties are driven by a fear of something that may or may not happen in the future. Any pragmatist will tell you that it’s pointless to worry about something if you cannot change or affect it, but mindfulness provides a concrete approach for shifting your attention to something more helpful: your actual experience in the present moment. There are many types of meditation, but all of them are activities that cultivate this mindset in some form.
I will highlight two types of meditation that I find particularly helpful. Rather than diving into their religious or historical context, I will adopt the labels and methods that have been used in the sciences. The first I will call focused meditation, and the second I will call open monitoring.
If you have any basic experience of meditation, you are probably familiar with focused meditation. The instruction is to focus on a specific object in the world or on your body. A convenient anchor is often the breath. You aim to maintain your attention entirely on your inhalations and exhalations in the present moment. This is far more challenging than it sounds, as any early practitioner will tell you. You don’t just consider the concept of breathing while mentally singing Ed Sheeran’s new song. You pay full and exclusive attention to every moment of the breath as it occurs. For example, if you are focusing on your chest, you want to experience it as it lies rested at its lowest point, then stay focussed on it as it slowly rises in each moment, then maintain your attention as it reaches its peak, and then do exactly the same with your mind as it sinks back to its resting position. Whenever you realize your attention has deviated from your breath — which might be as frequently as every few seconds — you simply return your mind calmly to the breath. Ideally without getting angry at yourself for having been distracted.
As you practice this, you will become better able to focus your attention on your breath for a few more seconds each time. Areas of the brain involved in sustained attention become more active as you start practicing meditation and improve your focus. However, at the highest levels of expertise (around 44,000 hours of practice), this activity is reduced again. In early practice, you become better able to recruit your attentional resources in the brain, but with expertise, focusing becomes effortless and you no longer need to rely on those resources. Distractions have a harder time dragging your attention away from where you direct it.
Open monitoring is a little different to focused meditation. Instead of choosing a specific object to direct your attention towards, the task is to focus your attention fully on any thought, feeling, or experience that arises in the present moment. There is no need to judge, anticipate, control, or react to anything that occurs. So an active mind that frequently jumps between objects is less of a concern during open monitoring than focused meditation as long as you are aware of what is happening. It’s still easy to become so distracted that you no longer pay close attention to your thoughts as they happen. There is an important distinction between being aware of thought and being lost in thought. I’m aware when I notice that my mind has floated from thinking about my breath to thinking about the work presentation I’m anxious about. I’m lost when my mind has drifted to worrying about the work presentation, panicking, wondering what I will need to do to prepare, and forgetting to notice each emerging experience.
The nice thing about open monitoring is that you can learn to apply it throughout your everyday life activities. With focused meditation, you usually need to find the time and space to quietly sit and focus on your breath. After a few days of this, most people will inevitably find some excuse to stop the practice. But with open monitoring, you can simply aim to remain aware and present with anything you happen to be doing: in the shower, you can focus your attention on the water as it hits your back; while walking in the park, you can focus on the colors of the trees; when eating, you can focus on the texture of the food as it rolls around your mouth. These are just examples, but the more you manage to bring your mind into the present as you go about your life, and the less you get lost in your head while your body does everything else on autopilot, the better you will appreciate your life as you live it. We too often let the day drift by and ask ourselves at the end of it “where did my Sunday go?”.
Evidence to support the benefits of mindfulness
Research is ongoing, and we still have much to learn. The experiments in this area are a mixed bag of higher and lower quality methods. A challenge in designing a good experiment is to compare mindfulness interventions with an appropriate control condition. If we want to understand how mindfulness impacts health, we need to know what it’s better than. Some experiments use no controls, which is clearly not ideal; if people improve in an aspect of their wellbeing following a mindfulness intervention, how do we know it’s not just because of the social interaction involved in their classes, or the effort of trying something rather than nothing? Other studies compare mindfulness to standard treatments for the targeted symptoms, or to different attention tasks, which is providing a more reliable insight into the specific health benefits of mindfulness itself. Review papers and meta-analyses that helpfully combine the results of multiple studies are also growing in number.
There is a way to go, but consistent effects are emerging. Mindfulness may not help everyone but there is now a large volume of evidence to suggest that it can have important, far-reaching benefits for many aspects of mental health. In general, extended mindfulness practice seems to adapt brain structure and function related to emotion, attention, and self-awareness. Experiments so far have highlighted benefits in areas including hypochondria, decision-making, chronic depression, and even chronic physical pain.
Some of the most convincing benefits are in emotions and relationships. Mindfulness techniques can be a great tool for shifting the mind away from ruminating on possible dramas and disasters. Most of my recent fears came from prognosticating outcomes that were either not that bad in the end, or did not happen at all. My time clearly would have been better spent focusing on my actual lived experiences. When we successfully apply mindfulness to our lives, many of us are happier, and we become more pleasant people to be around. We shouldn’t meditate with any specific goal in mind, because it’s counterproductive. A goal orientation is a distraction in itself. But it’s certainly helpful and motivating to know that whenever we do meditate, there are good reasons to believe it is worthwhile.
The child in us is waiting to emerge from a long slumber. There are many benefits to centering our minds on our current experiences and shifting away from the usual obsessions about objectives, plans, and goals. It’s about time we focused on the only thing we know for certain: that we are breathing, thinking, and feeling right now. We don’t need to keep a chart or track our data. Mindfulness is less of a life hack and more of a way to live. It provides an escape from our monotonous and robotic approach to our everyday activities. Next time you eat, shower, or fold the laundry, know that you can appreciate the moment rather than simply get through it. Life is always going to be too short. So you might as well live it.