mindfulness meditation in Big Sur

What Neuroscience and Buddha Teach Us About Mindfulness

Mindfulness has become a buzz word in the recent years following the rise in popularity of self-care and wellness. Mental health has been increasingly a priority more than ever as we are collectively dealing with elevated anxiety, depression and stress during these uncertain times. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness Meditation, Mindfulness of the Breath and many other terms have emerged as a result. But what does Mindfulness actually mean and how to practice it?

What is mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction movement, defines mindfulness as awareness that arises when one intentionally and non-judgmentally pays attention to the experience of the present moment. And how do we pay attention? “Through our senses”, says Kabat-Zinn. Mindfulness is learned by our personal direct experience observing internal and external reality with our senses through meditation as well as casual activities where we intentionally place “raw attention” to what we are doing in the present moment, like walking or breathing, for example.
Walking meditation to train mindfulness

Mindfulness is a state of sustained presence, simple attention and non-judgmental awareness, which gives us the ability to manage stress effectively. By maintaining this state we’re able to notice that we’re getting stressed, therefore enabling us to learn how to manage it, prevent harmful effects of it, and to choose our best course of action, according to Ayman Mukerji, a neuroscientist and a former Wall Street Executive turned mindfulness-biology researcher.

Mindfulness or awareness is our inborn capacity to hold all thoughts like a container, like a mother holds her child, like the sky holds all the clouds, especially disturbing or terrifying thoughts, and accept them without getting overwhelmed by them. This non-judgmental observation naturally leads to an increased capacity to manage stress. It is the ability of the mind to observe without criticism or creating an opinion about everything that goes through our head.

Unfortunately, the skill of mindfulness and emotional regulation is not something we usually learn in school. In mindfulness meditation, “one is one’s own laboratory, watching the universe within very much like a scientist observing an object under a microscope without any preconceived notions only to see the object as it is,” Gunaratana wrote in “Mindfulness in Plain English”, one of the best books on mindfulness meditation I’ve read. Wouldn’t it be cool to have a science class like that in the middle school?

Meditation is one of the best ways to cultivate mindfulness. Very much like going to the gym to train the body, mindfulness meditation trains our “mental muscle”, our ability to pay attention and discern what is in the moment (our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, environment, and relationships) by observing the passing flow of experience – physical, mental or emotional – whatever is present. It is a practice accessible to all which is learned through formal meditation or informal practices (presence in daily activities). Learning through mindfulness programs that unfold over several weeks, such as MBSR or MBCT, allows it to be fully integrated into one's daily life as a new way of living by being fully present.

What difference does it make to practice Mindfulness regularly?

Training your attention allows you to live fully, being more present and more aware. The practice of Mindfulness makes it possible to contact our internal resources, our capacity for resilience to stress, our clarity of mind, our inner calm, and our freedom from the usual reactive patterns, our benevolence. Our relationship with ourselves, others, and the world can gradually change and calm down by seeing and understanding more clearly what is at the root of our stress and dissatisfaction.

For many years, scientific research has been interested in programs based on Mindfulness, which, organized according to a precise protocol, facilitate the replication of studies. Science has thus brought to light many health benefits (stress reduction and resilience to stress, better emotional regulation, concentration, neuroplasticity, etc.) as well as multiple stress-related pathologies (chronic pain, inflammation, psoriasis, hypertension, etc.).

Mindfulness and Buddhist Teaching

Meditation, as practiced in the Buddhist tradition for 2500 years, is a training of the mind aimed at developing qualities of Mindfulness and presence with the aim of transformation and liberation. Mindfulness is the English translation of the Pali (the language of Buddha) word sati. Sati is an activity of placing “bare attention”  to achieve a state of "full presence" sought after in a therapeutic practice inspired by Buddhist meditation. This practice was developed in the 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zin and his Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh to reduce stress in the hospital environment.

Buddhist meditation as a foundation for mindfulness meditation aims to become aware of our mental functioning or the fundamental dysfunction of our mind, which "struggles with the fact that everything is changing and generates concern." Mindfulness meditation programs "create a safe environment for us to approach insecurity and connect with our deep vulnerability," "The in-depth observation of this vulnerability makes it possible to realize that we see the world from within and associate our feelings with our perceptions. This experience of the self then becomes the very object of our meditation.

