Mindfulness, as conceptualized in the Western scientific community, is the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of openness, curiosity and acceptance (Bishop et al., 2004).
This article will outline the current scientific understanding of how mindfulness improves the brains’ ability to process emotions in more health promoting ways. The neurobiology of mindfulness (the subject of a future article on this site - stay tuned) looks at the brain structures and pathways involved.
The importance of mindfulness has been recognized for centuries. There are many traditional formal mindful awareness practices, such as yoga, tai chi and meditation. Mindful awareness can also be cultivated through psychotherapy, art, music, dance, massage, and sports to name a few. When including meditation among mindfulness practices, it needs to be recognized that there are different kinds of meditation, just like there are many different kinds of physical activity. Some kinds of meditation are specifically designed to develop mindfulness just like some forms of physical activity are a great way to get a cardio workout. But there are many other forms of meditation that do not impact mindfulness, just like there are many forms of physical activity that do not have a cardio component. Therefore, this article will focus on the development of mindfulness through a very specific form of meditation.
To simplify the process of mindful meditation, I’ve broken the process down into two parts as indicated in the diagram below.
The first part is the self-regulation of attention, which describes what is done, and the second part, shown in orange, describes how it is done, with what attitude.
What is done during the self-regulation of attention is that attention is focused on something, most commonly the breath. When attention is distracted from the breath, either by an external distraction, like a noise, or an internal distraction, like a physical sensation, thought or feeling, this is acknowledged and then attention is redirected back to the breath.
How attention is regulated is very important. There must be a nonjudgmental attitude of curiosity and acceptance of the experience, and we will see as we go along why this is so important.
A Mindfulness Exercise
A personal experience of mindfulness will help you understand the process.
Start by closing your eyes and choosing a focus for your breath. It can be at your nostrils, your chest, or the rise and fall of your abdomen, wherever you feel your breath most naturally. Keep your focus on your breath at that place, and follow the breath in and then out again for the duration of the exercise. When you notice that your attention has gone elsewhere, such as to thoughts like “I’m breathing too fast or too slow” or “I’m not comfortable” or when your attention has wandered completely away, out of the room even, notice that and acknowledge the source of the distraction in an accepting, non-judgmental way. Then gently bring your attention back to your breath.
When you’re ready, take a few deep breaths and open your eyes.
Now that you have a taste of gently regulating your attention, let us take a look at the mindfulness process in more detail.
The Self-Regulation of Attention
During the self-regulation of attention, attention is brought to the breath and when it wanders from the breath, as it will, this is acknowledged and then attention is redirected back to the breath. The illustration below shows these steps visually.
This might seem straightforward enough, but that doesn’t mean it is easy!
Three Types of Attention
While you were performing the mindfulness exercise, your brain was using all three main types of attention:
The first type of attention, executive attention, is used to have the intention to focus on the breath in the first place. Your anterior cingulate cortex is involved in allocating your attentional resources.
The second type of attention, the orienting function, allows us to select specific information from various incoming sensory stimuli. The superior parietal cortex of the brain is involved in voluntary shifts of attention, and would have been active as you were switching your attention from a “distraction” back to the breath again.
The third type of attention, the alerting function, is key in sustaining attention on a particular focus. It is also involved in readying the mind to be open to what arises, which is part of the attitude brought to mindfulness. The right inferior parietal lobe of your brain became active during the mindfulness exercise with both internal distractions as well as external stimuli.
To summarize this section, mindfulness practice strengthens the ability to choose where to put attention and then to keep it there.
The clinical applications of using mindfulness to train attention are being explored. Zylowska and her group published a feasibility study last year looking at using mindfulness training to improve attention in ADHD. They found improved executive functioning, with an improved ability to focus attention as well as resist impulses.
An important step in the self regulation of attention is to gently acknowledge where our attention has wandered to, and to redirect it back to the breath rather than becoming emotionally or intellectually engaged in the distraction.
Consistent repetition of this process of acknowledging distractions, and then redirecting attention back to the breath leads to a state called non-elaborative awareness.
Let’s look at an example to make this clearer.
I’m sure we’ve all stubbed a toe. After you stub your toe, what’s the very first thing that happens?
First, there is probably a sensation of physical pain. This is often rapidly followed by thoughts of self-blame, blaming others, anger and so on. These thoughts and feelings about the experience, this mental elaboration of the original sensation, cause emotional distress above and beyond the initial event.
“Adventitious suffering” is the extra pain we can create for ourselves beyond the initial pain of the stubbed toe, through the process of mental elaboration.
With non-elaborative awareness, we feel the pain, we have thoughts that start to come up afterwards - but here is the difference - we acknowledge the thoughts and feelings, we label them, but we do not become emotionally invested in them and then we gently redirect our attention elsewhere. This has the effect of preventing the mental elaboration that leads to additional suffering. I want to emphasize that this process does not involve attempting to repress or suppress thoughts.
Of course, non-elaborative awareness can be applied not just to physical sensations, but also to mental and emotional events. With non-elaborative awareness, a negative thought can become “just another negative thought”, rather than the first thought that triggers a downward spiral, through the process of mental elaboration, to become a depressive episode. This has significant clinical implications and forms an important part of mindfulness based clinical interventions, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.
An Open Orientation to Experience
An accepting attitude towards our experience is key. For example, we may become aware of areas of tension or pain in our body, and notice that we do not want the pain to be there. Both the pain and the thoughts or feelings that can follow so quickly afterwards should be observed and acknowledged - labeled - with interest and acceptance.
I want to emphasize that acceptance does not mean being passive or submissive. Acceptance is an active process of being with what is actually happening. It requires a conscious decision to let go of our desire to be having a different experience and instead to be present for what is occurring.
Mindfulness Causes Changes in Brain Function
The adoption of an open orientation to experience during mindfulness practice results in changes in how the brain processes emotions.
First, there is a decrease in the avoidance of negative emotions and other forms of emotional distress. Emotional distress itself is experienced as less unpleasant and less threatening.
This in turn leads to an improved ability to experience with more difficult emotions without needing to resort to psychological defenses or maladaptive coping strategies to decrease the intensity of the emotions.
Second, there is an increase in the openness with which both unfamiliar and familiar situations are approached (dispositional openness). This leads to curiosity and receptivity to new experiences, rather than withdrawal from them.
The intensive self-observation that mindfulness practice involves results in increased cognitive complexity and improved emotional awareness and psychological mindedness.
Perhaps most importantly, a decentered perspective develops. Decentering is described as “the capacity to take a present-focused, non-judgmental stance in regard to thoughts and feelings and accept them” (Fresco et al 2007). Thoughts and feelings are experienced in terms of their subjectivity (rather than an assumed validity) and their transient nature (rather than their assumed permanence). Increases in ability to adopt a decentered perspective have been shown to be associated with a lowered risk of depressive relapse (Fresco et al 2007)
There is an increasing body of evidence showing that metacognitive awareness, which is the process of how one relates to one’s thoughts, plays an important role in depressive relapse. People who adopt a more decentered perspective (ie. increased metacognitive awareness) generally have a lower risk of becoming depressed again (Corcoran and Segal 2008).
To summarize, we have reviewed the basic steps of the mindfulness process. We have seen that it leads to a decentered perspective and to a decrease in adventitious suffering. And, above all, it is a learnable skill!
In a future article on this site, I will discuss the neurobiology of mindfulness and give an overview of what happens in the brain both during and after meditation. Stay tuned!