Notes can be found as interactive webpage at

7: Mindfulness

Mindfulness, awareness and acceptance #

Why Study Mindfulness? #

  • Western research has indicated that meditation can be effectively used to:
    • Treat psychological disorders, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, sleep disorders, ADHD, and conduct disorder
      • Recent reviews indicate that overall effect sizes are modest, but mindfulness is still considered an evidence-based treatment for most psychological disorders
      • The small effects are comparable with what would be expected from the use of psychotropic medications (e.g., antidepressant) in a primary care population but without the associated toxicities
    • Treat physical conditions, including chronic pain and cardiovascular disease, and enhance immune system function
    • Lengthen life span quite dramatically – 30% reduction in mortality due to heart disease and 49% reduction in mortality due to cancer, according to one 20-year study (Schneider, Alexander, Staggers, et al., 2005)
      • If this is replicable then you’d make lots of money – part of the reason for the research interest
    • Slow the cognitive decline associated with “normal aging” (Lazar, Kerr, & Wasserman, 2005; Luders, Toga, Lepore et al., 2009)
    • Increase activity in areas of the brain associated with optimism, empathy, attention, and emotional regulation
      • Highly trained “super-meditators” show activity in these regions that is off the charts

Calm-abiding practice #

  • All mindfulness therapies share a common aim of cultivating an attitude of awareness of the present moment with acceptance
    • This is an attitude that extends toward whatever is arising at the moment, including thoughts, feelings, and experiences of contact with the outer world
    • The aim is in line with the psychoanalytic view that it is primarily experiential avoidance that causes distress

Research #

  • Neuropsychological evidence that awareness/labeling of negative emotions actually reduces their intensity – fMRI study by Lieberman, Eisenberger, Crockett et al. (2007)
    • Participants were shown frightening faces/faces expressing strong emotions and asked to choose a word that described the emotion on display

    • Controls were asked merely to identify the gender of the people in the photos
    • Labeling the fear-inducing object
      • Reduced activity in the amygdala, the seat of fear and other negative emotions
      • Increased activity in a parts of the prefrontal cortex (right ventrolateral and medial PFC) involved in vigilance and discrimination, relative to controls
    • Naming the emotion transformed the images from objects of fear to objects of scrutiny, potentially resulting in a more effective response

  • Study on spider phobia (Kircanski, Lieberman, & Craske, 2012)
    • Researchers recruited participants who had a spider phobia and exposed them to spiders
    • Four experimental conditions that differed in their instructions for what to do with the anxiety
      1. Label the anxiety felt about the spider
      2. Reappraisal: think differently of the spider so that it feels less threatening
      3. Distract from the anxiety elicited by the spider
      4. No specific instruction (control)
    • Later (on Day 2 and Day 9), participants returned to the lab and were again exposed to spiders to test the long-term effects of their emotion manipulation
    • Those who had been assigned to labeling their emotions had lower physiological reactivity to the spiders, as measured by skin conductance responses
    • Within the affect labeling condition, participants who verbalized a larger number of fear and anxiety words had even fewer skin conductance responses

Limitations #

  • Unfortunately though, being accepting and nonjudgmental is easier said than done because of our natural human tendency to avoid painful experiences
    • It is very difficult, if not impossible, to force ourselves to fully experience situations and emotions that we deem to be painful
    • Traumatic experiences are a classic example of this
    • However, even in ordinary life, we are constantly dissociating from painful situations and emotions – or ones that we think may potentially cause pain
      • This may range from actual pain-inducing experiences to insights that might cause us to feel bad about ourselves
    • There is a limit to the extent to which we can force ourselves just to “be with” our anger or sadness or fear

Meditation #

  • Meditation is a technique that can help resolve this problem of experiential avoidance
    • Step One in mindfulness practice is to engage in focused meditation because…
      1. It is very difficult to be aware of ourselves and our surroundings if we are afflicted by “ monkey mind
      • Focused meditation allows us to calm monkey mind
      1. Focused meditation ultimately enables us to connect with the nonmoving mind and the “suchness” of experience, which produces a sense of general “Okness”
  • Focused meditation is just calmly abiding, with the object of concentration, Dhāraṇā – not obsessive glomming
    • There should be a relaxed connection with the object
    • The aim is to “be present with the object,” not to lock onto it and grip it like a dog, or to concentrate on it the way you might concentrate on memorizing the details of an image
    • As the meditation develops, allow your perception of the object to change as you are present with the object on more and more subtle levels…
      • The focus becomes just stillness itself, rather than the physical object
      • You find that there is something in you that is imperturbable and open, fundamentally calm
      • Developing one-pointedness ( Ekaggata) of concentration enables you to find one-pointedness in yourself, the non-moving mind, which resolves all things

