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Mindfulness Meditation: Paradise For Your Daily Life?

Sep 22, 2018
 

Summary 

I know what you're probably thinking: mindfulness meditation?

You may assume:

"Mindfulness, that's just not for me."

Or:

"I cannot silence my mind".

Or you're assuming that mindfulness "is something spiritual people do"

Don't get me wrong.

You may learn to silence your mind with lots of meditation practice. And for some people, mindfulness is a spiritual practice.

But you don't have to be spiritual or able to calm your mind to start reaping the benefits. 

Of course, you can be spiritual but you don't have to be.

Even as a beginner mindfulness meditation can have immense pay off.

Mindfulness is like learning to ride your bike.

You might fail at first - and that's O.K.

And you'll learn eventually - which is the entire point of practice. And yes, learning to ride your bike may even be strange and scary at first...

Until you see how biking works, and then you're all pumped up. Finally you realize that everybody can do it...

Mindfulness is the same: it's weird for people who don't know the practice, but magical once you know where it gets you...

Then the real fun starts:

What if I told you that mindfulness has benefits for what many people are struggling with in life?

Mindfulness can have great benefits for:

  • stress reduction
  • sleeping better
  • improving attention and your ability to observe
  • enhanced emotional control
  • letting go of negative motions
  • listening better
  • getting social "superpowers"
  • thinking outside the box
  • gaining freedom

And much, much more...

I'll tell you exactly how to get all these benefits. 100% free of charge.

Before you start reading, keep in mind that this (almost) 25,000-word long blog post is enormous.

To get the most out of this blog, you would do best to go through it in multiple sessions. Of course, I'm even more impressed if you can read this piece in one session...

Short on time? Just read this summary.

While 25,000 words sound a lot, from the perspective of a 2,500-year tradition that is the foundation of mindfulness, the length of this blog post does no justice to the movement at all. 

Let's talk about that history...

While I'm oversimplifying, mindfulness originated in the East almost 3 millennia ago and developed throughout the centuries. The technique spread into the West in the 1970s and 80s and has become really popular in the last decade(s).

Nowadays millions of people practice a form of mindfulness that still has similarities to its Eastern origins.

Mindfulness can be practiced in multiple ways, such as in groups, alone, or in monastic settings. You can practice during a time period that's specifically allocated to mindfulness, or informally during breakfast or while driving the car.

I'll tell you exactly how later...

So you might be anxiously thinking: "is mindfulness meditation a real bringer of paradise?"

Short answer: maybe!

Long(er) answer?

It's possible, but you'd need lots of practice. Just as you cannot become a top athlete in a day, becoming an expert meditator also takes time.

Keep in mind that the "paradise" mindfulness leads to does not match the conception of paradise that people in developed countries imagine: a hedonistic festival. Instead, "paradise" should be interpreted as a freedom from suffering.

Let's consider that word "suffering". The primary goal of mindfulness is counteracting human suffering.

I'd define suffering as discomfort generated because you're either wanting to push negative states of mind away or keep holding on to positive states of mind.

With states of mind I denote "thoughts", "desires", "beliefs", "intentions", "inclinations", etcetera. In other words, states of mind are anything you can hold in your consciousness. 

Such states of mind may not always be separable from each other and often overlap. Thoughts and feelings, for instance, are often intertwined.

But let's explore that word "suffering":

Suffering can originate in several ways.

Examples?

Let's first consider suffering because you're holding on to positive states of mind:

When I'm enjoying a cup of coffee and I desperately don't want that feeling to end, I'm diluting the positivity of my experience. Phrased differently, my "lust" for getting the maximum pleasure out of drinking coffee reduces the final enjoyment I get.

Sounds familiar?

If not, then an example of negative states of mind might help:

Let's say I have an upcoming meeting with my boss. During that meeting, I might expect to be uncomfortable because my boss is going to ask me some tough questions.

Suffering may begin, however, days before I actually submitted to the negativity of that meeting. I already start becoming fearful before anything scary is actually happening - I thus suffer.

In fact, the meeting might end up being a complete cakewalk, and yet, I'm worried without knowing the final outcome. 

I'm suffering because I'm not willing to entertain a negative state of mind in my consciousness. 

My mind is actively creating discomfort in that case.

There's a solution though:

Mindfulness systematically detaches you from states of mind that create that suffering.

(Again, states of mind can be emotions, desires, intentions, or thoughts you have.)

Several different mindfulness skills that exist to accomplish that aforementioned goal. You can develop these skills:

  • The "presence skill" is the most basic mindfulness competence.

    Presence denotes your ability to be here and now - attending your current sensory experience. 

    By staying in the present you're avoiding rumination about the past or future, which reduces suffering.

  • The "acceptance skill" helps fully allow any state of mind to be without attachment or judgment.

    Instead of identifying with feelings of guilt or shame, for instance, or trying to push negative thoughts away, accepting them will lower the grip they have on your psyche. 

    When developing acceptance you'll become less judgmental towards both positive and negative states of mind. Being less judgmental means you can entertain these thoughts of mind without them affecting you, which lowers your overall suffering.

  • Self-understanding - this is the "deepest" step because it will change not only your perception of reality but also how your conception of yourself.

    Self-understanding entails seeing through the pattern by which suffering is created in the first place, which alters your understanding of you and the world dramatically.

    Sound "woo-woo"?

    You don't have to go this far down the rabbit hole to get results. 

    Suffice it to say that an altered self-understanding can reduce suffering because you're seeing that you are not your states of mind.


The end-result of mindfulness is to 
bring more peace and balance to your life.

 

I'll tell you exactly how to practice these skill in the full blog post. Describing the techniques in a few sentences would do no justice at all to them.

I conclude in this blog post that mindfulness is much more than a simple "relaxation technique". When practiced consistently, instead, mindfulness can change your entire perception of reality and fundamentally alter the way you experience life - if you want to.

For many people in developed countries, who are over-stressed, cannot sleep, have too much on their platter, mindfulness can be a great addition to their health strategies toolbox.

By the way, do you to learn about two more mindfulness-like techniques that are easy to implement into your life? Sign up below:



(One last disclaimer: in this blog post I've tried to most adequately explain mindfulness meditation in relation to a thousand year intellectual background. Opinions expounded in this blog post do not necessarily reflect my own. Additionally, I'd like to say that I'm still learning a lot in the area of mindfulness, and I'm by no means an expert with years of experience in this topic.)



MINDFULNESS MEDITATION: PARADISE FOR YOUR DAILY LIFE? (FREE COURSE)

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Author: Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MSc - Cum Laude), and Clinical Health Science (MSc).



Table Of Contents.

Mindfulness Background:

1. Introduction: Mindfulness For Curing Over-Thinking?
2. The History Of Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness Basics:

3. The First Mindfulness Skill: Presence
4. The Second Mindfulness Skill: Acceptance
5. The Third Mindfulness Skill: Self-Understanding
6. Mindfulness Meditation And Your Brain

Mindfulness Routines:

7. Practicing Mindfulness Meditation
8. Integrating Mindfulness Into Your Daily Life
9. Mindfulness Benefits And (Possible) Side-Effects
10. Mindfulness And Social Relationship

Assorted:

11. Mindfulness, Self-Understanding, And Human Nature
12. Conclusion: The Jury's Still Out

1. INTRODUCTION: MINDFULNESS FOR CURING OVER-THINKING?

Worry less? 

Be more focused? 

Cure overthinking?

Enjoy daily life more?

Mindfulness may be the solution you've been looking for.

Before you decide to sign up though, let's first dig very deep into the topic of mindfulness. 

You might be thinking: "what is mindfulness anyway?" 

As (almost) always, I'll start my blog post with a definition:

I'd define mindfulness as "the skill of being aware of the present moment while abstaining from judgment on any states of mind that enter your consciousness". 

Too complicated? 

Don't worry...

Let's break that definition down into smaller pieces and analyze them...

  • With being "aware" I mean that you're open to what's currently happening. The present moment is simply the here and now.

  • With "states of mind" I signify any content of your mind. "Desires", "sensory experiences", "affects", "inclinations", "intentions", and "thoughts" are all states of mind.

  • With "an absence of judgment" I mean that you're taking any state of mind exactly as it comes.

    You're not trying to push that state of mind out of consciousness or hold on to it. In other words, you're openly accepting any state of mind and changes therein.

(With more advanced practice, the definition of mindfulness can change. I'll explain more about that in the 11th section.)

Let's further try to simplify that definition though - how to understand it in plain language?

Straightforwardly explained, mindfulness is simply opening up to whatever happens right now without deciding that thought, emotion, or desire are right or wrong.

Mindfulness is thus pretty simple. 

Don't be fooled though: lots of things in life are simple. Simple should not be confused with easy:

Running a marathon is simple--but not easy.

Becoming a father is simple (sometimes too simple)--not easy.

Getting up at 6 AM and blogging for 5-6 hours is simple--not easy.

Quitting cigarettes is simple--not easy.


Finding peace in the fast-paced modern
world: simple, not easy.

 

What do I mean by "quitting cigarettes is simple"? Well, simply stop touching cigarettes and you've successfully quit.

The same simplicity is applicable for developing mindfulness. Mindfulness can be viewed as a character trait which is not easy to develop, even though the underlying process of getting there is very simple.[284-286]

A character trait would be something that makes you habitually act the same way in specific circumstances. Courageousness or temperance are examples of character traits.

In this blog post, I'll dig deep into the science of mindfulness and how to tailor the practice to your circumstances.

One piece of advice:

It's not enough to know that a certain health strategy can yield benefits to your life. One of my favorite philosophers, Aristotle, states:

"For the things we have to learn before we can do, we learn by doing."[1]

To be very straightforward: without practice, this blog post is completely useless. You can only get value out of this guide by practicing mindfulness, not just by understanding. 