Buddhist meditation on the beach

Mindfulness and Yoga

Since ancient times, Buddhism and Hinduism have shared many features of thought and practice, including awareness, recognizing the pain produced by an incorrect perception of reality, and using concentrated and meditative states to alleviate such suffering. Traditional hatha yoga states its main purpose to quiet the mind (Chitta Vritti Nirodha) so one can observe one’s true self through body sensations in the movement-based practice. Experienced yoga practitioners often talk about the presence of the observer or the witness of the mind, which sounds very similar to the concept of non-judgmental observation in mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn recommended using a mix of yoga and Mindfulness for stress management in America in 1990s. Some conscious yoga instructor points out that hatha yoga and Buddhist meditation are branches of the same Indian contemplative tradition. Asanas are both meditation objects and useful in preparing the mind and body for sitting meditation. In contrast, Buddhism provides a formal framework for meditation techniques and philosophies that can use "the sensitivity, concentration, discipline, and energy cultivated during asana practice."

Stephen Cope, a psychotherapist and yoga researcher, investigates the intersection between Patanjali's Raja and Buddhism in his 2006 book The Wisdom of Yoga. He observes that both were primarily concerned with "the problem of pain and the challenge of clearly recognizing reality." Both traditions provide three sets of tools: methods for creating skillful conduct to lessen suffering, methods for generating intense states of concentration, and methods for investigating how the mind constructs the "I." According to Kope, both regard "ordinary reality" as a complex mental construct as does current constructivism.

They all believe that resolving this mental uncertainty will stop misery for good.
Mindful yoga, according to yoga instructor Michel Ribeiro, "applies traditional Buddhist mindfulness principles to the physical practice of yoga; it is a holistic approach to linking your mind to your breath." 

Cope adds that yoga asanas and pranayama have "found their place in many Buddhist meditation retreats," just as Buddhist meditation practices have appeared in yoga studios, and that "sister traditions" begin a "convergence" or continuation of the practice of exchanging practices and thinking that has been going on for two millennia.

Mindfulness Meditation in Nature

Effects of Mindfulness Meditation on the Brain

A review of the most recent studies in the cognitive neuroscience of Mindfulness indicates that when we practice mindfulness meditation regularly, our brain undergoes a sequence of changes that help us control our emotions, acquire a higher feeling of well-being, and enhance our attention span. We are discussing mindfulness meditation as a therapeutic strategy focused on fostering conscious and deliberate attention to what we do in the present moment. We learn not to judge our ideas and how to connect to them via this exercise.

Yi-Yuan Tang and colleagues discovered that mindfulness meditation causes neurological changes in our brains within days of initiating the habit. And according to a study headed by Sara Lazar of Massachusetts General Hospital, these modifications take effect in a matter of weeks, resulting in new changes in the functional and anatomical architecture of the brain. All of this has an impact on our emotional and cognitive systems. Let's examine how it impacts our mood, focus, and emotions.

The cerebral plasticity, as measured by medical imaging and brain activity recordings, is characterized in particular by a decrease in the activity of the amygdala (which is involved in the processing of emotions such as fear and anxiety) and an increase in activation of the insula and pre-frontal cortex (a brain region involved in the processing of attention and the executive functions that control behavior). These results all point to improved emotional control.

The insular cortex engages in numerous organism processes on its own, including interoceptive awareness, pain perception, emotional awareness, and control of autonomic functions through modulation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

Meditative practice aids in the maintenance of the body's homeostasis (internal environment stability) by activating the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, often known as the relaxation response, to the disadvantage of the sympathetic branch, which activates in reaction to stress. Meditation promotes physical and mental circumstances that lead to healing and more significant health by utilizing innate self-regulating skills.

Its effects are not limited to the brain. There are also noticeable neurochemical and genetic alterations. As a result, several studies reveal beneficial effects on inflammatory processes, immunology, and cellular aging.

Meditation would affect the physiological signs of stress. They would, in particular, have a role in mood and immune function regulation by influencing the levels of specific hormones and neurotransmitters. Thus, among meditators, we would see an increase in dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins (hormones associated with feelings of well-being) and a decrease in cortisol and norepinephrine (hormones associated with the stress response).