    Stilling the eyes is a way of stilling the mind

Instructions #

  1. Find a quiet place and sit in a comfortable position with your spine straight. You can sit cross-legged or in a chair.
  2. Tilt the chin very slightly down but do not allow the head to loll forward. Place your hands comfortably on your lap.
  3. Take a few deep breaths.
  4. Collect your attention, and begin to move it slowly down your body. Notice the sensations in each part of your body. Relax any tensions, particularly in the face, neck and hands.
  5. Direct your gaze softly downwards or close your eyes if you wish.
  6. Focus on an object (e.g., a bit of the wall in front of you, a statue, a sound like “Om”) or on the breath.
  7. Be fully present with the object of your attention. If you are focusing on the breath, don’t gloss over the inhalation and say, “OK, well, this is the inhalation part” – that’s just labeling it. “Be with” each in-breath for its full duration and with each out-breath for its full duration, as if you were riding the waves of your own breathing. Seek nothing. No “next”!
  8. Integrate your whole body in the experience. Meditation is state of full body awareness.
  9. If your attention wanders (and it will!), simply release the thought and focus back on the object of your attention.
  10. After a while, you can try noticing the distractions and acknowledging it with a simple word, e.g., thinking, wandering, hearing.

Meditation Q & A #

  1. If one has a physical condition that makes sitting uncomfortable, is it OK to meditate while lying down or standing up?
    • Yes, and in fact, depending on the physical condition, that might be highly advisable
    • There are four standard meditation positions: sitting, lying down flat on one’s back, standing, and walking
  2. Can focused meditation produce negative effects?
    • In general, focused meditation is considered a safe practice, but there are large individual differences in how people respond to any practice, so use good judgment and stop and seek help when necessary
      • In particular, for those with trauma or abuse histories (or “fear types”), even basic meditation practices can can lead to intense, and possibly uncomfortable emotions
    • In those cases, when doing focused meditation, it is recommended that one direct attention to an external object or the feet, rather than the breath, as the latter may trigger too many memories and emotions

  • Lurid example of the agitated mind and how it causes us to be unable to sit alone with our thoughts and emotions
    • Participants were asked to sit in a chair, without a device or a book and without falling asleep, for 6 to 15 minutes
    • They were given the option to self-administer mild electric shocks rather than just sit alone with their thoughts
    • 67% of men and 25% of women did just that! (Wilson, Reinhard, Westgate, et al., 2014)

Relationship between attention and happiness #

  • Study in which 1000 people were texted at random times throughout the day
  • As soon as participants received text, they had to answer 3 questions
    1. What are you doing right now?
    2. Where is your mind right now? Is it focused on what you’re doing or is it focused elsewhere?
    3. How happy or unhappy are you right at this very moment? (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010)
  • Results:
    • Average American adult spends 47% of waking life not paying attention to what they’re doing
    • When they were not paying attention, they were significantly less happy

Meditation and the Default Mode Network #

  • Meditators from various traditions show reduced activity in their Default Mode Network (DMN) when meditating, as well as when they are not meditating
  • The DMN or “task negative network”
    • Includes posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), and angular gyrus
    • Is active when we are not focused on a particular task – rumination
    • Is involved in self-referencing, recognition of emotions in others, remembering the past, and imagining the future

    • Is associated with ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, thinking about what other people are thinking about you

      “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind” (Killingsworth)

Mindfulness as a Two-Part Process #

  • However, use of calm-abiding practice (focused awareness) to stabilize the mind is only the first step in mindfulness practice
  • This first step is what make the second step – mindfulness or awareness of the present moment with acceptance (open monitoring) – possible because…
    • Calm-abiding practice connects you with the suchness of things, with the ground of reality, which imbues all things with a sense of “Okness”
    • This deep state causes the sense of judgment to naturally drop away, and there is a cognition that everything is exactly as it should be
      • Whatever is felt is meant to be felt, and whatever is thought is meant to be thought

      “There is no where you can be that you were not meant to be” ♬

Mindfulness practice #

  • When a thought arises, note
    • How it manifests in your body
    • How it manifests in your energy (i.e., emotionally)
    • Whether it is a positive, negative, or neutral thought
  • These are all implicit and shouldn’t require any thought

  • You can also try noting more specifics about the thought, e.g., whether it is about wanting, grasping, anger, fear, etc., as well as the kind of self the thought is associated with

Integration of body and mind #

  • A number of modern-day teachers have emphasized that inclusion of some sort of practice that integrates the physical body with the mind (such as various types of yoga, running, etc) is critical for mindfulness to be effective for modern laypeople who do not have luxury of spending 12 hours a day meditating
  • To a large extent, becoming more mindful or aware of one’s thoughts and emotions means becoming more aware of one’s body
    • Meditation can help us “physicalize the mind,” so that when we have a negative thought, we can actually feel it almost as something physically pulling us off center
      • This can make it vastly easier to control negative thoughts and emotions in daily life
    • When you have a negative thought, it’s as if someone is pulling you off axis – mindfulness is being aware of this connection
  • A meta-analysis of 78 fMRI studies of meditation found that one of the main commonalities among various different styles of meditation was changes in activity of the insula (Fox, Dixon, Nijeboer et al., 2016)
    • The insula specializes in body awareness
  • Some yogis have demonstrated quite remarkable control over body functions, such as breathing, heart rate, body temperature and other vital function

Instructions #

  1. When your attention is relatively stable on the object of attention, try shifting your awareness to the process of thinking itself. Watch thoughts come into and leave the field of your attention.
  2. Try to perceive them as “events” in your mind.
  3. Note their content and their charge while, if possible, not being drawn into thinking about them, or thinking the next thought, but just maintaining the “frame” through which you are observing the process of thought.
  4. Note that an individual thought does not last long. It is impermanent. If it comes, it will go. Be aware of this.
  5. Note how some thoughts keep coming back.
  6. Note what feelings are associated with different thought contents.
  7. If you get lost in all this, just go back to focusing on the object.
    • Important: this exercise requires great concentration and should only be done for short periods of time, like two to three minutes per sitting in the early stages.