Not everyone should rely on mindfulness to the same extent though:

People differ from each other and live in different environments - mindfulness can offer and mean different things to different people.

Let's look at a simple example:

Dean is a 19-year-old living undergraduate student who's living on campus. His main challenge is discipline: since moving out of his parents' house he's been eating lots of junkfood and spending 2-3 nights per week at the pub.

The last two semesters Dean's grades have been deteriorating. He's convinced he can turn things around, but needs an "edge". What's that edge? Focus.

Because of peer pressure it's very hard for Dean to choose spending between time with his college friends and his academic pursuits. He know he needs to study, but not going out with friends isn't an option either.

Shelly is Dean's 73 year old grandma. Her problem is very different from Dean's: taking care of herself and coping with the loss of her deceased husband.

To make matters worse, Shelly's also been diagnosed with beginning Alzheimer's. She's wishing to stay at home for a few more years to enjoy her favorite hobbies: meeting friends and spending time in nature.

Fortunately, Shelly is smart and has been Googling for solutions. She's been moving more, improving her diet, and exposing herself to sunlight. 

These strategies make her feel better overall, but she's not dealing well with the loss of her husband or the prospect of losing herself to Alzheimer's.

Both Dean and Shelly start a mindfulness meditation program - despite their completely different circumstances. Their goals with mindfulness are different, and yet, mindfulness can offer benefits for both their unique situations.

Dean finally decides to practice mindfulness in his dorm room, every morning before studying. Over time he's able to slowly detach himself from peer pressure and focus more on his studies.

Shelly, on the other hand, starts relying on a mindfulness group - which helps her cope with loneliness. She also practices acceptance, but for other reasons than Dean: helping her with accepting aging and (possible) disease.

As you can see, Dean and Shelly are helped quite well with their mindfulness practice. 

Even though mindfulness is praised as a universally applicable health strategy, for some people it would actually not be the most important strategy I'd recommend.

Let me explain...

As always, I will precede this blog post with a disclaimer:

Mindfulness - on its own - is not going to make you fundamentally healthy.

There are health strategies you can adopt that I would prioritize much more heavily than mindfulness, such as getting enough sunlight, making sure you're not exposing yourself to artificial light at night, understanding and conquering (chronic) stress, and optimizing your sleep quality

Sure, mindfulness can be a great help to your overall health - but it's not the strategy I would start with when you want to move towards optimal health. 

Do keep in mind that I'm talking about general patterns of observations here. Everyone's health and circumstances are somewhat different. In your unique situation, mindfulness might just be the right strategy to radically improve your health for the better. 

Continue reading to find out whether mindfulness is great for you...


Even the Buddha prioritizes sunlight
exposure as well.

 

Another disclaimer: don't blindly believe anything I say in this guide. Instead, test everything for yourself.

Why?

Mindfulness is based on direct observation.

Let me explain:

You don't need to have any specific beliefs in order for mindfulness to be working.

In a sense, mindfulness meditation is the same as going to the gym. Even if you don't believe you'll be building muscle, you'll still do so if you eat and exercise correctly. 

Likewise, even if you don't believe mindfulness will bring benefits, after practicing correctly you'll directly observe that it does make your life better.

Simple.

Let's thus get started...

This blog post is built up in the following way:

  • In the next section, I'll have a quick look at the history of mindfulness. That history will help you understand where this practice is coming from.
  • I'll then explore the three most important mindfulness skills in three separate sections: 1) presence; 2) acceptance; 3) self-understanding.
  • Next, you'll learn how mindfulness practice interacts with the human brain and what changes it can make to your brain structure.
  • Then I'll tell you about how to implement a mindfulness practice for your unique circumstances.
  • You'll subsequently receive a list of all the benefits (and possible side-effects) that mindfulness can have for your life. Because there have been lots of studies on mindfulness in the past decades, many of the claims on the benefits of mindfulness that have been made in the past can actually be corroborated.
  • Lastly, I'll explain everything you need to know about how mindfulness can radically alter how you see both yourself and the world. I subsequently conclude...

Now just relax:

It's going to be a long ride. Stay present...

First, mindfulness' history.

2. THE HISTORY OF MINDFULNESS MEDITATION

Mindfulness-based practices are thousands of years old. Mindfulness is often associated with a Buddhist tradition, but that assessment is only partially correct.[4] 

I did end up with mindfulness through studying Buddhism.

In my early 20s I've actually investigated some of the original Buddhist texts (of course, in their English translation). These texts are part of the "Pali Canon", a set of texts on early Buddhism - where mindfulness is often traced to. That Pali Canon is roughly 2,500 years old.

Counter-intuitively, Christian, Judaic, and Islamic backgrounds also contain mindfulness-based practices.[287]  

Other religions such as Hinduism, do the same. Commonalities exist between yoga and mindfulness, for example.[288] Yoga also necessitates that you're aware of your current state of mind - a primary mindfulness skill. 

Mindfulness can even be found in (secular) philosophical traditions, which is for example exemplified in the pursuit of self-awareness.

From a historical standpoint, mindfulness is thus a practice that is commensurate with both Theistic as well as Agnostic or Atheistic worldviews.

How?

These early Buddhist texts I talked about are often interpreted as exhibiting an agnostic or atheistic worldview. 

People who believe in god(s), however, will still benefit from mindfulness-based practices. Why? Again, beliefs that you have do not either prevent or aid the development of the skill associated with mindfulness, because the practice is based on direct experience.

Back to the topic of history:

Throughout the ages, mindfulness has been slowly developing. 

2,500 years later, from the 1970s and 80s,  mindfulness-based practices are introduced into the West.[2] Mindfulness has been growing slowly since then. In the last few decades, however, these practices have exploded in popularity. 

People who are not acquainted with mindfulness often assume that it's "something that monks do". There's truth to that statement - mindfulness meditation still has a lot in common with (Eastern) monastic traditions.

In fact, lots of mindfulness practices are sometimes directly derived from monastic traditions. A variation on mindfulness called "vipassana meditation", for example, has strong monastic influences right up until today.

Don't worry though:

The way I'm going to explain and situate mindfulness in this blog post, nevertheless, is to make you engage more fully with life.

Mindfulness thus becomes a means for self-improvement instead of being an end in itself.

You don't need to enter a monastery to receive benefits, even though doing so for a week-long retreat does give many people extremely profound experiences.

You don't need to alter your belief system either to get benefits...



(Nerd section: as a side note, Buddhism became more Theistic with later traditions - the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions. Most modern-day Buddhists are actually not atheists because they're associated with the later-developed Buddhist traditions. The interpretation of this blog post's conception of mindfulness is mostly based on the earlier Theravada movement.)



At the most, a mindfulness practice asks you to withdraw from life for a moment to practice. The more you practice though, the better you'll be able to cope with anything that enters your path in life... 

Let's thus dig into what mdinfulness helps you acccomplish.

Return To Table Of Contents

3. THE FIRST MINDFULNESS SKILL: PRESENCE

A quick detour to introduce the owrd "presence":

Let's consider where the word "mindfulness" stems from...

The Sanskrit word "Sati" literally means mindfulness or awareness. Sanskrit is the language used in early Buddhist and Hindu texts, the earliest traditions where mindfulness practices can be found.

In English, presence or "being present" are words that are strongly related to the word "awareness". Why? To gain awareness you need attention on the present moment - you need to "be present" or exhibit presence. 


Being present: not that difficult in paradise...

Even though mindfulness can be loosely translated into presence, developing presence is just one mindfulness skill. 

Presence is nevertheless the main mindfulness skill. As such, presence is the basis for other mindfulness skills you encounter in later sections.

Maybe you're thinking: "please define presence? What do you exactly mean by that word?".

I will...

Let me first introduce presence's meaning through an example:

Steve's a father of three and a stay home dad.

His wife is the breadwinner. Steve is homeschooling his children during the week and takes care of the household.

He and his wife have been struggling financially. Steve has also been worrying whether he will be able to home-school his children correctly in the upcoming years. 

When he's actually teaching his children, Steve is often troubled about the finances, the lack of time to properly take care of the household, and the future of his children. 

Due to his worry, Steve is not actually fully engaged in teaching his children. His worry makes him spread his attention and multi-task between different activities.

As a result, Steve's only directs 70% of his attention towards his children during school-time. His other 30% of his thought is directed at his finances and other problems.

The example of Steve illustrates that you'll do less well on that task any time you divert your attention from that task.

Why does Steve's example matter? 

Most people go through life doing two or three things at the same time.

People worry about two things and use the spare 50% attention they have left on the task they're actually trying to complete.

Alternatively, people try to work while also spending time on Facebook, or they're calling customers while 30% of their thoughts regard other situations.

Through the skill of presence, mindfulness teaches your brain (or mind) to deal with just one task at once.

Let me give another reason why that principle is important...

In Steve's case, it would be great to fully focus on teaching his children during the few hours of homeschooling. Because he'd be fully immersed in that activity, he's actually saving an hour or two on that work each day.

With the two spare hours he'd have freed up, Steve can easily complete the tasks in his household. As a result, he may even be able to get a side gig in the evenings and make some money to pay off his financial debt.

If you'd just learn to fully focus on one task, your life would be completely different over time. On the contrary, being engaged with two or three things at once is (often) completely destructive.

Why? 

Let me clarify:

People assume they can multitask, but that possibility is really a myth...

Let's say you have two tasks that you deem are really easy, such as cleaning the house and listening to a podcast. Even if your brain can perform these two separate tasks completely on autopilot, performance will go down when switching between the tasks.

