How Meditation Works

Mindfulness meditation is having a moment in the West, and with it some compelling reasons to understand and try it.
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Mindfulness meditation. Chances are that you've either heard or seen (or rolled your eyes at) these words in recent months, as studies, celebrity endorsements, and even apps continue to make headlines. Based on Buddhist traditions and described as "the non-judgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment" -- a skill which claims to offer inner equanimity once purposefully honed -- mindfulness meditation is having a moment in the West.

Its lessons are those trite, self-righteous sayings we grow up hearing precisely when we don't want to: Things are only as good as you make them out to be. Face your fears. Be in the moment. Try looking at it another way. They are the aphoristic phrases we find inside fortune cookies or on the tags of Yogi tea bags that seem to have no feasible application when it comes to the mess of real life. As they say: Easier said than done.

It's hard not to sound new-agey or paranormal when talking about deconstructing the self.

And yet, people are doing it. Millions of them, whether as part of a medical treatment, in group classes, or alone in the privacy of their homes. But like with regular juicing or weekly acupuncture appointments, the question isn't whether beneficial physiological change is possible, but rather, how far can such change go to help us?

It goes without saying that some time to ourselves, quietly sitting and slowly breathing, will prove to calm us down after a stressful day, but when it comes to life's most mentally taxing episodes -- death, disaster, disease -- how much good can mindfulness meditation really do?

***

Gary is 42 and a recovered addict. He was raised a Jehovah's Witness until he left the religion at eighteen. Newly apostatized, Gary became reactionary. He thought, If I can't be one of them then I am going to be the worst me possible. He grew his hair long and covered his body in tattoos. He began drinking, and partying, and dosing himself with drugs. He was trying to fill what felt like a great big hole in his chest, and he tried for nearly twenty years.

Gary eventually hit rock bottom as many addicts do. He hit it suddenly, driving a desert highway home to L.A. and his wife and children, after a substance-fueled weekend in Las Vegas. In those sober, vagrant hours he realized he had to stop -- only he didn't know how.

As an atheist he wanted nothing to do with Alcoholics Anonymous or any form of rehabilitation involving a higher power. What he needed was a way to depend on himself. He experimented with various secular groups, but he says it wasn't until he found a Buddhist meditation center and began "sitting" that "everything started coming together."

In a practical sense, "sitting" is really all there is to the meditation aspect of mindfulness meditation. For anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour (or more) each day, whether alone or with a group, you sit in a quiet place with your eyes closed, focusing on your breath as it moves in and out. Your mind will inevitably wander, which is where the mindfulness aspect comes in. Instead of growing frustrated with your lack of focus or getting caught up in the web of your thoughts, you train yourself to observe the thought or emotion with acceptance and curiosity, and to calmly bring your focus back to the breath.

He realized that for the duration of his adult life, his own mind had been lying to him.

Such an activity seems impossibly simple and non-invasive for its various purported benefits, but according to Dr. Katherine MacLean, a psychologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (who both studies and practices mindfulness meditation), a neurological understanding can lend some clarity. In fact, if you strip it of its religio-historical context, mindfulness meditation is essentially cognitive fitness with a humanist face.

As Dr. MacLean understands it: "It's a way to become familiar with your own mind."

There are different forms of mediation practice -- among them Transcendental Meditation or "TM" (a Hollywood-approved technique heralded by David Lynch), Qigoing (a Chinese form of "energy healing"), and even yoga -- all of which carry their own array of benefits; however mindfulness meditation is one of the more widely used, and most heavily researched methods.

Two years ago researchers at Justus Liebig-University in Giessen, Germany and Harvard Medical School integrated decades of existing research into a comprehensive conjectural report, which explains the various neurological and conceptual processes through which mindfulness mediation works (and which recent studies have continued to affirm.)

The report suggests that mindfulness meditation operates through a combination of several distinct mechanisms: attention regulation, body awareness, emotion regulation, and a change in perspective on the self. Each component is believed to assist us in various aspects of our lives, and when functioning together, the cumulative process claims to lend an enhanced capacity for "self-regulation" -- the ability to control our own "thought, affect, behavior, or attention" (The loss of which has been cited as the cause of much psychological distress and suffering).

In other words, the researchers suggest that the practice allows us to develop a stronger command over the machinery of the mind, a dexterity which, according to a study released this week, stays with you long after you finish meditating.

***

"Mindfulness meditation is not a nice little thing," Gary says adamantly. "It's not like frosting on a cupcake. This is a major major transformation."

Burly and tattooed from head to toe, Gary soon found himself sitting amongst a crowd of hippies and elderly people on a retreat in a remote area of California.

He had begun meditating daily, and through this, he says he was able to more closely observe the movements and patterns of his own thoughts. He realized that he was heavy with "trauma, and anger, and fear, and resentment," painful emotions his mind had tried its best to push away. With this, he began to see his addiction had only been a means of distraction, "a way to escape whatever emotion was arising that [he] absolutely could not handle." He realized that for the duration of his adult life, his own mind had been lying to him.

In meditation terms, he had become aware.

According to the Justus Liebig-Harvard report, awareness (the source of both attention regulation and body awareness) is the foundation of mindfulness practice. Commonly described as being "in the present" or "in the moment," these first two mechanisms consist of learning to focus on immediate internal (physiological, emotional) and external (environmental) stimuli.

Through attention regulation we can begin to "focus [our] attention for an extended period of time" and heighten our potential for "conflict monitoring," the ability to stay focused on the immediate experience, even as thoughts and judgments attempt to distract. This particular aspect of mindfulness training has been widely discussed in the media, after a study showed that the practice can boost student test scores.

Bodily awareness is then believed to build on this component, by teaching us to pay attention not only to our surroundings, but to the thoughts and bodily sensations (such as tension in the solar plexus) that occur in response. What develops is a keen sense of internal and external perception, which Dr. MacLean describes as a kind of clarity of consciousness: "You begin to see things for what they are rather than your virtual reality of what you want them to be."

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Liz Kulze is a writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has also appeared in New York magazine and on The Daily Beast and XOJane.

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