Insight #

Working with Negative Emotions #

  • If you are in an overall relatively positive frame of mind and the emotion is not very strong:
    • Try to experience the emotion fully in your body-energy-mind, that is, focus on the energy and physical sensations of the emotion, but do not let yourself get caught up in the content, in the story associated with the emotion
    • Initially, you should only try to do this very briefly
      • This practice is not about analyzing thoughts or emotions
      • If you are still thinking about the emotion or the situation that caused the emotion 30 seconds later, STOP (this is important – you can harm yourself!)
    • It’s easy to recognize this, and even tell yourself this – it’s another to truly embody this belief

      You may not feel happy due to some event/circumstance that clouds your vision. Recognize these emotions– what is this stimuli evoking that you wish to avoid? Try to focus on this emotion and realize that it is just that – an emotion, sensations in your body. They are not the end-of-the-world, just sensations, and as such they are malleable and can be changed if you believe so.

    • Once you have substantial meditation experience, when you experience a negative emotion, you can…
      • Look straight at the emotion and let it dissolve or “liberate” as it arises
      • Instantaneously see the various factors that caused the emotion to arise
  • That is, mindfulness gives us insight into the narrative we have about ourselves
    • Rather than holding beliefs (e.g., “I am worthless”) to be a true description of who we are, we see the narrative as a constellation of thoughts
    • This can foster more breathing room and lead to increased well being
    • It’s not so much about changing the narrative, but rather about changing our relationship to it
  • Your ordinary mind cannot do this: remember that meditation is not done with the ordinary thinking mind
    • When we think, we just stay caught in our own conceptual systems, our own habitual ways of looking at things
    • Meditation accesses a deeper mind with much greater awareness that is able to solve problems more effectively

Instructions (Dealing with Negative Emotions) #

  1. Start with calm-abiding meditation.
  2. Now if there’s something difficult that’s happening for you – a difficult emotion, or a physical sensation that’s hard, let your attention go to that. It may be an aching in your shoulder or back, or a headache, or it could be a sense of sadness, or anxiety, or anger.
    • Where do you feel that sensation in your body?
    • Where do you feel that emotion in your body?
    • Notice it, just notice it for one moment. Tap into it, feel it. Make sure to breathe.
  3. And now return your attention back down to the object of concentration and the centered stillness. And just let yourself stay there for a moment. Feeling it, sensing it, relaxing, maintaining the mindfulness, yet giving yourself a break from what could be potentially overwhelming to feel.
  4. And now once again return your attention to that part of the body that feels unpleasant – the body ache or pain, or the emotion, the sensations of the emotion in your body, the vibrations in your chest, or the clenching in your belly, or the tightness in your jaw. Just notice, and breathe, and let it be there. Let whatever is there, be there.
  5. And then bring your attention again back down to the feeling of centeredness. Relaxing, staying present and alert, feeling the safety, the connection in that place.
  6. Now let yourself stay connected to this place, but see if you can cast what we might call a sidelong glance at the difficult area in your body. Is it possible to still feel connected to you body in the area that feels good, and yet know there’s something going on that feels unpleasant, and just let it be there? Keeping maybe 75% of your attention on the part that feels peaceful and at ease, still breathing, casting the sidelong glance at this difficult area, noticing what happens to it. Is it growing or shrinking? Is it changing, shifting into something else? Become aware of whatever it is it’s doing, relaxing, breathing.

Using Mindfulness to Break Habits #

  • Develop greater awareness of how you are feeling immediately before you engage in the problematic behavior
  • Develop greater awareness of how you feel during the activity
  • Devise an alternative behavior
    • Note how you feel when you utilize the replacement activity instead (kind of self-conditioning)
  • Be honest if you are unable to implement the replacement activity– simply note how you feel as you continue to engage in the old habit and in particular, how you feel when you finally stop
    • The end sucks, and your body will dwell on this emotion. Thus, that will reduce the odds or your engaging in the behavior again in the future

    The promise of happiness from cravings often misleads, so one strategy for overcoming addictions is to mindfully focus attention on the actual experience when indulging a craving or temptation, so as to compare it with the expectation of reward that preceded it. – Kelly McGonigal