The more you listen, the worse your cleaning becomes. The more focused your cleaning, the more you'll miss from the podcast. Doing two things at once will make you perform worse on either task.[39-42]

Please also remember that cleaning and listening to a podcast are relatively simple tasks for your brain. During tasks where you need more higher brain functions, the loss in performance would be exponentially greater.

And there's more...

You're not just losing focus by multi-tasking:

If you've got a primary task and a secondary task, your short-term memory will do worse on the primary task because your part of your memory is allocated towards the secondary task. 

Multitasking will also make you more error-prone on both tasks.

In fact, multitasking can lower your overall performance by as much as 40%. That's a big drop...

My advice?

Get one task done perfectly, and only then move to the next. Repeat until you've gone through your to-do list. 

There's more though:

Developing presence is very, very important in our modern society.

Why?

High level creative cognitive work is increasingly paying off in today's society, while more mundane jobs are increasingly being outsourced to technology.[43]

Due to the developments in artificial intelligence and robotics, it can reasonably be expected that simple tasks will become even less important in the coming decades, while high-level creative cognitive work pays off exponentially more.

To perform well on the latter kind of job you absolutely need the ability to be present.

You also need to realize one thing in relation to presence:

Multitasking or focusing on one purpose is not a behavior that people engage in just once--for most people these behaviors are habitual. Presence is habitual as well and can be developed.


Masters of presence:
just one hunting task at a time 

 

There are lots of other presence benefits though. In later sections, I'll tell you how presence can lower your stress levels and help your social relationships - and how to actually practice presence.

I'll first introduce you to the second mindfulness skill you'll develop: acceptance. 

Return To Table Of Contents

4. THE SECOND MINDFULNESS MEDITATION SKILL: ACCEPTANCE

How to understand "acceptance"? 

Let me start with a broad generalization:

"Human beings' inability to accept setbacks or let go of what they deem good creates suffering."

Let's then define my terms (again): what does "suffering" precisely mean?

I define suffering as creating your own adversity because you're either wanting to hold on to a positive state of mind or trying to move away from a negative state of mind (while unable to do so).

Examples?

Let's first consider positive states of mind...

(Remember that states of mind can amount to experiences, thoughts, feelings, emotions, etcetera.)

Let's say I'm in a relationship with a woman I really love. I may try to hold onto that relationship no matter what - fearful that the relationship may ever end.

In that case, my fear creates suffering which causes me to less able to enjoy the moments we actually spend together. In fact, my fear may even push her away from me because of my neediness to have her in my life.

Another example would be eating at an "all you can eat" sushi restaurant for $25. You're so obsessed with getting as much pleasure from that visit as possible that you're stuffing yourself and reducing how much fun eating out actually is. 

(yes, I've included that latter example because I've been there many times.)

Once you're trying to hold on to a positive state of mind, suffering is thus created.

And examples of suffering caused due to an inability to accept negative states of mind?

Of course:

Let's say I break my leg, which keeps me in quite a lot of pain in the first few days. Instead of accepting the pain, however, I'm continually wanting to change it.

My inability to accept the pain - assuming that the pain cannot be fully taken away with painkillers - creates constant suffering over the pain. The best option would be to simply accept the pain (as much as possible).

Besides suffering over positive and negative experiences it may also be possible that you're suffering over neutral states of mind.

Boredom would be an example of a neutral experience. When we're bored, nothing is really happening which makes us crave for a positive experience - and thus create suffering.

The solution to all that suffering is to develop the skill of acceptance:

The goal of the acceptance skill is to teach your mind that states of mind - such as feelings - just are

A feeling of fear or sadness is sometimes just a brute fact - nothing you can do about it.

The moment you create a narrative around that brute fact, a meaning about what the brute fact such as sadness must mean, you're creating your own suffering.

Pleasure from eating ice cream is also a brute fact. Once you're trying to hold onto that pleasure, you're creating your own suffering.

Simple...


Another example: an inability to accept death means
that you'll spend your life suffering. You're paying the
ultimate price for your fear of dying: never fully living.

 

There's another layer of understanding to acceptance though: acceptance also entails being able to be present with your current states of mind.

Let me explain:

Many people are in continuous activity in daily life. That continuous activity prevents them from consciously accepting their states of mind and letting them go.

Example?

What do you do when in the car? You turn on the radio. What do you do when you get home from work? You turn on the internet or television. What happens when you meet someone and there's silence? You'll start talking about the weather or football.

By always staying active, many humans have a pattern of avoiding some states of mind such as unwelcome feelings or emotions.

Let's explore these previous examples I gave:

  • You might turn on the radio in the car because you'd feel lonely without the music.
  • The television might be a cop-out to suppress your feelings about being afraid to go to the gym. With a few hours of television, you don't have to confront your demons.
  • If you're immediately filling up periods of silence with other persons, you might find it hard to accept your social anxiety.

    Of course, the goal here is not to get weird and say nothing when someone speaks to you--instead, the goal is to be comfortable with silence.

Why do we avoid certain states of mind?

Well:

When you're present in silence, certain (possibly negative) states of mind such as emotions will come up.

When you commit to a 30-minute mindfulness session you'll automatically be confronted with states of mind such as emotions.

That's a good thing...

The goal is to be fully accepting of your states of mind, which helps them dissolve. Acceptance thus helps you actually deal with your emotions.

How?

Successfully dealing with these states of mind entails accepting them as much as possible without identifying with them. With an absence of identification, I mean that you're observing your states of mind change over time from a (safe) distance.

In essence, you'll learn that you can be conscious of a state of mind such as a negative thought or anger while nothing bad happens.

You can just let that state of mind be what it is.

Do you have fear? Slow down for a moment, and fully allow the fear to be present in your mind.

Lust for more ice-cream? Again, slow down, accept the feeling. 

In both instances, the feeling's grip on your psyche will actually decrease.


In fact, I'm testing your acceptance right now.
Can you handle having the craving
in your mind with full acceptance?

Modern human beings often do the opposite: they suppress states of mind such as emotions which counters acceptance. Suppressing states of mind or avoiding them can make them gain strength over time. 

Let's consider an example of acceptance:

Helena had a terrible fight with her husband last week.

She was really angry, and yet, cannot be present with that emotion at all. Due to Helena's inability to accept anger, she creates more and more suffering for herself.

From her childhood she's been taught that expressing emotions is "bad". 

Let's explore what happens:

First of all, there's the emotion of anger that does not feel all too well, but it stays around for a very long time because it's not properly dealt with. Secondly, there's the suffering associated with wanting to change the anger, which adds insult to injury.

Once Helena feels she's becoming angry, she usually flees the scene. She never expresses her anger, at least, not in a productive way.

If Helena is angry at a colleague, for example, she won't show any emotion to that person. A few days later, she might get back at them by acting passive-aggressive.

The colleague might not know where that passive-aggressiveness is coming from, undermining Helena's position among colleagues.

After learning mindfulness practice, Helena is now allowing anger to be present in her consciousness without judgment. By accepting the anger as part of her and simultaneously distancing herself from that anger, she can now observe how the anger transforms itself over time.

Helena's even able to express anger sometimes now, when appropriate.

Thinking back about her fight with her husband, she notices how anger develops in those moments.

Helena notices how just thinking about her belief that her husband treated her unjustly makes her boil. Over the course of half a minute though, she observes how that thought becomes less intense - just by allowing it to be.

After 5 minutes Helena's detaching somewhat from her anger. She realizes she's no longer her emotion, but her states of mind are just something that arise in her.

In time, when Helena develops more control over her anger, she's better able to express her opinion despite being angry. She no longer runs away from anger, which helps both her marriage and work life.

The acceptance skill means that you're gradually exposing yourself to positive and negative states of mind while observing that they don't necessarily need to have an effect on you.

In other words, allowing states of mind to be without acting on them helps you realize that your mind can entertain a certain state of mind without you necessarily having to act upon them.

Practicing acceptance means facing your demons, however. Accepting your demons without identifying with them promotes self-growth.

A small warning though: 

Through practicing acceptance more repressed states of mind can begin boiling up in your consciousness.[60-64]

Such repressed states of mind can be seen as "side-effects".

Let me explain...

Take the example of a state of mind we all know: "emotions". 

You can store what are called "repressed emotions" in your subconscious mind. These emotions, stored as memories, are normally not consciously accessible.

The more you're accepting of all your states of mind - through mindfulness - the more such repressed emotions being entering your consciousness. 

On the one hand, gaining access to repressed states of mind is great: you're now finally able to deal with them - and let them go.

There's a possible downside too though: you may experience strong side-effects when repressed emotions come up.

With mindfulness, for example, physical abuse during your childhood may be treatable - although that research is still in its infancy. Always consult your physician before engaging in mindfulness practice if you've got previous trauma to deal with. 

Overall, the end result is great:

The acceptance skill helps you gain more control over their states of mind - such as feelings or emotions.

Everyone will benefit...


The ocean is not "concerned" with the movement of the waves.
In the same way, your mind should let states of mind 
come and go without judgment or disturbance.
Your consciousness is the ocean--states of mind are waves.

 

Now that I've introduced you to the second mindfulness skill, let's look at the deepest layer of mindfulness: self-understanding. 

Return To Table Of Contents

5. THE THIRD MINDFULNESS MEDITATION SKILL: SELF-UNDERSTANDING 

"Yes, mindfulness promotes self-understanding."

I admit, that statement is vague. Let me therefore elaborate:

Mindfulness helps you see the pattern by which different states of mind arise in you. Remember that feelings, emotions, and thoughts are all different states of mind.

Understanding how different states of mind originate entails gaining an understanding of yourself. Phrased differently, understanding the pattern of your states of mind are created implies you're getting to know yourself better.

