A Guide to the Science of Mindfulness Meditation

Patrick Whitehead
Feb 18 · 8 min read

How contemplative practices can help you reduce stress and enhance well-being.

Geneticist and Buddhist monk Mattheiu Ricard hooked up to an EEG in Richard Davidson’s Affective Neuroscience Laboratory (News.wisc.edu). Photos are not owned by the author, and are used exclusively for educative purposes.

My interest in the link between contemplative practices and psychology began in college and led to a master’s degree which I received at UWG. This linkage is still of great interest to me today, five years after getting my PhD in psychology. In this essay, I explain how mindfulness meditation can help you decrease stress and anxiety, as well as promote relaxation and happiness in your life.

East comes West

Mindfulness meditation has an ancient history in the East (South, Southeast, and East Asia, specifically). Though common in Eastern religious and spiritual practices going back several millennia, the popularity of contemplative practices in the West began in the latter part of the 20th century. Its popularity was initiated by scholars, scientists, and spirituality seekers who, for a variety of reasons, traveled to India, Nepal, East China, Korea, and Japan. A famous example of this famed “journey to the East” is written about by German philosopher Eugen Herrigel in his book Zen and the Art of Archery. Herrigel spent several years in Japan with a Zen master training to pull the string back on a bow. For my money, it is the best book on Zen that has ever been translated into English. Other notable figures who wrote about the promise of Eastern philosophy in Western traditions in the middle of the 20th century include Erich Fromm, Carl Jung, Médard Boss, Martin Heidegger, Abraham Maslow, among others.

The growing popularity of Eastern contemplative practices attracted many Buddhist teachers to open meditation centers in North America and Europe. The San Francisco Zen Center was opened by Shunryo Suzuki Roshi in 1962, the Cambridge Zen Center was opened by Zen Master Seungsahn Haengwon in 1973, and Naropa University was opened by Tibetan Buddhist Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in Boulder, CO in 1974.

There are many lines of Eastern contemplative practice by which we could trace the history of the science of mindfulness meditation. Most would lead to the Mind and Life Institute — a multi-million dollar research institute and consortium of scientists, scholars, and practitioners that are dedicated to understanding the science of Eastern contemplative disciplines.

Mind&Life.org

I will be telling the story of Jon Kabat-Zinn, whose scientific approach to mindfulness meditation has effectively transformed medicine and psychotherapy. It is also something that is easy to apply to your own life to help with anxiety, stress, or chronic pain.

Kabat-Zinn began his mindfulness practice while at MIT where he was working on a PhD in molecular biology. He trained with the aforementioned Seungsahn Haengwon and other guests at the Cambridge Zen Center, and began a regular practice of mindfulness meditation. Within ten years (1979), Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (now the Center for Mindfulness). At the Clinic, Kabat-Zinn applied the principles of mindfulness meditation in the treatment of chronic pain and other chronic illnesses.

In the 1970s, spiritual practices were seldom spoken of in the same breath as scientific research — and certainly not medical science. At that time, and still to some extent today, chronic conditions were understood to be purely physiological: “a mindfulness practice will not help my lower back pain.” It was into this climate that Kabat-Zinn was proposing to treat chronic conditions with half lotuses and meditation pillows. As you might imagine, patients were not leaping at this opportunity. Instead, it attracted only those patients whose conditions were so poor — those whose pain, stress, or anxiety were so substantial that their doctors had given up on them. These weary and anguished patients grabbed a cushion and sat on the floor with Kabat-Zinn. Low and behold, their conditions improved considerably! You can read the story in Kabat-Zinn’s Full-Catastrophe Living.

The Science of Mindfulness

The simplest model for explaining how and why mindfulness meditation works comes from Daniel Siegel, founder and director of the Mindsight Institute. Siegel uses the model of the brain as a fist, where the fingers wrap around the thumb. The thumb represents the least evolutionarily complicated structure of the brain — the midbrain or reptilian brain.

Dan Siegel of Mindsight Institute

These structures, which sit between the brain stem and cerebral cortex, regulate our emotions as well as initiate sympathetic and parasympathetic states (which are responsible for fight-or-flight and relaxation, respectively). The palm of the hand represents the cerebral cortex, and this extends into the fingers which represent the frontal cortex. Finally, the fingertips are the pre-frontal cortex. Notice, the pre-frontal cortex wraps back down around and toward the midbrain. The frontal cortex is the most evolutionarily complex structure of the brain. Because of their importance in regulating brain function, Russian neuropsychologist Elkhonon Goldberg has called the frontal cortex the “executive brain.”

The nervous system is not fixed and unchanging as was long thought to be the case. Instead, it is plastic: our experiences change our neural connections. This phenomenon, known as “neuroplasticity,” is what makes it possible for a stroke patient to regain the complete motor function which they had lost during the stroke. It is also what makes mindfulness meditation effective at influencing the emotional responses that were understood to be unalterable reflex actions.