  • Ex: Binging on hot cheetos and YouTube videos
    • Become more aware of how you feel physically and emotionally as you sit there munching, watching video after video
      • Perhaps you are feeling tired or hopeless
      • Once you recognize that, you can see if you can devise some other activity that will more effectively alleviate the tiredness or sense of hopelessness, e.g, going to bed or talking to a friend
    • Again, note that this is simply data collection
      • It’s not about beating yourself up for being “bad” or “lacking in discipline.”
      • Just be fully aware of what you are experiencing
    • Also, become more aware of exactly how you feel when you finally do turn off the computer and consciously note those feelings
      • This will increase your chances of being able to prevent a repetition of the behavior in the long run
    • Mindfulness might also allow you to notice things that help stop the behavior, e.g., only taking small portions so that you would need to get up to obtain more hot cheetos

Guided Meditations #

Acceptance and transformation #

  • Making peace with where we are
    • Feeling and accepting our negative emotions allows us to transform those emotions
    • On the other hand, ignoring, repressing, denying, or even trying to change negative emotions ties up our energetic resources and actually makes real change much more difficult

      “What you resist, persists”

    • This is the underlying premise of mindfulness practice and, as discussed earlier, it is also supported by neuropsychological research (Lieberman et al., 2007; Kircanski et al., 2012)
  • But if I accept myself fully, won’t that undermine my motivation to try hard and improve?
    • Actually, it’s just the opposite: beating up on yourself results in a less effectual response:
      • If an experience is painful, we tend to avoid looking at it, so we don’t learn from it
      • The attempt to suppress the negative thoughts and emotions saps our energetic resources
      • Feeling bad about ourselves causes us to engage in more unhealthy habits

Self-compassion study (Breines & Chen, 2012) #

  • Participants were told that the purpose of the study was to understand the relationship between test performance and personality and asked to identify their biggest weakness
  • Then they took a difficult test (a 10-item version of the GRE antonyms test)
  • Afterwards, they were given an opportunity to study a list of words and definitions that would be on a subsequent 10-item antonyms test for as long as they wanted
    • Self-compassion group: saw an additional statement embedded in the instructions that read, “If you had difficulty with the test you just took, you’re not alone. It’s common for students to have difficulty with tests like this. If you feel bad about how you did, try not to be too hard on yourself.”
    • Self-esteem control condition saw an additional statement that read, “If you had difficulty with the test you just took, try not to feel bad about yourself—you must be intelligent if you got into Berkeley.”
  • Results:
    • No one guessed the hypothesis that viewing test failure in a certain way might affect study time or effort
    • Self-compassion increased study time, which in turn predicted higher test scores, though it did not directly lead to improved performance

Open, Nonjudgmental Awareness #

  • Mindfulness practice is about developing greater awareness
  • Taken to higher levels, this can produce states of great bliss
    • If we fully connect with the “suchness” of things in our body-energy-mind, we find a ground which holds everything and gives rise to a sensation of great bliss in the center of the body
      • This takes the truism that true happiness must come from within to a whole new level!
    • The experience of bliss in turn makes it possible to connect even more fully with the suchness of things, to be even more inclusive…
  • The above is accompanied by a transformation of perception
    • The big secret is that enlightenment is right here right now
    • You see that everything is perfect just as it is
      • You don’t need to change anything bad into anything good or to “fix” yourself in any way – wabi-sabi
      • Ironically, this actually makes it easier to effect changes because your energy is no longer all tied up in beating yourself up

Obstacles (Optional) #

  • Mental elaborations stand in stark contrast to the kind of open, nonjudgmental, direct awareness described above
    • As Rick Hanson points out, most of the negative emotions we feel do not come from actual aversive events, but from our reactions to them
    • Suppose you’re walking through a dark room at night and stub your toe on a chair
      • Right after the first stab of pain comes “Who moved that darn chair?!”
      • This then continues to elaborate, maybe moving to the person whom you think moved the chair and all the evil things they have done to you
  • In addition, attachment to/obsession with particular outcomes prevent us from experiencing the kind of open, nonjudgmental awareness associated with deep meditative states

Applying Mindfulness to Daily Life #

  • Mindfulness practice is not just about sitting on a meditation cushion; it’s about a way of being that extends to how we engage in all of our daily activities
    • It’s knowing that you are exactly where you should be this moment and appreciating this moment, engaging in activities with full focus of attention
    • Ex: Walking meditation is about really enjoying the walking – walking not in order to arrive, but just to enjoy each step
    • We shake off all worries and anxieties, not thinking of the future, not thinking of the past, but just enjoying the present moment
    • We are aware of the contact between our feet and the Earth

      “Walking as if we are kissing the Earth with our feet” – Thich Nhat Hanh

  • Similarly, if we try to rush through washing the dishes in order to get to dessert, it will become an unpleasant task. And we will be equally incapable of enjoying our dessert…
    • Focusing on the future becomes a habit – you cannot just selectively focus on pleasant tasks

      “With the fork in my hand, I will be thinking about what to do next, and the texture and the flavor of the dessert, together with the pleasure of eating it, will be lost. I will always be dragged into the future, never able to live in the present moment.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

  • If you ask a Zen teacher how to find enlightenment, he might answer, “Have you eaten? Then wash your bowls.”
    • If you cannot find the meaning of life in an act as simple as that of doing the dishes, you will not find it anywhere