Why pursue self-understanding in the first place?

Remember the ancient Greek dictum "know thyself"?[5; 6] That principle was inscribed at the temple of Apollo at Delphi: 


Apollo's temple in Greece

 

Apollo is the Greek God of light, healing, music, youth, the sun, and truth. That Apollonian symbolism is of quintessential import.

Why? 

The association between truth, light, healing, and the sun symbolically implies that by see the world as it really is and knowing who you are (as truth), you're better able to heal. 

Consequence?

Truth and healing are not dichotomous--instead, truth is intertwined with healing.

But how to get to that truth in the first place?

From a mindfulness perspective, you need to see the pattern of your mind (see things as they are) to fully understand yourself.[10-13]

Accepting the reality of your states of mind also means seeing how illusory they can be - the skill of acceptance teaches you that. 

If there's an alternative way to relate to your states of mind - through practicing the acceptance skill - then who you are must also be different.

You might be thinking: "why should I develop self-understanding in the first place?" 

Good question... 

Some historical intellectual giants have precisely rejected the idea that self-understanding is a lofty goal. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a favorite writer of mine claims:

"Know thyself? If I knew myself, I'd run away."[7]

While that translation is imperfect--and while Goethe is a man with tragic character flaws--the saying is extremely interesting. 

Goethe directly denies that attaining self-understanding is a worthwhile goal to pursue - even ending up concluding that the self-understanding might confer a negative worth upon yourself.

Why?

Goethe's assertion is that knowing yourself brings you into too much direct conflict with your own limitations and vices. His quote allows you to see why mindfulness can be scary because mindfulness potentially confronts you with what's hidden deep inside you.

I'm not taking Goethe's route in this blog post though: I assume that self-understanding does help you live better.[13; 255] 

Why?

Let's consider a few consequences of self-understanding:

First of all, self-understanding teaches you whether you're really competent in an activity.

Lots of people do not know whether they're actually skilled or unskilled in something. By gaining self-understanding you'll better estimate your skills at their true worth and you'll actually be judged more competent. 

Example?

Let me give you a personal one:

I was laying a floor with a friend of mine. I'm well educated and (falsely) assumed laying that floor would not be that difficult. After the floor was done, however, a professional needed to clean up my mistakes. Even though I was unskilled, I expected that the job would be doable.

Big mistake...

I had, in fact, already done the same job before under supervision. When working alone, however, not only did I fail but I failed to realize that I was failing (until it was too late). I was unsuccessful working alone because I hadn't carefully observed all the steps of the process.

If I'd properly known my limits, I would not have failed or better yet: not made the attempt.

By making you acquainted with your limits, mindfulness can help you actually succeed in the world. Succeeding means no longer relying on a false sense of confidence. Result? More success.


Knowing your limits (and abilities)
is sometimes more than just essential.


There's more:

Secondly, mindfulness gives you more direct access to your states of mind and behavior - which is part of self-understanding as well.

Let's first consider why self-understanding is important from a psychological standpoint:

Many people are not fully aware of exactly how they behave.[260] Most people also find it difficult to predict how they'll behave in the future or what motivates them.[261; 263] 

In fact, the people around you are often better understanding some parts of your personality than you yourself do.[262; 266] Full self-awareness, in a sense, seems to be blocked from our human consciousness.

The busier you are, the less self-awareness you'll also have. If you engage in more cognitively demanding tasks, for example, you'll notice fewer cues about other people.[260; 264]

Overall, you're thus a poorer judge on yourself than you'd assume. And yet, you need to be self-aware - or better: you need presence.

To build good social connections, for example, you need to know what place you have in a group.[256; 257] People are put off by you if you overestimate your status. Being aware of your status is a form of presence (and self-understanding).

There's more:

Accepting your own flaws towards others can help them see you in a better light.[258; 259] That example demonstrates to me that valuing yourself at your true worth is estimable from a social point of view.

People who overestimate themselves (as hubris), or underestimate themselves (as low self-esteem) create social problems. 

You might now be thinking:

Aren't there other ways to promote self-understanding than mindfulness though?

Well, it's difficult to rely on the feedback of others to understand yourself. People often lie when giving feedback, skewing the feedback about you towards the positive.[267] You're also more prone to accept feedback that already accords to how your own self-perception.[268]

There's another problem:

Self-understanding through introspectively studying your states of mind leads to biases as well.[269; 270]

The bottom line is that mindfulness is a very straightforward method for understanding yourself.

How?

Mindfulness removes some of the biases that are inherent in the human cognition, precisely because of a promotion of an open attitude towards yourself.[271-275] With less attachment, you're more likely to see the true you.

To be more precise, identifying less with narratives leads to a lower level of attachment to your states of mind, which helps you more clearly to identify states of mind such as emotions.[280-282] In turn, you'll understand your own behavior better. 

Thirdly, mindfulness promotes self-understanding because you'll learn that states of mind - such as emotions - are accompanied by a story or narrative.

That self-understanding goes deeper than just not having to act upon states of mind...

Let me explain:

If I'm sad, for example, mindfulness teaches me not to create a narrative about that sadness. The narrative about sadness creates problems: I will attach to that sadness and find an explanation for why I'm sad

Actively searching for explanations for why I'm sad creates suffering and keeps existing suffering alive.

All narratives or explanations about yourself, especially those regarding your social standing, lower your flexibility in life. Once you create a narrative or story about why things are the way they are you're bound to that story.

An absence of narratives or stories about your states of mind gives you freedom instead.

Example?

Giving presentations...

The more protective you are of your ego during a presentation, the greater your stress response will be.[276-278] 

The narrative that you create around how you must act in that particular instance prevents you from performing optimally - while reducing your cognitive flexibility.

Narratives are always part of your current self-understanding. The relationship between narratives and self-understanding can go really deep:

Scared of dying?

You can construct a religious narrative that tells you that all is going to be well, for example. Alternatively, you may construct an atheist narrative that tells you that you don't feel any pain after you're dead - to make yourself more comfortable.

The alternative?

Detach from your narratives through mindfulness. Consequence? Your conception of the human ego becomes radically different .[279]

There's more though:

At another level, fourthly, mindfulness promotes self-understanding by teaching you that all states of mind are transitory.

"Transitory" means impermanent.

Let me explain.

Take anger as an example:

Everyone can get angry, but no one is able to keep up anger for days. No matter how angry you are, the emotion slowly fades with time. Of course, the anger can be triggered once more so that it's fully present again.

In general, though, no state of mind lasts forever.

Eating a good meal? The pleasure will be transitory. Going on a sunlight-filled holiday? The relaxation will end. Mourning the departure of a loved one? The grief will go away (at least you'll not be grieving every moment of the day.

It's a big victory when mindfulness lets you see the transitory pattern in your states of mind. The realization that all states of mind change entail that it's easier to understand how suffering is created. 

At the most basic level, mindfulness learns you to realize that you are not your states of mind.[280]

Instead, different states of mind occur within you.

Lots of people actually identify with their states of mind and see that state of mind as an inextricable part of their very being.

What's the opposite view?

Your states of mind - such as emotions - are no longer the primary thing that makes you who you are. You are not your feelings or emotions, which is why don't have to act upon them.

You can thus have the freedom to change your life's trajectory - or at least be more fluid in your identity. Being more fluid means adapting your life's trajectory towards what your unique circumstances demand.


You are the ocean (consciousness) upon which
waves (states of mind) occur.

You can be who you have to be today to match the unique demands that are placed upon you today.

By detaching from states of mind you're also able to lower your protective barriers - created by the ego - so that you're better able to act out your thoughts in the world.

Negative thoughts will be less frightening to have, for example, which means you're removing your limitations.

An example?

Let's consider food or alcohol cravings. The distance that mindfulness creates from your thoughts makes you less prone to act on them because you don't identify as your thoughts or feelings anymore.

To be sure, mindfulness will not help you eliminate negative states of mind--mindfulness only helps you see their true nature. 

You won't "shut up your mind" or "stop thinking" by practicing mindfulness meditation either. Lots of people mistakenly (falsely) assume they can stop thinking through this practice.

(As a side-note: with lots of practice, you might have some moments in which there is no thinking, but a complete elimination of thinking is not the inherent goal nor the result of mindfulness.)

Additionally, the goal of mindfulness is not about achieving positive states of mind such as bliss either.

Really?

Yes...

To be sure, positive states of mind can be the result from self-understanding and being present--but positive states of mind are not the final goal. 

Remember: the final goal of mindfulness is to understand yourself properly so you can end suffering. 

So how does this conception of self-understanding work out?

Let me give an example on the relationship between mindfulness and self-understanding:

Mary is 37 years old and has been dealing with anxiety for 12 years. She's got a prestigious but stressful job.

Most periods she's actually anxiety free but once she has to deal with deadlines things change. Deadlines at work sometimes necessitate Mary to put in a lot of hours for clients while ultimately giving an important presentation.

During these long workdays she's continually thinking about the presentation she has to give to the management. There's a lot at stake at these moments because the company decides part of their business strategy upon Mary's recommendation.

What Mary's not aware of, however, is that her habit of thinking of the presentation inhibits her ability to act in the present moment.

Every second spent on thinking about the presentation in anxiety is subtracted from her time spent on doing the actual work. Anxiety, moreover, lowers her ability to be creative and to think outside the box.

Solution? Mindfulness...

By practicing mindfulness meditation Mary has not only learned to reduce her anxiety levels but she's also gained awareness just how that anxiety is created in her.

Gaining insight into the her states of mind's patterns means that she can learn how to manage her emotions better.

Why?

