By Russell Vant
I’ve been meditating for a few years now. Not constantly, you know, but off and on. My first real experience was on a silent 10 day Vipassana retreat, up north of Auckland, maybe 14 years ago. My brother was into that sort of thing, was about to sign up, and invited me along. He didn’t tell me much about what to expect. I’m not sure I would have joined him if he had, but I actually rather enjoyed it.
Plenty of folk have written at length about their experience of these, the longest 10 days of their lives. I guess some of them even stuck with it once they’d returned home, at least for a while. Suffice to say that for me, although I could probably have benefitted from a regular practice back then, at age 18, two years into an engineering degree at Auckland and still relishing my new-found freedom, my best intentions of sitting for a half hour each day quickly fell by the wayside.
It wasn’t until much later, after graduation, military training, and a few years of work, that I found my way back to meditation. This time I was backpacking in Thailand, following the breeze, feeling considerably more lost than I had a few months earlier when, dead set on finding myself, I’d quit my job, cut all ties, and bought a one-way ticket.
Long story short, seven days in silence at a Buddhist retreat centre on Koh Samui rocked my world. By day five my monkey mind was gathering its belongings, departing on a vacation of its own. Experiencing an astonishing sense of relief, and curious to explore further, I joined the monk on his return trip to the parent monastery on the Thai mainland. Here I stayed for a couple of months, engaging not with philosophy or ancient scripture but with the practice of Anapanasati, translated loosely as mindfulness of breathing.
Life moved on. I made my way to Europe, then Australia, working on organic farms and the like, yet this time it had stuck: me and meditation had become inseparable. Eventually I came again to New Zealand. I don’t talk about coming back. I don’t think we do come back, nor that we can. I came again to New Zealand, and as I started out in a new direction, toward the world of professional counselling, I began to integrate my experience of meditation with my developing psychological understanding.
An ideal marriage of East and West?
Fortunately I wasn’t the first to follow this particular path, folk like Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme, having smoothly paved the way, undertaking some truly beautiful research. This Western desire, to understand and provide scientific evidence for, has continued apace, evolving medical technology like fMRI scanners offering us fascinating insight into this ancient Eastern practice.
But what is mindfulness?
Before we look at what research tells us about how a regular practice actively changes the structure and function of our brain, and the experiential benefits which meditators tend to enjoy, it’s worth offering some sort of a definition. Put succinctly, mindfulness is a deep and curious experiencing of what is: an experiential state of awareness in which we intentionally and nonjudgmentally pay attention to the present moment. It’s likely that we’ve all experienced moments which more or less fit this description: moments of feeling connected, present or grounded; deeply in touch with ourselves and our surroundings. It’s just as likely that we’ve all experienced many moments which do not: our attention skipping from point to point; lost in some kind of wakeful unawareness; caught up in the automatic thinking processes of a busy mind; or otherwise glossing over the surface of a much deeper personal reality.
However it is, the practice of mindfulness meditation is about training one’s attention in order to develop, expand and deepen this state of focused and accepting present moment awareness; nurturing a different relationship to oneself and to one’s thoughts and perceptual or sensory experiences while admitting to consciousness previously hidden aspects of oneself and one’s experience. In his early work, Jon Kabat-Zinn talked about this in terms of relaxing the ‘doing’ (thinking, problem solving, evaluating, planning) state of mind while engaging and enhancing the ‘being’ (directly experiencing) state of mind. His colleague, Zindel Segal, describes it as down-regulating the brain’s ‘executive control network’ while activating and reinforcing the brain’s ‘present moment pathway’.
The facts are friendly
And that’s the thing, because with the marvel of modern technology researchers are able to detect not only structural brain changes, but to observe the way in which different areas of the brain ‘light up’ in response to a range of stimuli, studying these patterns to see how they differ between those who’ve engaged with regular mindfulness meditation and those who haven’t.
Summarising all of these findings would take too long, so I’ll look here at only one such study. In 2011 a team from Harvard, led by Sara Lazar, showed evidence, in those who underwent an eight week mindfulness training programme, of increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus, an area associated with learning and memory, and in areas of the brain which play a role in the regulation of emotions. They also showed evidence of decreased brain cell volume in the amygdala, an area associated with fear, anxiety and stress. Importantly, these structural changes matched subjective reports from participants of reduced stress levels and enhanced states of psychological well-being.
Reduced susceptibility to stress. An enhanced sense of psychological well-being. Smoother emotional regulation. Increased concentration associated with an enhanced capacity for learning and memory. Greater awareness of one’s unfolding, moment to moment, visceral, emotional, sensory experience. A reduced reactivity to life events, supporting the development of more responsive, more responsible, more resourceful ways of being. What’s not to like?
A brief conclusion
Mindfulness would seem to be, in the words of our friend Zindel Segal, “a very pragmatic health practice” and “a useful skill to have”. So why did I title this article Mindfulness – don’t believe the hype? I guess first of all it’s worth mentioning that there’re plenty of intelligent and deeply experienced folk out there who heap criticism upon the contemporary commoditisation of mindfulness, torn as it is from the contextual splendour of traditional spiritual teachings. It’s also worth noting that in the past decade mindfulness has grown to be a billion dollar a year industry. When there’s that kind of money to be made I’d say it’s worth being a little wary of folk selling snake oil.
Mostly, though, and as I hope I’ve communicated, the essence of mindfulness has nothing to do with reading these words, nor with discussing the finer points of philosophical of psychological theory. Mindfulness is only and ever about experiencing, and the only way to experience it is to give it a try. So that’s my ultimate message. If you’re curious about this, give it a try. Give it a fair go and see for yourself whether it’s right for you. Who knows, it might stick. And it just might change your world.
Russell Vant is in his final year of a Bachelor of Counselling, completing internships at the Massey at Wellington Student Health and Counselling Centre and his local branch of the Cancer Society. He runs mindfulness meditation workshops at the Wellington campus each Friday during semester: 12:15-1pm in the level 2 conference room, two floors above Tussock Café, one floor below Student Health and Counselling.
There are plenty of free mindfulness resources online. These one’s come recommended, guiding you through a variety of meditation styles, including mindfulness, loving kindness, and self-compassion:
Tara Brach – www.tarabrach.com/guided-meditations/
The Free Mindfulness Project – www.freemindfulness.org/download
UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Centre – http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22
And no matter where you’re based, you’re bound to find plenty of opportunities to learn as part of a group: secular or spiritual. A quick Google search should do the trick.