In 1970, Benson and Wallace from Stanford University published a seminal article titled The Physiology of Meditation. Illustrating the physiological benefits of transcendental meditation such as lower oxygen consumption, this paper drew the attention of the scientific world to the study of meditation. Since then many researchers have documented the benefits of mindfulness meditation for health and wellbeing.
What is mindfulness?
In the last 20 years, many schools of meditation training for the lay public have emerged. One such is that of ‘mindfulness’ meditation which in modern terms is equated as ‘choice-less awareness’ or ‘awareness of present experience, with acceptance’ or more appropriately ‘paying attention on purpose, in each moment, without judgment, to things as they are’. Of course, this is not as easy as it sounds for we have to learn to maintain the balance of our attention, emotions and thoughts if we are to be truly mindful every moment.
In Buddhist contexts, the word ‘samatha’ is used often. This roughly translates as ‘calm abiding’ or tranquillity or equanimity. Vipassana meditation, a worldwide movement at present, is a mindfulness technique, aimed at training the mind initially in the concentration of attention, followed by the arising of insight into the true nature of reality. Cultivation of mindfulness is sometimes wrongly seen as being calm, paying bare attention and being free of judgment. Bare attention supports mindfulness. While this can be helpful, without the insight gained from a true experience of this state, it can be limiting and even used as a tool to rationalise wrongdoings. Choice-less awareness is only one aspect of mindfulness and several other mental faculties that are gained from being mindful need to be attained to truly appreciate the value of this practice.
Everyday benefits of using mindfulness meditation as a mind-training technique to enhance well-being and personal effectiveness. It has immense potential for personal growth and satisfaction. It helps one to develop a discipline of entering a sustained relaxed state of being which allows appropriate discernment of each experience as it happens. This would lead to acceptance of even unpleasant events as they are, and not as one would wish it to be. This would progress to changing one’s true non-judgmental appraisal of events and effective self-management.
A state of unhappiness arises from a feeling that we are suffering. Suffering is defined as a psychological or spiritual state that diminishes an individual’s capacity to find peace or solace in their present situation. It is also seen as unique to each individual.
A leading psychologist and researcher in the field, John Teasdale from the UK, has discussed three strategies for changing the three mental processes that give rise to suffering, and thus reduce the suffering. These processes are the content, process and our relationship to the material. We can change the content or what is being processed, change the process or how the material is being processed and we can change our relationship, our view, to the material being processed. Training in mindfulness enhances our capacity to practice changing these processes.
The idea of maintaining the balance of these three important aspects – thought, word and deed – to reduce one’s suffering is not alien to followers of sanatana dharma. Congruity between thought, word and action is repeatedly reiterated in many prayers, poems and stories. In Hanuman Chalisa, the poet Tulsidas says, “Man, vachan dhyan jo lave” – mind, word and attention all have to be present. This is not just being mindful in chanting the verses, but in our everyday life.
Long term benefits
Long term benefits of mindfulness meditation practice are associated with personal qualities of “patience, a capacity to allow things to unfold in their own time; confidence, an enhanced ability to staying in contact with private experience; non-reactivity, an increased feeling of inner calm and overall emotional resilience; wisdom, self-knowledge that allows us to give up needing things to be other than they are; and compassion, and improved empathy and attuning towards ourselves and for others” as a Buddhist psychologist Ven. Thupten Lekshe (Ivan Milton) succinctly puts it.
Mindfulness is the starting point to understanding ourselves; it is also what we need to do to achieve understanding and finally where we end up: it would seem the path and goal are rolled into one when one becomes proficient in being mindful.