What Is Mindfulness Meditation?
A definition of mindfulness: “focused, non-judgmental awareness of what is happening in the moment.” Mindfulness brings a kind, inquiring mind to the experiences that arise and pass in our daily life.
Mindfulness meditation is taught in many traditions, although its most developed expression comes from Buddhism. In its most basic form, mindfulness exists naturally as an innate ability we all have to be aware of ourselves and our environment.. Otherwise, how could we still have all our fingers after chopping so many vegetables all these years?
Are You Mindful or Not?
Although mindfulness is a simple concept, and we are all mindful to some degree, most of the time we are not mindful. Most of the time, we are driven by impulse or reactivity. Someone or something pushes our buttons and we are off and running, usually in habitual patterns. Most of the time, we are non-mindful.
The only way to understand mindfulness is to practice it. We cannot think our way into mindfulness, any more than we can think our way into recovery. We cannot get either from a book. Just as we have to stop using substances to become addiction-free, we also have to practice mindfulness to become mindful.
Escaping Your Feelings
A definition of non-mindfulness is addiction: obsessive thinking and compulsive behavior, which we continue to repeat despite negative consequences. Addiction is all about getting out of the moment. “I do not like what I am experiencing, so I am going to alter it in whatever way I can!” And, “I do not like the way I feel, so I am going to try to fix it!”
If we are going to free ourselves from addictive behavior, we need to learn how to be uncomfortable— to be okay with being present with our discomfort. Meditation helps us become comfortable with being uncomfortable. It develops “distress tolerance.”
Rather than escape from painful feelings, mindfulness meditation encourages us to sit quietly with ourselves, paying close attention to our thoughts and feelings, without judging or taking action to change them. It is not about apathy or suppression of feelings, but rather the freedom to experience the full range of our experience and strategically choosing how to respond.
Mindfulness versus Addiction
- Addiction is an automatic behavior used to escape difficult feelings or situations. Mindfulness involves a conscious and deliberate focus on difficult emotions as a way of disarming them and interrupting habitual, destructive patterns.
- Addiction is the pursuit of what seems to be lacking but has really been there all along. Mindfulness is a way of connecting with our inner resources and seeing the abundance in life, while recognizing that our addictive patterns are no longer a helpful coping mechanism.
- Key features of addiction are denial and lying to self and others, often without even realizing it. With mindfulness, we can honestly evaluate our compulsive behaviors and take responsibility for our actions, empowering us to make changes in our lives.
- Addicts and alcoholics experience a great deal of shame and self-blame. Through mindfulness, we develop compassion for self and others.
The unique quality of mindfulness meditation is that it encourages us to watch our moment-to-moment experience and our moment-to-moment reactivity. We start to track and understand our own conditioning. We find out who we really are, in a sense. We see what our habits of mind are, what our emotional patterns are. We start to observe them objectively, with some space between ourselves and our feelings, as if we are objectively watching ourselves on TV.
Our lives unfold one breath at a time, and everything we observe, everything in life just arises and passes away. Nothing is permanent. We can witness without judgment. Perhaps we might tell ourselves, “Isn’t that interesting!”, or, “So…that’s how it is.”
We develop an inquisitive attention as we observe our own minds and our emotional responses. We learn how we get into the problems we get into. We notice, for example, not just that anger arises, but the nuances and various components of our anger. We develop insights into what lies beneath the anger.
Emotional responses are complex. When we gain insight into our emotions, we have the opportunity to change. Mindfulness meditation provides a simple but powerful route for getting ourselves unstuck. When we commit ourselves to paying attention in this way, we open up to many new possibilities for healthy change.
Mindfulness and the Brain
When done regularly, meditation not only makes us calmer, relaxes us, and reduces stress, but also helps heal the brain. It’s called neuroplasticity. In just eight weeks of mindfulness practice, we can actually alter the neural pathways in our brain. The mid-prefrontal cortex and the mid-insular region of the brain become thicker with greater mindfulness practice, promoting a sense of well-being, as well as greater creativity.
Mindfulness practice may also increase grey-matter density in the hippocampus (the area associated with learning and memory) and decrease grey-matter density in the amygdala (“lizard brain”). These changes in density can help regulate stress and anxiety. As a result, recovering addicts can enjoy greater self-awareness and self-regulation. It is understood that addiction is at least partly a result of a brain disorder. How exciting is it that by meditating we can actually heal and rewire our brain? (See the research on mindfulness »)
Should I Meditate?
Meditation is simple but not necessarily easy. It takes time, energy, and commitment. But the benefits are huge and potentially life-changing, especially for those who have faced active addiction of any kind.