Instructions: Mindful Eating #

  1. Sit comfortably in a chair. Place a raisin in your hand.
  2. Examine the raisin as if you had never seen it before.
    • Imagine it as its “plump self” growing on the vine surrounded by nature.
    • As you look at the raisin, become conscious of what you see: the shape, texture, color, size. Is it hard or soft?
    • Notice any thoughts that arise.
  3. Bring the raisin to your nose and smell it.
    • Are you anticipating eating the raisin? Is it difficult not to just pop it in your mouth?
    • How does the raisin feel? How small it is in your hand?
  4. Place the raisin in your mouth. Become aware of what your tongue is doing.
  5. Bite ever so lightly into the raisin. Feel its squishiness.
  6. Chew three times and then stop.
  7. Describe the flavor of the raisin. What is the texture?
  8. As you complete chewing, swallow the raisin.
  9. Sit quietly, breathing, aware of what you are sensing. Then repeat with other raisins.

Clarifications #

  • Mindfulness doesn’t just mean “noticing things”
    • It’s about being present with experience in a way that’s much more vivid, immediate, and real
    • Even “negative emotions” are perceived as juicy experiences that are “OK”
    • The world will seem to light up like a lightbulb

Awe #

  • Asked what Zen training leads to, a Western student in Japan answered

    “No paranormal experiences that I can detect. But you wake up in the morning and the world seems so beautiful you can hardly stand it.”

  • Research has indicated that the emotion that confers the greatest health benefits may be awe (Stellar, John-Henderson, Anderson et al, 2015)
    • Participants who scored high on awe had the lowest levels of interleukin-6, which is tied to inflammation (and thus mortality)

Instructions: Mountain Meditation #

  1. Find a time when you can sit for half an hour without interruption.
  2. Assume a comfortable erect position with back erect, chin slightly tucked in towards the chest, both feet flat on the floor (if sitting in chair), and hands quietly resting on thighs.
  3. Tense and release the muscles from your toes to your head.
  4. Observe your breath and remain in tune with feeling the air pass in and out of your nostrils with each inhalation and exhalation as you continue the meditation.
    • Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs incorporate a number of mindfulnessrelated practices, such as Mountain Meditation and Lovingkindness Meditation
  5. Visualize a mountain and then become that mountain
    • Imagine yourself as being that majestic mountain with your summit in the clouds. Imagine how solid and strong and how connected to the earth you are, for you, the mountain, have stood for thousands of years.

      Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain Breathing out, I feel solid and strong.

    • The weather has always been in a state of flux around you. The views change from blue sky views with gentle breezes and showers to mighty banks of storm clouds, dispensing heavy downpours, to sleet and snow. Yet, you have stood firm and immovable, and the winds of change have whirled for centuries around you without any noticeable effects.

      Breathing in makes me calm. Breathing out helps me settle.

    • Just as changes in weather whirling about outside of you, the mountain, provoke no angst, the emotions, activities and situations that whirl around you in your everyday life shall not disturb you when your meditation ends. You shall remain tall and strong and connected.

      Breathing in, I feel secure. Breathing out, I feel grounded.

    • You shall remain upright, firmly grounded and connected to the earth, regardless of the weather whirling around you. So now just sit and continue to follow your breath as you sink deeply into your majestic mountain base without collapsing your spine. Become one with the feelings of solidity, strength and connection.

      Breathing in, I feel still and connected. Breathing out, I reflect things as they are.

    • End your meditation when you feel it is time to do so.

Lovingkindness Practice #

Instructions #

Preliminary practice #

  • Start by giving loving-kindness to yourself because without loving yourself, it is almost impossible to love others. If you are an empty cup, you have nothing to give.
    • May I be happy
    • May I abide in well-being
    • May I be secure
    • May I dwell in safety
  • Practice this regularly for some days to establish a strong sense of loving-kindness for yourself.

Main practice #

  1. Visualize a love that someone gave you that really moved you, perhaps in your childhood. Remember a particular instance when they really showed you love, and you felt their love vividly.
  2. Now let that feeling arise again in your heart and infuse you with gratitude.
    • As you do so, your love will go out naturally to that person who evoked it.
    • You will remember then that even though you may not always feel that you have been loved enough, you were loved genuinely once. Knowing that now will make you feel again that you are, as that person made you feel then, worthy of love and really lovable.
  3. Let your heart open now, and let love flow from it; then extend this love to all beings.
    • Begin with those who are closest to you, then extend your love to friends and to acquaintances, then to neighbors, to strangers, then even to those whom you don’t like or have difficulties with, even those whom you might consider as your “enemies,” and finally to the whole universe.
    • Let this love become more and more boundless. (From The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying)