The frontal cortex is responsible for the conscious processes of motivation, planning, attention and focus, judgment and decision making, and, wait for it… emotional regulation. The proximity of the prefrontal cortex to the midbrain allows these conscious processes to interact with the unconscious and autonomic processes of stress, anxiety, anger, and aggression. This means that stress, anxiety, anger, and aggression do not have to be reflex responses to life events. You can change them to be something different such as the salutary responses of relaxation, happiness, and compassion (provided, of course, that you wish to experience these instead). Psychologist Paul Ekman studied the relationship between meditation and emotion with the Dalai Lama.

Mindfulness meditation helps develop an awareness for emotions as they arise. It also cultivates a recognition of their expression in your body (such as relaxation or tension). By pairing relaxation practices with mindfulness meditation, you can begin to change the autonomic nervous system responses through neuroplasticity. This means that when you see the irksome office-mate or neighbor and you begin to stress out, you will notice it right away and focus on relaxation. After doing so a few times, you will notice that the office mate has become less irksome. That is to say, your emotions are not at the mercy of your environemnt. With mindfulness meditation, you learn to have a say about what your emotions will be.

How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation

(techexplorist.com)

There are many different forms of meditation practice (and you can be sure that each is currently being studied by teams of psychologists, neuroscientists, and physicians). Meditation may be practiced while seated in a chair, standing, sitting cross-legged on the ground, or while walking slowly. Regardless of the form you are practicing, the goal is single-minded and non-judgmental attention.

“Single-minded” means that you are only ever focused on one thing at a time. This is much harder than it seems. Suppose I am focusing on breathing. “Breathe in… breathe out… breathe in… oops, I noticed that I’m forcing my breath rather than letting it happen naturally… don’t breathe…now breathe…” and so on. In this example, I’m focusing on breathing and trying to regulate my breathing. I must let the regulation go, and just notice the breathing process. If you hear a bird chirp outside, then notice it. Don’t think “shut up, bird, I’m focusing on my breath.” Just notice that your attention just jumped from your breath to the bird, maybe it will stay with the bird or come back.

“Non-judgmental” means that you are free from the impulse to evaluate how you are doing. If you are focusing on your breath and then you start wondering how long you have been sitting there, you are free from having to admonish yourself. To this end, there is no “good meditation” or “bad meditation.” The person whose mind jumps a thousand different times during meditation is no better or worse off than the person who has kept unbroken focus on one-hundred-thousand consecutive breaths. However, if the first person keeps thinking “shit, I have lost focus again,” then they are doing more than meditating: they are meditating and judging how well they are doing. They are their shifts in attention. They need only notice the shifts as they occur. While this might not sound like a helpful spiritual practice, remember that Shunryo Suzuki describes Dogen’s shoshaku jushaku — that is, to succeed wrong with wrong or life as “one continuous mistake” — as one pathway to enlightenment.

Together, non-judgmental and single-minded attention means you cannot meditate while you plan your grocery store trip or a conversation that you would like to have. You can walk, provided you are only walking: focusing on it with single-minded attention. You can even do household chores such as washing dishes (one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s favorite examples). Washing dishes or sweeping the floor are activities that have a lot to focus on. Consequently, with these you might become easily distracted. This is why sitting on the floor or standing in a dimly lit room are generally helpful ways of meditating.

Loving-kindness or Compassion Meditation: Instead of focusing on the dishes you are washing or your breaths as they come or go, loving-kindness meditation focuses on being open and receptive to loving-kindness or compassion. For example, if there is a cantankerous coworker you dread having to see on a daily basis, you might think about them with a spirit of compassion. Let the angry and irritated thoughts pass by, and focus instead on warmth and acceptance. This works by developing new nervous system pathways that are responsible for emotion regulation (which I will describe below).

Body-scan Meditation: With body-scan meditation, the goal is generally relaxation. When we try to force ourselves to relax, we typically focus on only a few parts of the body such as the shoulders and stomach. But tension can be held in many other parts of the body. You begin with your toes and focus on making them as relaxed as possible. This will seem strange at first — “relaxing my toes?” — that is, until you get to a part of your body where you were unconsciously holding tension. The first time I did a body-scan meditation, I remember that I had been holding my stomach in, and this had restricted my diaphragm. I realized that I had been doing this pretty much all day for as long as I could remember. It was so normal that I had stopped noticing it. After doing the body-scan meditation a few times, you will be more sensitive to any tension that is being held in the body, and catch it when it happens (such as when you are about to give a speech or presentation and realize that your hands are in fists or your shoulders are crouched forward).

Mindfulness meditation: This is what has already been described above as the process of “non-judgmental” and “single-minded” attention. In so far as body-scan and loving-kindness meditations are carried out with non-judgmental and single-minded attention, they are also mindfulness meditations.

Those who are interested in learning more about the practice of mindfulness are encouraged to look at Mindfulness for Beginners by Kabat-Zinn.

Patrick Whitehead

doing psychology outside the lines

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