Studies have also found a reduction in circulating cytokines and inflammatory signals released by immune cells. Furthermore, meditation would reduce the expression of genes involved in inflammatory pathways by affecting the enzymes that regulate genome reading.

These changes might be interpreted as evidence of improved immune function modulation and a reduction of pro-inflammatory processes, the chronicity of which can lead to illness.

Meditation might also help to slow down aging by increasing the activity of telomerase (an enzyme that contributes to the lengthening of telomeres, which are DNA segments found at the ends of chromosomes and whose length is connected with cellular aging).

Mindfulness and Neuroscience of Stress: a myth or reality?

Professor Ayman Mukerji, gave us fantastic lessons on the neuroscience of mindfulness  as part of the Path’s meditation teacher training course. It is helpful to gain a more scientific understanding why “sitting and doing nothing”, how many may think of this type of activity, can yield such powerful stress management results as we dive deeper into the practical knowledge of how our brain works.⁠

⁠Three main areas of the brain that are affected in stress and mindfulness:⁠

  1. The Limbic Center – the heart of our brain involved in our behavioral and emotional responses⁠.⁠
  2. The Cortical Center - the "brain of our brain" responsible for attention and logic. The thinking, analytical part of our mind or what we generally call consciousness. ⁠
  3. The Hypothalamic Control Center - the brain's control center. "The traffic light" that gives either green or red light to the stress response.⁠

Neuroscience of Stress

Photo credit: Path's Meditation Teacher Training

What happens in a stressful situation is the Hypothalamic Center takes inputs from the Limbic and Cortical systems and runs an algorithm to decide on whether the stress response is needed in the body. If yes, it gives the green light to release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to protect us from something we perceive as potentially dangerous. ⁠

Key Takeaways:

  • These brain regions can overreact to perceived stress causing us pain and suffering. ⁠
  • This is where meditation and mindfulness come in: when we meditate, we train our brain to allow for spaciousness where we don’t overthink or worry.⁠ In that space is our power to choose or change our responses to support our well-being by practicing mindfulness.
  • Mindfulness practice is like going to the gym for the mind where we use different techniques (think mental deadlifts) to train the parts of the brain to better evaluate and respond to perceived stress.
  • The result: healthier brain cells and more robust connections between them giving us stronger stress management ability leading to higher quality of life. Possible side effect: joy and happiness without apparent reason. 
  • Research shows hippocampus becomes bigger in meditators. That means we’re better at regulating our emotions. Instinctual unnecessary fear from Amygdala decreases, as a result we get a more regulated Amygdala so we are less prone to overreacting in stressful situations.

More on What Mindfulness Does to the Brain

Neurocognitive and emotional benefits of mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness meditation increases our sense of well-being. This network includes brain areas that are more active at rest than during task execution; it is linked to daydreaming or living in a trance state. If we think that the high or persistent activity of the default network is associated with states of subjective dissatisfaction, lowering it should benefit well-being.

On the other hand, mindfulness meditation helps control our attention by activating the dorsolateral frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate, both of which are involved in this cognitive process.

Similarly, mindfulness meditation enhances our ability to manage our emotions. Changes in our fronto-limbic network and the amygdala, brain areas associated with this function, increase emotional control. Thus, via mindful meditation, we may develop skills that allow us to control how and when our emotions emerge, how long they remain, and in what contexts they are engaged.

One of the parts of emotional regulation is our capacity to detect and express our feelings assertively, which translates into understanding how to defend ourselves from harmful stimuli and approach pleasurable or unpleasant stimuli. A good emotional expression permits us to appropriately explain the feelings we are experiencing at any given time.

Finally, mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve creativity. A study led by Dalian University of Technology's Xiaoqian Ding discovered that practicing mindfulness meditation 30 minutes a day for seven days improved creativity performance on a divergent thinking task, a type of thinking that requires generating creative ideas to arrive at a possible solution to a problem.

In short, the neurocognitive processes through which regular mindfulness meditation practice may help us sustain excellent mental health and grow our well-being are becoming clearer.

Bottom Line

There are many ways to define and practice mindfulness, essentially ancient teachings and modern science describe the same phenomena of how we may achieve tangible transformational results and improve the quality of life by simply and continuously paying attention to what is present in the current moment, without trying to judge, change or control the river of life flowing through us.


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