Research on Compassion Practice #

  • Study on compassion meditation in long-term Tibetan meditation practitioners who had had logged in 10,000-50,000 hours of practice (Lutz, Greischar, & Rawlings, 2004)
    • Meditators were asked to engage in compassion meditation during EEG study
    • Compassion meditation does not focus on particular objects, memories, or images; rather the emphasis is on generating feelings of benevolence and compassion, causing them to “pervade the mind as a way of being”
    • Controls were undergraduates who had been given a crash course in compassion meditation and had practiced for an hour
  • Results:
    • Long-term practitioners produced showed high levels of activity in gamma-band frequencies (25-42+ Hz) and increased neural synchrony
      • Larger the waves, the more in sync your brain is (this naturally decreases with age)
    • This involves large regions of the brain pulsing in synchrony 30-80 times a second
    • As they went deeper into meditation (jhana states), there appeared to be both a spreading and a strengthening of gamma wave activity
    • When controls engaged in compassion meditation, they also showed an increase in gamma activity, but the increase was slight

The color scale indicates the percentage of subjects in each group that had an increase of gamma activity during the mental training: (Left) Controls; (Right) Practitioners

Correlation between the length of the long-term practitioners’ meditation training and the ratio of relative gamma activity averaged across electrodes in the initial baseline condition

Gamma waves and neural synchrony #

  • Gamma waves
    • Type of very high-frequency brain wave
    • Size of the gamma wave is related to the number of neurons firing in sync
    • Research has linked neural synchrony of high-frequency brain waves to enhanced attention, working memory, learning and conscious perception
      • Greater synchrony between various sections of the brain indicates greater integration of cognitive and affective functions and less dissociation
      • Compartmentalization of brain functions is associated with aging and cognitive decline
  • What the meditation practitioners themselves reported experiencing during this state:
    • A change in the quality of moment-to-moment awareness, bringing with it a vast panorama of perceptual clarity

      “It is as if a mental fog lifts, one that you did not realize had been impeding your perception” (Davidson)

  • Monks who had spent the most years meditating generated the highest levels of gamma waves
    • Increased gamma activity and neural synchrony were evident in the long-term practitioners even when they were not meditating

Gamma Wave & Cognitive Functioning #

  • MIT neuroscientists found that exposing mice to strobe lights and clicking sounds at frequencies that stimulate gamma waves reduced levels of beta-amyloid associated with Alzheimer’s and improved cognitive function (Martorell, Paulson, Suk et al., 2019)
  • Study 1:
    • Mice were engineered to exhibit Alzheimer’s-like qualities
    • Exposed to clicking sounds at 40 Hz for an hour a day for a week
  • Results:
    • Induced synchronized gamma-wave oscillations in the brain
      • Gamma waves are involved in concentration, sleep, perception, and movement, and are disrupted in patients with Alzheimer’s
    • Reduced levels of beta-amyloid and tau-proteins in the auditory cortex and nearby hippocampus
      • Increased activation of microglia, which is important in clearing harmful debris, as well as improved functioning of blood vessels
    • Mice performed better on memory tasks, including recognizing objects and navigating a water maze to find a hidden platform
  • Results:
    • Increased gamma brain waves in the visual cortex, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex
    • Reduced neuronal and synaptic loss in these brain regions
    • Reduced inflammation
    • Improved performance on memory tasks
    • Findings point to an overall neuroprotective effect, even in the later stages of neurodegeneration
    • New clinical trials starting using human participants
  • Study 2:
    • Mice were exposed to a combination of light and sound stimulation (Martorell, Paulson, Suk et al., 2019)
  • Results:
    • Expanded effects to prefrontal cortex
    • Resulted in clustering of microglia around amyloid deposits and reduced amyloid pathology
    • Effects were short-lived, however, diminishing a week after stimulation

  • Longer-term follow-up study on mice with more advanced Alzheimer’s disease
    • Mice given 6 weeks of gamma entrainment using strobe lights (Adaikkon, Middleton, Marco et al., 2019)

Optimism and prefrontal dominance #

EEG studies by Richard Davidson found that meditation practice is associated with increased left prefrontal activity (Davidson, 2012)

  • As mentioned earlier, left prefrontal cortex brain activity is known to be associated with positive outlook and feelings of happiness and well-being (Davidson, 2012)
  • Meditation, Prefrontal Dominance & Optimism
    • Early on, Davidson had noticed that an elderly Tibetan monk in one of his studies showed much greater predominance of activity in the left prefrontal than any of the other people previously tested
    • Research on other long-term meditators provided further confirmatory evidence
    • For instance, one meditation adept, Matthieu
  • Ricard, showed increased left pre-frontal cortical activity that was 4.5 standard deviations outside the standard bell curve


Left Right Brain Dancer #

  • An early study found that less extensive meditation practice (40 minutes a day for 8-10 weeks) was also associated with a significant shift in hemispheric dominance
  • In addition, degree of shift in activity from right to left prefrontal was found to correlate with enhancement in immune system (resistance to flu virus) (Davidson, Kabat-Zinn, Schiumacher et al., 2003)

Empathy and ability to identify microexpressions #

Neurological Effects of Mindfulness #

  • MRI study on Western lay practitioners who incorporated meditation practice into their daily lives (Lazar, Kerr, & Wasserman, 2005)
    • Meditators averaged 6.2 hours of practice a week for 9.1 years
    • Compared to control participants, showed thickening in parts of prefrontal cortex and the right anterior insula
      • These regions of the brain are involved in attention, sensory processing, and empathy
      • Cortical growth was not due to the growth of new neurons, but resulted from
        • Wider blood vessels
        • More supporting structures such as glia and astrocytes
        • Increased branching and connections
    • Between-group differences in prefrontal cortical thickness were most pronounced in older participants, suggesting that meditation might be particularly important in preserving cognitive functions as people age