For a long time, Mary simply assumed that "she is anxious". That narrative around anxiety impeded her life. Instead, Mary learns that she's not her anxiety but that anxiety is partially a narrative. 

She also learns that identifying too closely with anxiety blinds her options of action.

Absent anxiety, Mary has now gained a lot more ability to reflect properly on herself. With more calmness, she's now able to see that she's actually a good presenter and has done a great job for a long time.

She's assessing herself at her true worth. In a sense, her previous thinking pattern obscured reality as it is.

Mary's example of anxiety is just one instance of how mindfulness can help.

For mindfulness it does not matter which state of mind you currently have though: courage, anger, pleasure, apathy, grief, or fear - being aware of your state of mind always helps you along. 

Being aware of the narratives around your states of mind and how states of mind are transitory will also categorically help you.

I do want to make one disclaimer:

Nobody can fully develop self-understanding in isolation. For self-understanding, you need interaction with the world.

Why?

States of mind, such as anger or grief, are often about the external worldNo-one will fully understand how fear works within them without exposing themselves to some scary situations.

The same is true for many other states of mind.

There are only a few instances - in my opinion - where states of mind are fully internally generated - understood as isolated in your brain. An example of a fully internal state of mind would be a subconscious drive (although you still express that drive in the world).



(Nerd section: Contrary to some Buddhists and mindfulness experts imply, I do not think that it's possible to see the world without any filtering. I do not even think that such an ability would be preferred. Instead, I'd like to develop a self-understanding and shape the self in such a way that it can be productive. Developing self-understanding, for me, means getting rid of self-imposed limitations so that you can fully flourish in life.)



Overall, mindfulness thus promotes self-understanding in the sense that you 1) know your limits; 2) are more in touch with your states of mind; 3) see how states of mind are transitory; 4) that you are not your states of mind.

Now you've developed a basic understanding of the three main mindfulness skills - presence, acceptance, and self-understanding - let's look at what mindfulness does in your brain.

Return To Table Of Contents

6. MINDFULNESS MEDITATION AND YOUR BRAIN

On a conscious level, most people say that they're trying to be(come) happy. You can question whether happiness is really their true drive though.

Why?

Your brain actually doesn't care whether you're happy or not. I know that's a shocking statement, so let's explore how that is the case.

Instead of pursuing happiness, the human brain is specialized towards survival

You're built to search for food in dangerous places with predators and to risk your life if necessary to find a mate for procreation. Your brain is also built to indulge when there's plenty.

The human brain also contains programming to be continually on its guard to promote the survival of the species - which comes with the associated stress.

Fortunately, gaining more control over stress is one of the most important promises of mindfulness.

To understand how mindfulness accomplishes that goal, let's try to understand stress first. While I've explained the role of the human brain in stress in a previous blog post in great detail, I'm going to take a somewhat different perspective in this blog post. 

Psychological stress is a massively important issue in our times:

(Chronic) stress is one of the most common reasons why people get diseased in modern society.[14; 17] Stress gives you heart problems, diabetes, and inhibits the functioning of your immune system once you're exposed long enough.

Many existing health issues are exacerbated by stress, such as insomnia, pain, and digestion issues.

Not all stress is created equal though. The more predictable stress in general is, the better you'll be able to deal with it.[15; 16] That fact about stress' predictability should give you great comfort.

Why?

By increasing your overall self-understanding through mindfulness you're learning by which pattern stress originates in your brain. Learning your brain's stress pattern makes stress more predictable - and thus more manageable.

But let's first consider what happens in stress...

Let's say you're waking up in the middle of the night with a big scary spider on your face. As a consequence, your body activates what is called a "fight, flight or freeze" response.

"Fighting" means dealing with the cause of stress head-on, fleeing entails removing yourself from the stress, and "freezing" denotes being frozen in despair.[19; 20]

Even with psychological stress, your body acts as if it were attacked by a real predator. Results? Digestion is stopped, blood pressure increases and stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are pumped out to deal with the threat.

When you're fleeing or petrified, moreover, the stress reaction is different - different hormones compared to the "fight" response are activated which make you withdraw or unable to move.

All three options are bad news...

Having to choose between the fight, flight or freeze, is an illusion though. Your brain does not have to choose one of these alternatives.

Why?

There's a fourth option which is not associated with a stress response.

That fourth option is to take assertive or motivated action, which is unaccompanied with the fight, flight or freeze response. You can probably imagine why that fourth option pays off pretty well in modern life.


Is he stressed or just assertive?
Don't try to find out...

 

While there are also problems with motivated action from a mindfulness perspective - which I'll come back to later - let's first consider why this response is superior to the fight, flight or freeze response.

You don't want our body to continually act as if you're about to be eaten by a lion when thinking about your mother in law. I hope you can imagine that such a reaction is totally disproportional and that you're better off when just going calmly through your day.

And motivation can be even better than calmness...

You might be thinking:

"How does your brain create a fight, flight or freeze response in the first place?"

I'll tell you:

Let's have a look at the most important brain areas involved in stress:

Don't worry if these areas seem complicated.

Just focus on the areas with the golden rectangles around them.

I've used the analogy to understand these brain areas previously: a car with two adults in the front seat and two children in the back seat:

The driver and passengers signify the brain, and they all try to go to a destination together. The car is analogous to your body that's (largely) under the brain's control.

Let's look at the people in the car:

  • Firstly, the driver of the car is a symbol for your "prefrontal cortex".

    If all is well, the driver is in full control of your body (car). The driver makes sure the car moves to the right destination.

    The driver can either focus on steering the car (the body), but may also shift its attention to calm the children in the backseat. The latter option entails bad business.

  • The front seat passenger, secondly, equals the "hippocampus".

    Your hippocampus has the function of a navigator. The navigator supports the main driver of the car (the prefrontal cortex) with directions.

    In your brain, the hippocampus aids your memory. To be more precise: the hippocampus can access previous successful experiences and use them to help solve current problems.

    To return to the car analogy: through accessing memory, the front passenger can help the driver solve problems through accessing previous experiences.

  • Thirdly, there's 1,5-year-old baby which signifies your hypothalamus.

    If the hypothalamus is activated (the baby starts crying), everyone in the car will be put off. A crying baby is impossible to ignore.

    Result?

    The entire car will have problems reaching its destination.

    Let me explain why...

    The driver has to divert some of its attention to the baby. The navigator of the car also works less well with a crying baby, so that previous memories become poorer accessible.

    In your brain, the hypothalamus can send a signal to your body to create stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. The hypothalamus can also active the part of your nervous system that's associated with the fight, flight and freeze response.

  • Fourthly, there's a teenager in the backseat who can be rebellious and impulsive.

    This teenager is analogous to the amygdala in your brain.

    The amygdala in your brain is like an "alarm clock". Whenever this teenager becomes rebellious he will alert the hypothalamus (wake up the baby).

    If the baby wakes up, the adults in the front have to divert their attention. Fortunately, though, the main driver (the prefrontal cortex) can try to calm the amygdala. 

    Whatever happens, you'd want the teenager in the car to be as quiet as possible, Keeping the teenager quiet is where mindfulness comes in.

    How?

    Stay with me. I'll tell you later...

  • Lastly, there's the brain stem and several nerves around your brain and spine.

    These areas give your brain the most basic sensory input. Those brain areas and nerves can be compared to the idea that the car's inhabitants are able to see and smell their environment through the car's windows air conduction system.

So what's my point with this analogy?

Stress basically starts once the amygdala (teenager) goes haywire. The amygdala causes the hypothalamus to pump out stress hormones, and other parts of the brain are less able to do their job well.

Now, there's a good reason nature built the possibility of having stress reactions into you:

Remember I told you that your brain is mostly concerned with survival? To help you survive your brain is always on the lookout for (possible) problems.[21-26] 

Let me explain...

Let's say you're searching for food in Africa 200,000 years ago. Imagine you're seeing a bush that has some beautiful tasty berries on it. There are two scenarios that can play out in that instance:

  1. Consuming these berries without thinking of possible danger. What's the price of going right in without making sure it's safe? Death.
  2. Spending some energy looking behind the bush. What's the price of being wary for snakes or a predator that might be located there? As a worst-case scenario, you'll expend some effort. If all is safe, you can safely enjoy your beautiful berries.

Of course, 95% of the time that bush of berries did not have a snake behind it. But 5% of times you would have been dead - which is an extreme price to pay.

Nature's solution was to watch for dangerous predators all the time because checking costs less energy for a species than death.

Roughly the same pattern occurs when you meet human beings of another tribe. Back 200,000 years ago humans lived in small groups. Meeting another human being could be be dangerous as unknown humans could prove hostile. 

Nature's solution was to make us wary of human beings that we do not know. Trusting a newly met human being could be fatal, while the cost of distrust is a lot lower. 

In the modern world, however, always being on the lookout for (possible) trouble is not a useful strategy.

There's no longer a snake around every corner, and 50% of human beings you meet are not hostile. If your brain is still continuously on the lookout for trouble your ability to perform (in the present) moment is lost.

 

To return to the car analogy: being on the lookout for problems means that the teenager in the back (the amygdala) is continually ruining the journey for everyone by throwing tantrums. 

Driving well becomes impossible. 

The teenager in the car doesn't care whether everyone is unhappy. The same is true for the stress system in your body.

You'll thus want to calm your amygdala. With a calm amygdala, the baby in the back (hypothalamus) will not cry and stress hormones will not continually be created.

You might be thinking: "why is this scenario about Africa informative about me at all?"

Let me tell you:

Even though 200,000 years seems like a long time, human beings have not evolved that much since then. You're thus using a brain that's mostly the same as when human beings evolved in Africa.

