If you ask many meditation and mindfulness practitioners about their experience, they will probably tell you that they start bringing their attention to the sensation of breathing, then try to keep their focus on it, moving their mind back to the breathing when it wandered.
This continuous practice brings to a strengthening of the ability to focus and to regulate attention.
By repeated practice, your mind will learn to faster detect its wandering, thus activating the needed action set that brings the thoughts under control. This process allows a meditation practitioner to improve the balance between the frontal cortex rational stimuli and the call of the wild by the amygdala.
What does this mean in terms of one’s daily practice?
That meditation is not just keeping your focus.
The frontal cortex, one of the parts of the brain, that evolved more recently than others, manages rational, executive thinking and control. So, we can say that the frontal cortex is the part of the brain that thinks, so that collects and create connections between facts, coming up with decisions, abstract thoughts, and conclusions.
The amygdala, on the contrary, is the oldest part of our brain, the one responsible for basic emotions and is responsible to manage the fight or flight answers. The amygdala is about 100 times faster than the frontal cortex, and this explains why fear and anger come so quick, while the rational response arrives later.
So, the amygdala and the frontal cortex are often in opposition, and you experience this in your need to continuously keep a balance between full emotional and full rational modes. As you know for sure, it’s easy for things not to be perfectly and easily balanced.
And when things go out of balance, more than often it’s the amygdala that wins, forcing the frontal cortex and other parts of the brain to work with reduced efficiency, so that the body can react to the perceived dangerous stimulus with full force.
Some clinical studies made in Italy and Denmark in 2012 by Chiesa, Serretti, and Jakobsen using functional neuro-imaging seem to confirm that mindfulness training helps in controlling the amygdala, by lowering its sensitivity to external stimuli.
This means that the control is not performed by logical brain on the emotional one, but it’s the amygdala that is trained to deal better with stressors and life events.
Coming back to focus. If meditation were only keeping our focus on breathing, it would be just concentrating. Not that concentrating is negative! When we learn how to develop and use attentional control, we learn what to pay attention to and what to ignore. The act of concentrating is performed, at the brain’s level, by the frontal areas, like the anterior cingulate cortex, and it’s a function that appears to be linked to working memory. So, it’s an amazing skill to develop, but for what we have seen, it’s just a part of how meditation works.
Meditation adds metacognition to focus. Metacognition is the practice of observing our own thoughts and/or feelings. It’s a practice that involves attention regulation, of course, but also awareness about thoughts and feelings, instead of what we feel through the senses. So, it’s something more than redirecting our mind to the act of breathing. It’s keeping note of what our mind is doing.
Why is this important to meditation practitioners? Because when you start observing your thoughts you quickly learn that they are just thoughts. And, being just thoughts, they, of course, bring with them a series of emotions and feelings, but you learn to understand that these emotions and these feelings are yours.
So, to tell it with different words, your thoughts are your personal, individual, exclusive, subjective response to a stimulus. You can take note of how they rise, how they impact you, how they stop being relevant. You can see that each thought creates a ripple effect, so other thoughts come out, and you can learn when and why this happens. But, at the end of the day, these thoughts are not necessarily true for anyone else than you. They have the importance you give them. Just that, and no more.
So, you will learn that your thoughts, the ones that you are used to building your judgment on, are deeply biased. They are biased by who you are, by your empathy, by your emotions, by your experiences. And, learning to filter out your biases helps you taking better decisions, living a more empathic life, and reduce the levels of stress and anxiety.
An unbiased decision, or a decision whose bias is known to you, let you develop the ability to choose your response to each thought and emotion. So, you will not just react. You will be able to choose the most appropriate response to each situation and no longer being at its mercy.
Dai-Hara Kizendo teaches you how to meditate, how to practice mindfulness, how to live a better life through easy to follow steps and exercises.