Why Do You Want to Cultivate Mindfulness?
There are several possible reasons why people want to become more mindful.
Broadly there are different ways that cultivation of mindfulness can be helpful. These benefits are mainly available through the formal meditation techniques that people use to increase their mindfulness.
- There are physical health benefits.
- There are emotional and mental health benefits.
- There is brain function or performance improvement benefits.
- There are benefits of advancing along the spiritual paths.
One of the biggest benefits of practicing meditation is that it can increase healing response by up to 4 times.
This was found in a scientific study done on patients of Psoriasis. It is an auto-immune disease of the skin. The skin develops rashes and itchiness.
The standard treatment is light tanning in a booth. Over the period of time, the rashes clear with the treatment.
In a study, two groups of Psoriasis patients were compared. One group did just the standard tanning.
But the other group did regular guided meditation while tanning. They looked at the amount of clearing as a measure of healing.
If non-meditators reached a certain amount of clearing within 8 weeks, meditators reached there within 2 weeks!!
In another study, they looked at HIV patients. These patients have their immunity compromised.
One of the marker(indicators) of immune health is ‘T’ cell count. The standard treatment at the time of the study for HIV patients is a cocktail of medicines.
There were two groups in this study as well. One group went through just the regular treatment and another one went through an 8-week mindfulness course along with the regular treatment.
They measured the ‘T’ cell count at the beginning of the study and subsequently at 2 months.
For non-meditators, the ‘T’ cell count declined as expected. For meditators, it remained flat. The immunity improved for meditators.
Emotional and Mental Health Benefits
Regularly practicing formal meditation to cultivate mindfulness has also shown to reduce the density in a part of a brain organ called amygdala. Amygdala is a very crucial part when it comes to stress response.
The reduction of density in amygdala correlates with how much stressed you feel. This seems to be the mechanisms through which meditation reduces stress.
The part of the brain right beneath the forehead is called prefrontal cortex. The activity in different areas of the prefrontal cortex can be studied under fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging).
Positive and negative emotions look very different in the brain. When you are feeling happy, joyful and alert, there is more activity on the left side of prefrontal cortex compared to the right side.
When you are feeling sad, depressed and worries, there is more activity on the right side of prefrontal cortex compared to left side.
Normally this ratio of something of a trait. Which means you are born with a certain activity ratio in your prefrontal cortex.
That is why some people are just born to be more joyful and happy. While others tend to be more depressed, anxious and worried.
In psychology, it is called a happiness set point. In a sense, we are born with a fixed trait that dictates how much happiness we can feel.
Luckily in a study scientists noticed that when people went through an 8-week mindfulness course, where they regularly meditated, their activity ratio in prefrontal cortex shifted from right to left.
It is as if their happiness set point shifted. Not only that, these people felt more joyful, vital and alert and fewer worries and less anxious.
This also established that meditation is one of the ways where you can change your brain. Which was previously thought to be fixed.
When it comes to mental health, the biggest benefit of mindfulness is in the treatment of severe depression. Severe depression is the form of depression, where it tends to relapse a lot.
Mindfulness has been shown to be as effective as pill when it comes to treating severe depression.
Mindfulness has also been shown to be effective with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), bipolar disorder
As the very definition of mindfulness suggests, it is a particular way of paying attention, mindfulness is all about paying attention.
When you try to cultivate mindfulness, you practice paying attention. As our brain works, whatever you repeatedly practice you become better at that.
Performance Improvement Benefits
The gray matter which increases in density is correlated with learning, memory and emotion regulation. This means you improve your learning capacity, your memory, and the emotion regulation.
It is not difficult to understand that mindfulness improves attention. It does it in two ways.
Firstly, it improves concentration where you are able to stay focused on a single object. As you meditate more, easier it gets for you to focus and sustain attention.
Secondly, it improves your ability to pay attention to your surrounding. Because you tend to get lost a lot in your thoughts, you end up not paying attention to your surrounding.
This is called ‘attentional blink’. The extreme example is while driving if you get so much lost in your thoughts, you may not notice the car breaking in front of you and you end up rear-ending the car.
As you meditate, your ‘attentional blink’ improves. In a study, the participants had to notice two things happening in a rapid succession, just 1 second apart.
Meditation training improved your ability to notice both things happening in rapid succession.
Meditation also increases the density of the parts of the right prefrontal cortex and insular cortex. These areas are responsible for executive functions.
Such functions include improved working memory, ability to delay gratification and cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is related to the problem-solving skills.
Spiritual Advancement Benefits
For thousands of years, mindfulness and meditation have served this purpose. People of all different types of traditions have used meditation as a tool for their spiritual advancement.
In my mind, the ultimate benefit of cultivating mindfulness is the ability to see things as they are. Mindfulness allows us to relate to the reality around us in a way that is very different compared to what we are used to.
As the definition suggests, with mindfulness we learn to pay attention in a non-judgmental fashion. Or at least, we become aware of our judgments.
As you cultivate mindfulness you may realize that your view of reality is a highly distorted view. You see things not as they are but through the veil of your judgments, labels, and categories.
There are conscious labels and judgments that you use to make sense of your experience. But more importantly, there are many subconscious judgments that are present that you may not be aware of most of the time.
You might be annoyed by a person, without realizing. You might be attracted to a person, without realizing that.
You might be craving for a food item or registering the colleagues hairstyle as a weird one. All without the slightest awareness.
You didn’t see the person as just a person to begin with. But you registered as an annoying person or an attractive person.
You didn’t see the food item, just as a food item, you register it as yummy one or disgusting one. You didn’t see the hairstyle just as a particular style, you registered that hairstyle as a weird one.
These labels and categories color your world view and prevent you from seeing things as they are. This is an evolutionary adaptation. Such quick judgments at times help safeguard your well-being.
A strong or pungent odor, something that is extremely hot or cold and something that causes pain are all examples where subconscious judgment is very helpful as that discrimination can save your life.
The person who cannot feel pain has a very tough life. But the point is that, this nature becomes the habit and it triggers like a faulty circuit all the time. And most of the time, such subconscious judging is not helpful in your long term well being.
Luckily with mindfulness, we can bring such habit of mind, out of the subconscious sphere and into the light of awareness. Once you bring awareness to this phenomena there are choices that become available for you to work with.
You get the whole things upside down. You think that things that save your life are good and things that could be harmful are bad.
In reality, such judging nature of mind is an evolutionary adaptation. Because you instinctively judged things as bad and avoided and judged others as good and embraced, you are still around on the planet.
There isn’t anything particularly good or bad about human being still being around on the planet. It is just so.
Cultivating mindfulness has several benefits.
- It improves healing response and it improves immunity.
- It helps with severe depression, reduces stress, reduces anxiety, helps with several other mental health issues.
- It helps with improving attention, reduces ‘attentional blink’, improves memory, ability to delay gratification and problem solving skills.
- It helps to see things as they really are, without the filter of judgments or labels.