  • VBM study on long-term meditators found similar effects
    • Lay practitioners who had practiced meditation for 10-90 min daily for an average of 24 years
    • Meditation was associated with increased gray matter volume in areas important in emotional regulation and memory, including
      • Orbitofrontal cortex
      • Hippocampus
    • Meditation increases density of gray matter in frontal and temporal in much the same way that physical exercise increases the size of muscles (Luders, Toga, Lepore et al., 2009)

Other Cognitive & Affective Benefits #

  • Paul Ekman found enhanced ability to identify microexpressions in meditators
    • A series of faces displaying various expressions was shown in very quick succession
    • The target expression remained onscreen for one thirtieth of a second
    • Participants were asked to identify that expression

  • The two experienced Western meditators whom Ekman tested achieved results that were far better than those of 5000 participants previously tested
    • The ability to recognize such fleeting facial expressions has been associated with a capacity for empathy and insight, as well as openness to new experiences, intellectual curiosity, and general reliability and efficiency

      “They do better than police men, lawyers, psychiatrists, customs officials, judges - even secret service agents” – the group that had hitherto proven to be the most accurate, according to Ekman

Psychological effects of mindfulness #

Treatment of Psychological Disorders #

  • Research has indicated that mindfulness practices are useful in the treatment of a wide array of psychological disorders, including:
    • Anxiety and depression (Hofmann, Sawyer, Witt, & Oh, 2010)
    • Substance abuse (Melemis, 2008)
    • Eating disorders (Kristeller & Hallett, 1999)
    • Stress (Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt & Walach, 2004)
  • Effects of meditation on these psychological, as well as physical, conditions are probably mediated at least in part by reduction in cortisol levels
  • Research by Herbert Benson in the 1970s (primarily on transcendental meditation) found that meditation is associated with “a wakeful, hypometabolic state of parasympathetic activity” (fancy way of saying relaxed)

Research #

  • Research on use of mindfulness in treating psychological disorders in children and adolescents:
    • 14-18 year olds who took an Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) class reported a decrease in anxiety, depression, and somatic complaints, as well as an increase in sleep quality and self-esteem, compared with controls (Biegal, Brown, Shapiro, & Schubert, 2009)
    • Meta-analysis of 15 studies on children and adolescents found that mindfulness was effective in treating anxiety disorders, ADHD, substance abuse, sleep disorders, and conduct disorder (Burke, 2010)
    • More recent reviews have found that meditation enhances ability to regulate emotions and attention in children (Meeiklejohn, Phillips, Freedman et al., 2012; Cairncross & Miller, 2016)

Mindfulness and Subjective Well-being #

  • Research on mindfulness practice and subjective well-being (self-reported happiness)
    • Brown (2009) found that a large discrepancy between financial desires and financial reality was correlated with low subjective well-being but that the accumulation of wealth did not tend to close the gap
    • Mindfulness practice however was associated with a lower financial-desire discrepancy and thus higher subjective well-being
      • Mindfulness may promote the perception of “having enough”

Optional #

  • 2014 meta-analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine called into question the effectiveness of mindfulness training programs in improving mental health and reducing stress-related behavior
    • The meta-analysis examined 47 randomized controlled trials of mindfulness meditation programs, which included a total of 3,515 participants
    • Studies were primarily 8-week-long mindfulness training programs that used psychological and behavioral assessments, rather than neuroimaging
    • Along with mindfulness, meta-analysis included meditations that emphasized use of a mantra
      • Mantra: repetition of a word or phrase in such a way that it helps one transcend to an effortless state where focused attention is absent (Goyal, Singh, Sibinga et al., 2014)
  • Results:
    • Meditation programs resulted in
      • Only moderate reductions in anxiety, depression, pain, and stress/distress
    • These small effects were comparable with what would be expected from the use of antidepressants but without the associated toxicities
  • Problems identified in review:
    • Use of outcome measures that can be easily biased by participants’ beliefs in the benefits of meditation
    • Control participants that received less time and attention from the teacher or the group than those in meditation program
    • Very few mantra meditation programs met inclusion criteria
  • Reviewers pointed out that effectiveness of programs may depend in part on
    • Type of meditation practice
    • Amount of training
    • Use and qualifications of instructor
    • Degree of emphasis on religion or spirituality
    • Whether program integrated dietary regimens and/or movement exercises (e.g., yoga)
  • Most forms present meditation as a skill that requires expert instruction and time dedicated to practice