The more time you're spending imagining possible trouble - and thus not being present - the more you're triggering the fight, flight or freeze response in your brain.

To be clear, I've stated earlier that the fight, flight or freeze is not the only "primal" drive within your brain.[74-80]

A second (and far more productive) route is the "motivation system". That motivation system fundamentally has to do with our ancestral drive to seek out rewards such as food and sex.

Dopamine is the central brain signaling substance to that "motivation system". The higher the stress hormone levels in your body are - such as adrenaline and cortisol - the less well your motivation system works.

(If you're interested, I've created an entire blog post around dopamine, health, happiness, and the good life)

When the dopaminergic motivation system in your brain is working well, you're even seeking out challenges on your own. In essence, dopamine promotes intrinsic motivation.

Examples?

Our modern drive to exercise can be an example of intrinsic motivation - to seek out challenges. Intrinsic motivation makes you more creative, gets you into a "get shit done" mental state, and helps you think outside the box.[84]

Exposing yourself to sunlight, a good diet, and sleep, plus seeking out new challenges are healthy ways to promote your motivation system. Mindfulness may do so as well - although more research is needed.[81-83] 

The dopamine system can get out of whack though. 

Why?

Dopamine can be closely tied to hedonism - even too close.

As a human being, you're programmed to indulge whenever you've got access to plenty of resources. Examples are indulging in food and sex. Nevertheless, in most instances indulging in these behaviors will not increase your happiness levels permanently.[27-30]


Our ancestors did not have access
to such plenty every day.


Why do you have the drive to indulge then?

Resources were very scarce for humans during most of our past. When you did have access to foods or drinks it becomes logical to indulge.

Why?

Eating a ton of food will increase the energy stored as body fat which will help you survive down the road. Having sex right now will help you spread your genes--there might not be another opportunity later on.

In this sense, our brain is built to survive with scarcity. In modern societies, however, resources are found everywhere. You can ingest extreme amounts of food by simply taking a trip down the closest fast-food restaurant.

Will eating at Burger King improve your short-term happiness? Maybe. But overeating will almost certainly incapacitate your long-term happiness.

Another example:

Will having sex with a hooker (or gigolo) make you happy in the short term? Maybe. Does that indulgence promote long-term happiness? Probably not.

Shopping spree?

Drugs?

Binge drinking? 

Believe me, I've been there with some of these options...

All these behaviors are symptoms of our human tendency to indulge while there is plenty. If you want to succeed and become happy in modern society, however, they're not optimal courses of action.

Why?

Let's turn back two of the mindfulness meditation skills you've learned about: self-understanding and acceptance.

If you don't observe in yourself how certain states of mind make you crave the wrong things are created, you can never change them. Remember that mindfulness will help you understand patterns in your states of mind through promoting self-understanding. 

Example?

For instance, you may observe that when you're feeling down you're craving to eat junk-food. Another example is looking for sex whenever you feel lonely.

Hopefully, you now understand why the skills laid out in the previous sections, are so important:

Staying present and accepting what is can counter your brain's tendency to look for problems and to indulge.

In fact, hedonism might be a big problem - hedonism is an endless cycle of suffering in which you're never really fulfilled. Continually striving to avoid pain and to promote pleasure means that you're never fully living in the here and now.

Mindfulness can be the solution to that cycle.

In your brain, mindfulness has a tremendous range of effects. Mindfulness practice can even change the structure of your brain over time.

Let's consider the beneficial changes mindfulness brings to your brain structure. Mindfulness:

  • increases the connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.[45; 46]

    Remember that the prefrontal cortex is the driver of the car, while the amygdala is the rebellious teenager. If the teenager throws a tantrum, every person in the car will feel its effects.

    As a response to the tantrum, the baby in the backseat (hypothalamus) will start crying (increase stress hormone levels).

    A good connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala can help prevent the creation of stress hormones in the first place.

    The prefrontal cortex keeps the amygdala (the teenager) in check so that everyone in the car can stay calm. 

    Practicing the presence skill is fundamental to accomplishing that benefit.
  • tones down the activity between the amygdala and an area called the "anterior cingulate cortex".[47; 48; 244]

    Don't worry about that complex name - you don't have to remember it.

    The anterior cingulate cortex helps in regulating blood pressure and heart rate. This brain area also plays a role in self-control (especially attention), adapting to changing circumstances, and controlling for errors in your decision making.

    Aforementioned changes in the anterior cingulate cortex entail that you'll become better at emotional regulation and ignoring distractions.

    In some people, the anterior cingulate cortex gains more nerve cells. There's thus a literal structural change in your brain that helps you regulate emotions.

    Acceptance skill, anyone?
  • decreases the activity of the amygdala.[54; 55]

    This effect is amazing.

    Why?

    Remember that once the teenager in the car gets upset, everyone in the car (including the baby) gets in trouble. From the perspective of your brain, activation of your amygdala automatically turns into the creation of stress hormones.

    Solution?

    You'll want to tone down excessive amygdala activity as much as possible - which is doable with mindfulness.

    Good news: even when you just start practicing mindfulness, the amygdala's activity already starts being toned down. You'll thus get immediate results.

    It does take time to fully re-structure the amygdala though. An 8-week mindfulness meditation course does not seem to alter the size of the amygdala in your brain, while longer-term practice does accomplish that benefit.

    Just think about that change this way: it took you years to create a fully stressed brain, and it will take some time to reverse the brain structure that keeps the stress in place as well.
  • influences the parietal lobe, located below the upper back-end of your skull.[50; 53; 300; 301]

    The parietal lobe consolidates sensory perceptions - in plain English, the parietal lobe helps you orient yourself on your surroundings.

    Some studies problematically state that the parietal lobe gets thicker, while others claim it loses nerve cells. Regardless of study, the metabolism of the parietal cortex does stay high - meaning that the brain can activate this area when necessary.

    The parietal lobe also engages in attention, which is increased through practicing presence.
  • lowers the connectivity of the amygdala to some brain areas, while increasing its connectivity to others.[47; 59; 302-305]

    People with an unconnected amygdala also have more sleep problems and are more prone to get depressed.

    The amygdala should not be totally disconnected though: a good connection to the prefrontal cortex is essential, for example. 

    A very strong connection to the baby in the car (the hypothalamus) or other lower brain areas can more dangerous on the contrary.

    Mindfulness seems to create the right connections - although more research is needed.
  • makes your prefrontal cortex - the driver of the car (your body) - gain nerve cells.[51; 52; 56-58; 244] 

    Yes...

    Another big win:

    If you compare the brain mass of experienced meditation practitioners compared to people who've never meditated, the prefrontal cortex has literally greater mass.

    Both the grey matter, which roughly equals the brain cells, and the white matter, which helps the connectivity between the brain cells, become heavier overall.

    The prefrontal cortex is of massive importance for your brain. Why? The brain shrinks with aging, especially the prefrontal cortex. Mindfulness meditation can slow or partially prevent that decline.
  • an area located more to the center of the brain from the prefrontal cortex, the "posterior cingulate cortex", which is associated with ruminating about the past or future.[187-193]

    You can actually learn to intentionally inhibit activity in this area through mindfulness meditation. 

    The posterior cingulate cortex is really important in the ability to create a narrative about ourselves.

    You previously learned that mindfulness can help you disconnect from useless narratives.

    The restructuring of the role of narratives in your brain can go really deep:

    Engaging in thousands of hours of meditation can literally alter the relationship between the self and others - disconnecting you from an ego-based dichotomy between the self and others. 

    (I'll tell you all about that ego-based perception in the 11th section.)


Transforming your brain is like
a plant changes its colors: eventually
there's an unmistakable difference

 

That's it: the basic of how mindfulness restructures brain areas...



(Nerd section: the information above contains oversimplifications. An example is a difference between left and right prefrontal cortex activity, a nuance which was not included. The anterior insula region, responsible for self-awareness, for example, has also not been treated.[68; 194-196] Why? Different systematic reviews describe changes in the brain due to mindfulness differently.[244; 245] I fully expect that our understanding of mindfulness' effects on the brain will develop in the coming decade, as a multiple (somewhat contradictory) systematic reviews have been coming out on this topic. The brain regions explicated above were currently deemed most important by me.)



I hope you can now roughly understand what mindfulness does in your brain.

Let's get back to the car analogy and summarize the previous findings:

  • Mindfulness trains the driver of your car, the prefrontal cortex so that it can better hold attention. That attention underwrites the presence (and thereby the acceptance) skill.
  • The rebellious teenager (amygdala) in the car, who potentially disrupts the entire ride, is calmed down through mindfulness. The amygdala can literally grow smaller and less connected to brain areas that are troublesome in stress.
  • The baby in the back - the hypothalamus - no longer has to cry (create stress hormones). That outcome makes everyone better off in the long run.
  • The front passenger navigator (the hippocampus) no longer has its attention diverted towards the baby and teenager when all is going well. In that case, the navigator can maximally support the prefrontal cortex (the driver) and make getting to the destination more efficiently.

Hallelujah...

Everyone lives happily ever after...

And congratulations by the way: you now grasp the mindfulness basics. The next step is to help you actually practice this technique. 

Let's, therefore, dig deep into that topic now.

"Come chill out with weed and alcoho...  with presence and acceptance..."

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7. PRACTICING MINDFULNESS MEDITATION

In my previous guide on conquering (chronic) stress, I've mostly treated mindfulness qua presence (or focus) skill.

Remember that there's a reason for that specific choice: presence is the easiest mindfulness skill to develop - the acceptance and self-understanding skills come secondary. 

Presence is also a necessary precondition for cultivating acceptance and self-understanding.

Let me explain why now...

Not being able to stay present makes it difficult to accept states of mind without attaching to them.

