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Mindfulness Science and the Enlightenment

Observing Mindfulness... And Then Getting Bored By It

My initial enthusiasm for writing this blog was to figure out what I found so annoying about the mindfulness movement. Something is wrong here, my emotions said.  No, no, no!

To help me figure out if it was just me or if those feelings were on to something, I decided to study the matter further and read a canonical work, Jon Kabat-Zinn's Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness (2013).

Mindfulness and Brain Changes

According to various brain imaging studies, mindfulness meditation can change the brain in ways consistent with observed or self-reported improvements in concentration, memory, and mood.  The same has been found with prayer, cognitive behavioral therapy and psychodynamic therapy.

Open to Experience and Closed to Science, Part I

The study authors speculated that these characteristics may foster “Openness to Experience” (OE), which has been positively correlated to paranormal beliefs in other research.

Mindfulness and Danger

To be a fearmonger is to traffic in fear. Fearmongering is one way ideological and religious movements gain adherents and then keep them.  The world is a scary place. We offer the way out.

Mindfulness and Magical Thinking, Part II

The downside of living in such an interconnected universe is vulnerability. Between the psychological harm subtly inflicted years ago by our nonmindful parents, to lack of inner harmony and connection with others, to the myriad of “toxins” in our environment, the world is a dangerous place.

Mindfulness and Magical Thinking, Part I

Two recent studies compared magical thinking in mindfulness meditators and non-meditators. Meditators scored significantly higher in magical thinking than non-meditators. The study authors suggested two possible reasons for this difference between groups: the mindfulness meditators came from a Buddhist tradition that incorporated magical ideas; and/or mindfulness is associated with greater open-mindedness.

Mindfulness and Appeals to Authority and Status

The tendency among mindfulness practitioners to revere masters goes hand-in-hand with appeals to authority and status that are commonplace among boosters within the movement.

Masters of Mindfulness and Heroes of Science

One way the mindfulness movement reflects a religious sensibility is in the reverence shown towards sacred texts: the sayings of individuals thought to have achieved enlightenment.

Mindfulness: Is Health and Happiness Enough?

For the sake of argument, let’s say that adopting mindfulness as a way of being contributes to happiness and physical health. Then again, belonging to almost any faith community increases happiness and physical health. That fact alone doesn’t entice me to convert or join. Truth-value matters.

Mindfulness and Being Present: Part I

“Mindfulness entails concentrated awareness of one’s thoughts, actions or motivations. Mindfulness involves continually bringing one’s awareness back into the present moment.”

– What is Mindfulness?

What does it mean to have awareness in “the present moment”?  What does it mean to be “present”? Why is it is desirable to be “present”?

 

Mindfulness and Being Present: Part III

“Mindfulness entails concentrated awareness of one’s thoughts, actions or motivations. Mindfulness involves continually bringing one’s awareness back into the present moment.”

– What is Mindfulness?

If “being present” involves a type of “parallel awareness” that co-exists with focal attention, what are the neurological correlates of “parallel awareness”? What evidence supports the existence of parallel awareness?

 

Mindfulness, Thoughts and Thinking, Part VI: Attention, Working Memory and Observing Thoughts.

Attention can be directed or involuntary. Insofar as different brain networks are involved in directed and involuntary attention, they reflect categorically distinct processes. This dual-process model of attention has been criticized, however. Rather than conceiving directed and involuntary attention as mutually exclusive categories, some argue it would be more accurate to consider their differences as matters of degree.

Mindfulness, Thoughts and Thinking, Part V: What are We Doing When We “Observe Thoughts”?

Let’s assume that the subjects in a recent experience sampling study were fairly typical: that is, resting-state experience – the default mode we’re in when not performing tasks – usually doesn’t involve words. The content of our resting states is mostly something else, like a sensory impressions, visual imagery, waves of emotion, or unsymbolized thinking (wordless and imageless, but there doing something – like wondering or questioning or realizing – but without words).

 

Mindfulness, Thoughts and Thinking, Part IV: What’s Going On in Our Heads?

We’re in a resting state when we’re not performing a task, when the brain is “at ease, sir”, doing its thing in the default mode. Hurlburt and colleagues just published a paper comparing “resting state” in two conditions: in an MRI scanner and the natural environment of the subjects.  They found that resting states have five characteristics: inner seeing (visual images), inner speaking, sensory awareness, feelings (i.e., emotions), and unsymbolized thinking (wordless, imageless, but still doing something – like wondering or questioning or realizing – but without words).

 

Mindfulness, Thoughts and Thinking, Part II: Observing Thoughts and Listening to Thoughts

In Full Catastrophe Living, Kabat-Zinn suggests that we observe thoughts as “events in the field of awareness”(Kindle p 5102).  Observing thoughts in this way is not the same as fighting or trying to push away thoughts. It’s just watching them, letting them be – but at the same time not engaging or elaborating. The end result is that they will likely dissipate, like fluffy little clouds. This can be an effective technique when challenged by unproductive thought patterns and persistent low mood.