Do you need to convert to Buddhism? Do you need to abandon the tradition in which you were raised or the ideals to which you have a deep commitment? Do you need to cast aside anything that your intellect or understanding of the world tells you is true?
Absolutely not. You can retain your current frame of reference and accept only what you are prepared to accept, a piece at a time, and only what you in fact find helpful.
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. Beyond Mindfulness – in plain English.
When I was a teenager the space race was in full swing.
Neil Armstrong was making a complete hash of his line about one small step, and the world was looking outward into the depths of interstellar space.
The space age generated a world-wide interest in space and aliens. I was particularly taken by the idea of other worlds .,and the possibility of other life in the universe.
Although I have always been puzzled why the aliens were nearly always seen as dangerous, and keen to conquer the world.
As a consequence I used to read a lot of science fiction stories. There was one particular tale that I can still remember in some detail, it played with the reader’s and the protagonists’ perceptions of what was, and was not real.
In one scene, corridors that apparently curved away into the distance, turned out to be completely straight. As demonstrated by the hero shooting an arrow straight into a wall, only to find it later completely undamaged in the middle of the corridor.
In a later part of their heroic quest, the hero and his companions were crossing a mountain range, every time they reached the top of a ridge, they were confronted by another range of mountains and another crest appearing in front of them.
Although in the story this never-ending mountain range was only an illusion, where mindfulness is concerned it seems to be an apt metaphor, as we can practice at many different levels.
Mindfulness meditation has a long history as a means of self-development, starting at least two and a half millennia ago. It was a practice that the Buddha learned in his search for the answer to human suffering. He taught it, as part of an eightfold path for ending dissatisfaction with life.
As a spiritual practice we might try to “Climb every mountain”, yet there is no reason why we should not choose to stop at any crest that takes our fancy to admire the view.
Mindfulness can be used to provide us with the benefits that we desire at the moment. We should remember that for whatever reason we decided to take up the practice, there is always more that we can get from it should we so desire.
There are many resources available to us in our search. A particular favourite is Wildmind an online meditation resource run by Bodhipaksa and his colleagues. This site has a more buddhist take on the subject. Others might find Ed Halliwell,‘s site more to their taste.
Over the last thirty years or so, mindfulness has reached into many aspects of twenty-first century life. As Buddhism has developed from a minor interest into a main stream western spiritual path, mindfulness has followed in its wake.
As there is no great history of western communities supporting monasticism, and certainly not Buddhist monasticism, many “western Buddhists” have found that they have still needed to earn a living in order to survive.
Much western Buddhism is based on a lay practitioner model, many of its practitioners have chosen to work in professions that go hand in hand with their Buddhist practice.
This means that many have been working as therapists, as carers, or in other “right livelihood” businesses. Many others have taken their practice into other jobs and businesses.
Spiritual practice bleeds gradually into all aspects of daily life, and inevitably they started to incorporate the teachings and trainings of the Buddha into their work. Initially this expansion of mindfulness was rather haphazard, with one practitioner or another starting to use these ideas in their work with their clients. While others started to adapt and apply them in their workplaces.
As the techniques showed promise in helping many conditions they have become incorporated into many treatment regimens. These range from pain management, to psychological treatments for depression, anxiety, and many other mental health conditions and general medical problems.
A similar approach to challenging thoughts is found in many therapies, especially those which are cognitively based, and has encouraged this trend.
Awareness of thinking has been found to be helpful, if not curative, in many mental health disorders, and modern cognitive therapies use a formalised approach to identifying thoughts, their associated feelings, and how true they are. Cognitive therapies look to challenge such “faulty” thinking and replace it with more helpful thoughts, based in the here and now, and on evidence rather than imagination.
This apparent effectiveness has attracted increasing interest from the scientific community, and this has resulted in an increasing body of research. So much so, that mindfulness has now gone mainstream, and is in danger of becoming the fad of the moment. If you check Amazon there are 9,800 books with mindfulness in the title, and even more that have been written about the subject.
Mindfulness has come to have many meanings. These range from a deep spiritual practice to a self-help technique.
In the middle of this range of possible meanings is what I would call medical mindfulness. The application of mindfulness techniques in order to alleviate suffering, physical or mental. This has resulted in a great deal of scientific research into the effects of this practice on the brain and human mind.
Initially research seems to have been aimed at disproving any benefits, but the results spoke for themselves. Functional magnetic resonance scans (fMRI) show how much energy various parts of the brain are using, and effectively give a real-time image of which bit of the brain is doing what.
Such scans, when performed on those who practice mindfulness, show changes in many areas of the brain. Modern computer aided scanning can even demonstrate the circuits and pathways in the brain that are involved.
Changes, both structural and functional, are seen in areas that control our responses to danger, our ability to concentrate, our resistance to mood swings, and our ability to think and plan clearly about our future actions, and to consider the results and consequences of such actions.
So what are the specific effects that the scientific research has shown that regular mindfulness practice can bring about?
- There is evidence that mindfulness practice can slow cell death in the brain and enhance the generation of new brain cells. These changes are particularly seen in the areas involved with memory and higher executive functioning. This may have implications for preventing or at least slowing, the development of dementia.
- Improvements in focus, attention and the ability to self regulate. Improved concentration is seen and the ability to switch from one task to another is improved.
- Reduced activity in the amygdala. The amygdala is a region in the brain that reacts to danger and brings about strong emotions, particularly the so-called fight or flight response.
Reduced sensitivity results in better emotional control, especially over anger, aggression, anxiety and fear. Better management of these emotions reduces the impact of stress on our brains.
- Increased focus and awareness can also help to manage chronic pain, other medical symptoms and even help people to cope better with cancer.
- There is a significant reduction in chronic stress and how we manage this. This is accompanied by metabolic and hormonal changes.
- Prevention of relapse of depressive symptoms, and possibly a role in prevention. Reduced anxiety and management of panic symptoms. Better regulation and awareness of our emotions helps to improve our relationships.
- Improved sleep and in our general sense of wellbeing.
There are many other research findings that support the place of mindfulness in our lives. My absolute favourite involves the effects that it has on our telomeres. Telomeres are found at the end of our chromosomes, and function like the little bit of plastic on the end of a shoelace. Each time a cell divides the telomere becomes a little bit shorter. Once it reaches a minimum length, the cell can no longer divide and dies.
Mindfulness practice seems to slow the speed at which telomeres shorten with cell division. The implication of this finding is that regular meditators should have a greater than average life span. More research is awaited with interest!
Should this research prove to hold true, then we will all have the chance to move further into the mountains. Perhaps going from meditating for the sake of feeling more relaxed, to doing so to help with our health and lifestyle, all the way to the search for enlightenment.
Whatever we wish to do there is no doubt that the practice of mindfulness is beneficial for our lives.