Let me give you an example:

Let's say you're observing sadness in yourself and trying to accept that emotion. If you cannot stay present with that emotion you cannot promote acceptance.

Another example:

If you cannot stay present with the now it becomes very hard to observe how all states of mind - such as emotions - are transitory. Creating self-understanding thus becomes difficult to develop without presence as well.

Now that you comprehend that presence is the foundational mindfulness skill, let's dig into the practice of that skill now:

The easiest way to practice the presence skill is to focus on your breathing.

Follow the steps below:

  • Allocate some time in your schedule to mindfulness, such as 5-10 minutes. You can increase the time to 30-45 minutes as you get more experienced.
  • Make sure you're in a comfortable posture. Standing and sitting both works. You need to be comfortable to avoid being distracted by a painful, uncomfortable, or irritating posture. There's no need to sit in a weird meditation position, such as a lotus seat. Simply sitting in a chair or couch with back support works perfectly.
  • Practice presence by continually focusing on your breath. In other words, your attention becomes directed at your breath at all times for the entire session.
  • During that focus, expect your mind to wander to all kinds of different states of mind, such as emotions and thoughts.
  • Examples of thoughts? You might think about a deadline in the future, or still having to finish your dishes. Alternatively, emotions might come up such as anger or boredom (insofar boredom is an "emotion").
  • When you become conscious that a state of mind that distracts you from your breathing you'll redirect your awareness to your breathing.
  • When your mind wanders, there should be no judgment. You should simply notice that your mind is wandering and re-focus awareness towards your breathing.
  • One goal is to learn not to beat yourself up when noticing you're changing states of mind and having to re-direct your attention towards your breathing. The process of re-direction should be gentle.
  • If you're thinking: "damn, I shouldn't have thought about that Netflix episode" or "I'm thinking of my ex once again" (with irritation), you're being judgmental - you're judging how well you're doing.
  • The mentality of gently changing your focus, on the contrary, would be to neutrally notice "hey, I'm thinking about a deadline". Without beating yourself up, you direct your attention to your breathing again.
  • The bottom line is that you have to accept that your mind naturally wanders. Even expert-meditators still have distracted minds sometimes.
  • You can thus not demand perfection from yourself in this exercise, as you're bound to fail. The goal of this exercise is not to avoid getting beat down (changing your state of mind), but to get back up (gently re-direct attention to your breathing).
  • If you estimate that about 5-10 minutes have passed, look at your clock. If you've made it to the time limit, quit your session. If you're quitting, wait for a minute or two to resume your daily activities.
  • If time's not yet up, continue until you're about sure that the session's time has fully passed.

That's it, a simple presence technique that's very hard to master.

(Remember that what I told you in the introduction: simplicity does not equal easiness.) 

To be sure, to practice the skill of presence you don't have to focus on your breathing. 

There are many possibilities to practice mindfulness: bringing attention to different parts of your body one by one, concentrating on a candle in your room, noticing how your body moves while you walk the dog, or being present while driving your car.


A flower: another object to practice
your presence with.

It's best not to practice presence with activities or objects that have an overwhelming sensory experience. Noticing how you feel while drinking tequila or while driving 100 miles per hour on the highway are objectively bad methods for practicing the presence skill.

Why?

You'll want to increase your awareness of the subtleties of experience during mindfulness. Intense experiences block out these subtleties (even though activities such as drinking may have benefits in other areas of your life.)

Please notice that the presence mindfulness skill is directed at distancing yourself from most of your states of mind while favoring sensations. 

The more you practice the skill of presence, moreover, the more you'll notice that your mind shifts to anything but the object you're supposed to focus on. The awareness that your mind wanders is also a sign that you're developing the skill of presence.

Phrased differently, by merely becoming conscious that your mind is continually shifting is an important insight.

Why?

Most people continually shift their attention without noticing that fact.

How many times did you become aware that you're opening Facebook only after you were already looking at profiles? And how many times did you open YouTube, only to become aware of doing so after watching videos for 20 minutes?

The quicker you can become aware that your mind is shifting its focus the better the development of the presence skill gets.

If you practice presence very often, you'll become aware almost immediately that your mind is shifting. Over time, your mind also starts shifting less and less.

There's more though:

Developing presence has important benefits to your overall well-being.

How?

The same brain pattern that undermines your presence is also the brain pattern that causes you to ruminate about the past or future.[296-299] That brain pattern is called the "default mode network".

Once your brain activates the default mode network, you're starting to think about the past or future. In common language that pattern is called "rumination". The more you practice the presence skill, the less often active that brain pattern gets activated (without your consent).

As a result, you're no longer as distracted when focusing on a task.

Want to know more about how the presence skill dissolves stress? Watch the video below:

 

Next, there's the acceptance mindfulness skill.

You might be thinking: "how the hell do I practice acceptance?"

I think it's best I give examples...

Remember that it's essential to accept both good and more negative states of mind when practicing the acceptance skill. 

Quick recap on acceptance:

Consider accepting of positive states of mind: an example is experiencing joy during a relationship. If you're desperately holding onto that joy you're inhibiting your ability to fully enjoy that state of mind. 

Being averse to ever experiencing grief or loneliness is an example of a negative state of mind.

You might not accept grief as part of your state of mind repertoire, and continually push grief out of your consciousness. If the emotion of grief is not properly dealt with it may return with greater intensity in the future. Phrased differently, grief is "repressed".

How about loneliness? 

Let's say you're lonely and not accepting of that emotion. In that case, the feeling of loneliness - again as a state of mind - may persist and intensify over time. You'll also suffer because you're becoming averse towards the loneliness.

A full acceptance of loneliness, alternatively, allows the emotion to dissolve so that you'll be better off.

The key to the acceptance skill is this:

Many negative states of mind - such as averse thoughts or emotions such as sadness, pain, and fear - simply need to be observed from a distance and accepted. In that way, you'll be identifying less intensely with them.

Please notice that the acceptance mindfulness skill is directed at accepting your thoughts and emotions as part of your very being.

When using acceptance you're actually using the presence skill to keep a feeling or emotion in your consciousness.

Here's the kicker:

In order to cultivate the skill of self-acceptance, I do recommend first having a basic level of security in your life. Accepting both positive and especially negative states of mind can make them more volatile in the short-term.

In plain English, practicing acceptance can cause some temporary side-effects.

If you're in an intense depression I would thus not recommend cultivating the acceptance skill. In that instance, I would focus on other strategies for dealing with the depression instead, such as using sunlight, making sure you're sleeping well, and perhaps engaging in a presence mindfulness meditation.

 To practice the acceptance skill, do the following things:

  • If you're currently experiencing a very intense state of mind, see whether you can let that state of mind be as it is without wanting to change it, holding onto it, or push the state of mind away.
  • Once you've practiced presence for a longer period of time, you'll notice all kinds of states of mind "boiling up" from the surface, such as emotions or thoughts. 
  • Let's take sadness as an example. You might experience sadness or longing for a positive experience. Begin actually feeling the sadness. 
  • When feeling the sadness, let it be as much as possible. Observe how the emotion changes over time. If the acceptance skill is practiced correctly, the emotion will get weaker over time. You'll thus get less sad the more you accept the emotion.
  • When practicing acceptance, you should stay detached from any states of mind to examine them from a distance on the one hand. On the other hand, you're getting closer to them than ever because you're fully accepting of them as (transitory) part of your being for the very first time.
  • Avoid wanting to act upon a state of mind as much as possible. If you're accepting an emotion of sadness, for example, don't let the emotion let you take actions such as watching television to avoid dealing with the state of mind.
  • Simply put, in acceptance you're learning to be present with a specific state of mind. You can practice acceptance with different states of mind, such as intentions, thoughts, emotions, etcetera.
  • If the state of mind is too difficult to accept, try staying present with both your breath and the state of mind (such as sadness). Over time, you might be able to hold the state of mind in consciousness.
  • The best way to practice this technique is to start with a 5-10 minute session. Slowly increase that practice period over time. Experienced meditators can (such as monks) actually use this technique for hours (with breaks).

The next time you're engaged in a feeling such as joy, or sadness, or grief, or anger, or boredom, try examining the feeling from a distance. Feelings are often accompanied with thoughts.

You don't need to set aside time to practice acceptance though. To integrate the skill of acceptance into your life, you merely need to slow down.

One way to slow down is to not put on the radio or television once you get home from work. Go sit in candlelight instead to see what states of mind - such as emotions or aversions - come up.

Another method is to consciously slow down once your mind is "gripped" by a thought or emotion. The upside of mindfulness is that this grip can be loosened with practice.

Acceptance is an essential skill. If you're not willing to accept some negative thoughts in your life, or willing to let go of positive experience, you're creating a dangerous precedent.

Why?

A vicious cycle can originate. You might be angry, for example, and unwilling to accept that anger. In addition to the anger, you'll now have a thought that criticizes you for the anger. The next thing you'll know is that you're running in circles of negativity.

The only way to really deal with negative states of mind is to accept them as much as possible. 

I do want to remind you that by acceptance does not mean that you're condoning immoral behavior.

For example, if someone treated you unjustly and caused you to be sad, acceptance only entails accepting the emotion--you're not thereby accepting the behavior of the other person.

That's it: what you need to know about acceptance. It's very simple yet again, but not easy to practice consistently.

You might be thinking: "how about the third mindfulness skill of self-understanding?"

Yes, that's the last skill I need to consider. But because self-understanding is such a complex and abstract topic,  I'm actually treating it in the 11th section.

Let's first consider how to integrate mindfulness into your daily life...