Research Issues #

  • The modest psychological effects found in studies of short-term mindfulness contrasts with the much larger effects of neuroimaging and reaction time studies on long-term meditation practitioners; This suggests that
    • Results of meditation studies depend in part on amount of practice and amount of training/teaching received by practitioner
    • Changes in brain function and structure may precede noticeable psychological and behavioral changes
      • Even novice meditators showed increase in gamma waves during compassion meditation but effects endured past period of meditation only in long-term practitioners (Lutz, Greischar, & Rawlings, 2004)
  • One problem though that pertains even to the well-controlled studies with long-term meditators (e.g., showing increased left prefrontal activity in meditators and enhanced ability to detect microexpressions) is that it’s not clear precisely which meditation practice(s) may be contributing to those effects
    • Some recent studies try to address this problem by asking participants to engage in specific types of meditation practice while in the scanner
  • The problem of multiple practices is compounded by the fact that many of the long-term meditators practice within traditions that require extensive preliminary training involving
    • Working with the mind, e.g., developing greater awareness of the feeling tone of thoughts
    • Ethical precepts: just focusing on doing what you know at a deep level to be right is another doorway to great meditation experience

      “Right is right were wisdom in the scorn of consequence” – Tennyson

Physical Effects of Mindfulness #

Mortality Rates #

  • Experimental study in which patients with mild hypertension were trained in meditation and followed for 19 years
    • Meditation group showed a 23% decrease in overall mortality, a 30% decrease in rate of cardiovascular mortality and a 49% decrease in the rate of mortality due to cancer compared with controls (Schneider, Alexander, Staggers, et al., 2005)
  • 73 residents of homes for elderly were assigned either to daily transcendental meditation (TM or mindfulness), a relaxation group, or a no-treatment group
    • After three years, survival rate was 100% for TM, 87% for mindfulness, 65% for relaxation, and 77% for no-treatment group
      • Only differences between meditation and nonmeditation groups were significant
  • In general, there are more similarities than differences between psychological effects of different types of meditation (Alexander, Langer, Newman et al., 1989)

Gene Expression #

Just one day (8 hours) of intensive practice of mindfulness meditation resulted in significant modulation of expression of proinflammatory genes (Kaliman, Alvarez-Lopez, Cosin-Tomas et al., 2014)

Mindfulness and Physical Pain #

  • A large component of “physical pain” is actually mental
    • The mind reacts to pain with fear, rejection, despondency, or a feeling of powerlessness, dramatically compounding the pain
    • These are the mental elaborations mentioned earlier
    • “This pain means that my body is suffering injury and I’m going to DIE!!”
  • Pain is actually just sensations – it’s the aversion response that causes most of the suffering
    • Sort of like little kid screaming about getting shots, when the punches they get roughhousing on the playground are actually many times more painful
    • As you focus on your bodily sensations, you begin to realize that what you thought was pain is just a cluster of sensations
    • The mind learns to recognize those sensations simply as sensations (“Oh, that’s my feet tingling or my knees burning”)
    • Rather than thinking about the pain, how to get it to stop, what to do about it, etc., over time, one is able to just be with the sensations and not try to fix it

Research #

  • Research on neurophysiological response to pain in meditators vs. non-meditators (Grant, Courtemanche, Rainville et al., 2011; Lutz, McFarlin, Perlman et al., 2013)
    • Used hot laser to create pain in the foot/arm
  • Results:
    • In comparison with the non-meditators, the Zen practitioners
      • Showed significantly greater activity in the somatosensory cortex, as well as in the insula, the part of the brain involved in proprioception (noticing body sensations)
      • Reported that the pain sensations were very, very vivid
      • Showed significantly less activity in parts of the prefrontal which are involved in evaluating the pain
      • Rated the pain very low, as a 1, 2, or 3, as opposed to the non-meditators who rated their pain as a 8, 9, or 10
    • Meditators with the most experience showed the largest reductions in prefrontal and amygdala activation
    • In addition, the lower pain sensitivity in meditators was strongly predicted by reductions in functional connectivity between executive (prefrontal) and pain-related cortices
  • Results suggest a functional decoupling of cognitive-evaluative and sensory-discriminative dimensions of pain, allowing practitioners to view painful stimuli more neutrally

Consciousness, Mindfulness & the Mind-Body Connection #

  • In our culture, we normally think that:
    • Our mind is identical with our body OR
    • Our mind is in our body
  • However, the meditation traditions from which mindfulness arises hold that
    • Our body is actually in our mind … and that we are a lot more than we think
    • The small sense of self with which we normally identify is an arbitrary construct based on sensory feedback mechanisms
      • Ramachandran demo

  • Elisabeth Haich’s experience: Asked to sit under a palm tree and meditate on it week after week
  • Three stages of concentration: intellectual, emotional, spiritual
    • First stage: you think about what this object actually is
    • Second stage: “with every nerve and every drop of your blood,” you feel the object of concentration and what it is like
    • Third stage: you become identical with the object of concentration

      … all of a sudden I have the odd feeling that I am no longer looking at the tree from the outside, but from the inside. To be sure I still perceive its outward form with my eyes, but I begin, to an everincreasing extent, to see and experience the inner being, the animating creative principle of the palm … to see it, to experience it, TO BE IT!

      And finally there comes a moment when I am suddenly conscious of the fact that the palm is no longer outside myself – no! – it never was outside – it was only a false conception on my part – the palm tree is in me and I in it – I myself am the palm tree!