As a cognitive psychologist, I’ve read many articles on the mechanistic and habitual behavior of people. In Bargh and Chartland’s (1999) famous paper, “The Unbearable Automaticity of being”, these scholars sum up the psychological evidence that about 90% of human behavior is automatic and unconscious. This is true independent of intelligence and education. The cause lies in Western culture’s overemphasis on doing and achieving (vs being and feeling). Our educational system prepares us for work, not life. This tendency has been brought to an extreme in the medical profession and has been recognized as a major cause for burnout and suicide among people in this field. We need a different type of education that teaches us how to be fully present, metacognitive (self-reflective), and stress resilient. This is also known as mindfulness training and it is gradually becoming part of mainstream culture.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is commonly defined as sustained non-distraction and an orientation toward one’s experiences characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance. It is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. While mindfulness is something we all naturally possess, it’s more readily available to us when we practice on a daily basis.
Whenever you bring awareness to what you’re directly experiencing via your senses, or to your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions, you’re being mindful. And there’s growing research showing that when you train your brain to be mindful, you’re actually remodeling the physical structure of your brain.
The goal of mindfulness is to wake up to the inner workings of our mental, emotional, and physical processes.
Watch this inspiring TedX talk by Dr. Richard J. Davidson.
What is meditation?
Meditation is exploring. It’s not a fixed destination. Your head doesn’t become vacuumed free of thought, utterly undistracted. It’s a special place where each and every moment is momentous. When we meditate we venture into the workings of our minds: our sensations (air blowing on our skin or a harsh smell wafting into the room), our emotions (love this, hate that, crave this, loathe that) and thoughts (wouldn’t it be weird to see an elephant playing a trumpet).
Meditation has been extensively researched in the past 40 years and the benefits are enormous — less anxiety, more resilience and empathy, longer sustained focus, and better ability to inhibit habitual responses, among others. In turn, the enhanced ability to inhibit responses leads to longer-term improvements in emotional well-being. Meditators also experience an increased sense of purpose in life. When you have a sense of purpose, you wake up in the morning with a sense of mission, and it’s easier to make decisions and plans. In a study led by neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, the people with the strongest sense of purpose in life had a more resilient stress response, less reactivity, and faster recovery from induced stress. (see section on Purpose in Life)
Mindfulness meditation asks us to suspend judgment and unleash our natural curiosity about the workings of the mind, approaching our experience with warmth and kindness, to ourselves and others.
How do I practice mindfulness and meditation?
Mindfulness is available to us in every moment, whether through meditations and body scans, or mindful moment practices like taking time to pause and breathe when the phone rings instead of rushing to answer it.
Mind-body practices such as mindfulness meditation and mindfulness breathing have been shown in many studies to enhance health and well-being in multiple ways. They increase immune cells function, reduce inflammation as well as bring psychological benefits such as improved resilience to stress. These effects are healthy for everyone, but they are especially important if you have high stress levels. Many types of meditation also promote the mental skills for metacognition, changing how we see and respond to stressful events.
Mind wandering – the opposite of Mindfulness
Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert conducted a study on mind wandering. They found that people tend to mind wander about 50% of the time. “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” the researchers conclude. The more we mind wander, the less happy we are. Especially harmful is negative mind wandering – having unhappy thoughts or wishing to be somewhere else. You can download their “Track Your Happiness” app for IPhone at the app store. Mindfulness exercises train the mind to stay focused on the present moment. It makes it strong, the way workout makes muscles strong, and allows us to control our mind rather than let it control us.
Mind wandering is the antithesis of a mindful state. In the medical field, where high focus and attention to detail are literally life-saving, mind wandering can be dangerous. Researchers have found that because many aspects of a medical professional's work (such as fatigue and depression) maximize the mind's tendency to wander, this experience is likely to be a common occurrence in many medical situations.
Smallwood, Mrazek, and Schooler (2011) conducted a study on mind wandering among medical professionals. Their conclusions were as follows:
“Based on this review, we suggest that because mind wandering interferes with an individual's ability to integrate current events into a more general context, its occurrence may lead to downstream problems in the way that symptoms are interpreted and treated. Finally, because the experience of mind wandering is often both difficult to control and hard to recognize, it is difficult to prevent. We argue that techniques that help individuals to become more mindful have the potential to ameliorate the cost of mind wandering to the medical profession. Given the ubiquitous nature of the experience of mind wandering, the integration of mindfulness training into medical education programs could be of general benefit to society at large.”
Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
This technology was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American professor emeritus of medicine and 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. Here is what he says:
“When we let go of wanting something else to happen in this moment, we are taking a profound step towards being able to encounter what is here now. Splitting your attention by multitasking is a low-grade source of noxious stress, even if you are not aware of it.”
Here is a basic exercise that creates thought awareness. It is a form of micro meditation and helps remove anxiety and rumination:
EXERCISE: Close your eyes. Let yourself breathe normally, but pay attention to your breath. When thoughts come into your mind, imagine you are simply a witness to them and watch them gently waft away. Try not to judge the thoughts or yourself for having the thoughts. Bring your attention back to your breath, focusing on the natural feel of it as you breathe in and breathe out.
With practice, the thoughts that are buzzing in your mind will settle down, and you’ll be in a more focused state. Picture your mind like a snow globe. Minds are often in an unsettled state, and the globe is cloudy with thoughts. But taking a mini-meditation break allows the thoughts to eventually settle, allowing you more mental clarity. You won’t be at the mercy of following your thoughts. Of course, it is wonderful if you can practice for a longer time, or to attend a mindfulness retreat to learn this new skill more easily. But don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Shorter periods of mindfulness will also help you develop thought awareness and reduce the power of your negative thought patterns.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or MBCT
What if nothing is really wrong with you, except your thoughts that are insisting otherwise? When we’re feeling sad, we naturally try to think our way out of it. We notice the gap between how we feel and how we want to feel. We start to live in that gap, wishing things could be different, trying hard to find an escape. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or MBCT, helps people out of that gap. It combines traditional strategies of cognitive therapy with mindfulness practices. Cognitive therapy helps you change distorted thoughts; mindfulness helps you change how you relate to your thoughts in the first place. MBCT is potent against stress and depression. It’s been shown to be as effective as an antidepressant.
It’s also becoming clear that MBCT helps with anxiety, and it’s useful for any of us who struggle with difficult thoughts and emotions. There are two basic modes of thinking, MBCT teaches.
There is the “doing mode,” which is what we do when we’re trying to get out of the gap between how life is and how we want it to be. But there is another mode, and that is the “being mode.” In the being mode, you can more easily control where you put your attention. Instead of frantically striving to change things, you can choose to do little things that bring you pleasure, and things that help you feel masterful and in control. Because “being” also allows you to pay more attention to people, you can more fully connect with them—a state that typically brings humans the most joy and contentment.
Have you ever experienced the contentment of focusing all your attention on a small task, such as cleaning your face? That’s what being mode feels like.
Teasdale, Williams, and Segal (2014) developed an 8-Week Program called Free Yourself from Depression and Emotional Distress. Their training helps you move from the common overdoing mode to a being mode and reduce rumination.