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8. INTEGRATING MINDFULNESS INTO YOUR DAILY LIFE

Remember the following quote from Aristotle:

"For the things we have to learn before we can do, we learn by doing."[1]

According to Aristotle, the more you engage in certain virtuous behaviors, such as courage or temperance, the stronger such behaviors are cemented as a stable character trait

Over time you thus are courageous and are temperate. Once you establish a character trait, according to Aristotle, there's no second thought about fear or striving for excess pleasure.

While both philosophy and science have questioned whether the development of stable character traits is possible to such an extent, I'm going to assume there is some truth to the notion of character.[30-34]

I'm thus taking for granted that you can become more mindful permanently.

To get there, you need practice:

Just as running or dancing requires practice, mindfulness does so as wellThe more you practice mindfulness, the more the mindfulness skills I've laid out before are becoming stable character traits.

Does "stable character trait" mean you're mindful all the time without exception? Probably not. You will be more stable in expressing your mindfulness habits though.

The beginning is the hardest in establishing a habit:

Just like starting an exercise regimen, you might have some initial resistance towards doing the actual work. The same is true for mindfulness.

And just as with exercise, when you begin seeing the first results through your mindfulness practice you'll get a greater and greater incentive to keep practicing.


Yoga, just like mindfulness, needs to be 
practiced in order for you to become good at it.

How do I know some of the mindfulness changes are permanent, and that you can change your character?

Remember there's actually scientific evidence that your brain can re-wire over time.[36-38] I've actually already told you about many of these brain changes is a previous section.

The amygdala which we've talked about earlier - the rebellious teenager in the back of your car (the alarm bell of your brain) - can become permanently less active through mindfulness. 

Other brain areas such as your prefrontal cortex - the driver of the car - can become more active.

Through that increase in activity, your brain will be less affected by circumstances. The mindfulness skills can thus become a permanent part of your very being.

You might be thinking: "should I join a mindfulness group now to practice as much as possible?"

You can, but you don't have to.

There are actually many ways to practice mindfulness: 1) using a specific period in which you allocate time towards practicing mindfulness meditation; 2) integrating mindfulness within your daily life activities.

To use the first option, you'll just schedule at least five minutes of time to practice this skill. Just start by going through the breathing exercise I've posted in the previous section. But how about the second option - integrating mindfulness into your daily life activities? 

Remember I talked about practicing mindfulness while walking your dog? Practicing mindfulness that way will not cost you any time.

Many other informal mindfulness practice options are available. You can practice while watching Netflix (yes, that's right), for example, or while cooking dinner, or when eating.

How?

You just have to stay fully present with an activity.

Consider cooking: commit all your attention to cooking to practice the presence skill. Whenever you find yourself thinking about the laundry or the garbage, gently re-shift your focus to cooking.

It's also very simple to add a small mindfulness meditation session when you're waiting in line.

Spending time in the doctor's office? Give your full attention to a light bulb in the room. Stuck in traffic? Focus on a tail-light. Waiting for an important phone call? Use your cell phone for mindfulness.

Simple...

But how about practicing acceptance throughout the day?

If strong emotions or thoughts come up during your work, you can practice that skill.

If you're feeling off or overwhelmed during the evening, you can also take 1-2 minutes to accept the feelings.

Stressful moment? Practice acceptance.

Integrating the acceptance skill throughout the day will greatly help you with adverse emotions and self-control issues.

Accept difficult states of mind if they come up.

Simply becoming aware throughout your day what effects different events have on your state of mind can have tremendous benefits. 

When your boss calls for your name, what kind of reaction do you have? When you take an hour-long drive to work, what kinds of emotions do you experience from moment-to-moment? When relaxing in the evening, what's really going on with your state of mind?

By integrating mindfulness into your daily life, you'll learn to identify emotions easier over time. With better identification, it becomes easier to let them go.

Overall, there's no downside to integrating the presence and acceptance skills within your daily activities. 

Sometimes you can even save you time each day.

Yes, really...

How?

You just need to fully immerse yourself in one activity - and return your focus to that activity whenever distractions come up.

But let's talk about me for a change - let's consider how I integrate mindfulness into my daily life:

Just by fully focusing on blogging for a few hours a day, without any distraction, I'm actually already practicing my presence skill.

What do I do while blogging?

  • I cut off internet access with my Freedom app. I don't check any websites or my phone during the periods when I engage in intensive writing, 

  • I wear a hearing protector on my ears if necessary to reduce the sound in my environment.

  • I don't plan any activities during the time I'm writing, except the occasional bodily movements. So I'm not looking at my e-mails, watching television, talking to friends, taking phone calls, or doing anything else which could be interpreted as "interesting". 

    The only interesting activity I have during the time I'm blogging is writing

  • I'm carefully watching whether distractions come up, and gently re-shift my attention to my screen to continue working.

  • To be sure, while I'm writing my mindfulness ability builds throughout the days. Mindfulness is not something that's just applicable to one day. 

    Example?

    Let's say I'm writing blog posts on Monday. If I'm engaging in a totally different activity on Tuesday, then my ability to focus will go down again on Wednesday. If I work from Monday through Wednesday instead, my focus will increase every day.

    For this specific reason, I'm working as many days in a row as possible until a blog post is fully finished.

    No weekends off.

I hope my example demonstrates what it means to fully focus on one task and carry it through perfectly.

My method of integrating mindfulness into life is not the only way.

Let's look at another method - watch this video about the power of fully disconnecting:

Of course, not everyone will want to only practice by integrating mindfulness in their daily activities.

What if you do want to go all the way with practice for maximal benefit?

For the best results, combine one full mindfulness session during the morning or evening, with ad hoc practice throughout the day. Immerse yourself in the day's important activities to promote presence. 

It doesn't matter which specific activity you want to fully focus on:

Public speaking, driving your car, making sales calls, working construction, blogging, mowing the lawn, and even watching television or walking through the forest: all of these activities benefit your presence skill when you fully engaging in them.

Different mindfulness activities thus build upon each other.

Now that you know how to practice the basic skills, let's look at the benefits (and side-effects) of mindfulness meditation...

Want to learn about two more mindfulness-like techniques that are easy to implement into your life? Sign up below:

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9. MINDFULNESS BENEFITS AND (POSSIBLE) SIDE-EFFECTS)

In this section, I'll tell you how mindfulness can specifically improve your life. You'll also learn about possible side-effects of the practice.

Stay with me to find out why some people claim that mindfulness is not for everyone

I'll additionally examine how to use mindfulness meditation for very specific situations such as loneliness or improving sleep quality.

(By the way, in the next section I'll consider how mindfulness can improve your social relationships.)

First, the benefits:

(Why would you be reading this article otherwise?)

  • Mindfulness helps you sleep better[121-131]

    Sleep quality denotes the amount of deep and dream sleep periods you get each night. During these two sleep periods, your body actually recovers, effects which tend not to occur during the more superficial sleep phases.

    Even more fascinating: sleep quality after practicing the presence skill for a short period of time.

    Sleep disturbances and insomnia may also be reduced through mindfulness practice. These sleep-boosting effects pertain to both young people such as college athletes as well as older adults. 

    The presence skill allows you to be less aroused before bedtime, which improving your sleep. Practicing your presence skill also lowers the probability that you're ruminating while laying in bed.

    Even if you've got a serious disease, such as cancer, mindfulness can improve sleep quality. 

    How is that outcome possible?

    Diseases like cancer have enormous psychological consequences. By being more present and accepting you're gaining a psychological benefit, which helps sleep. Stress and fatigue are also reduced if you have cancer.

    Mindfulness also aids you if you've got other health problems such as muscular pain, for example.

    In fact, I'm quite sure acceptance will also help a lot if you're in any type pain. 


    Sleeping well due to mindfulness practice? Or due to other reasons?


    Fortunately, mindfulness has benefits during the daytime as well:
  • Mindfulness may improve cognitive function (in some areas).[146-162]

    First of all, people who are long-term meditators have better attention and working memory. Working memory denotes the ability to keep several different pieces of information in your mind, such as multiple digits from a telephone number.

    The mechanism by which mindfulness increases working memory is probably the aforementioned sleep quality improvement. 

    Surprisingly, there are downsides to using mindfulness for your brain function as well:

    Mindfulness meditation may not have a positive effect on your long-term memory, specifically regarding remembering events that happened some time ago.

    In fact, mindfulness may increase your chances of remembering memories that are false, due to the open attitude that's induced by the practice. 

    Acceptance can thus have its downsides because you're getting less judgmental, which may distort long-term memories.

    (At least you do have a valid reason to forget the birthday of your spouse now.)

    Fortunately, there are many more upsides to mindfulness that point towards a cognitive improvement instead of a decline.

    Attention is strongly improved with mindfulness - which can be expected through practicing the presence skill. Reaction times also become quicker with more mindfulness practice.

    In terms of attention, people who practice mindfulness have a less biased mind and are able to look at data more objectively--instead of working on the basis of (incorrect) assumptions.

    The end result of that you'll get a more objective attitude towards the world. You'll be more focused on problem-solving, and less prone to engage in problem avoidance behavior.

    Additionally, in terms of problem-solving, the skill of acceptance allows you to be "comfortable being uncomfortable" with a difficult problem.

    That's a big win...

    Mindfulness may also reduce your procrastination.

    There's more though:

    Brain areas associated with learning and memory increase their number of nerve cells. These brain changes are very promising for older people, as mindfulness might have an overall anti-aging effect through that mechanism.

    Developing mindfulness also decreases anxiety, which improves cognitive performance even more.

    Overall mental well-being, moreover, is increased through practicing mindfulness a well, which is an often underappreciated benefit in cognitive performance.

    Why?

    The better you feel in general, the better your brain works. 

    Mindfulness may even cultivate a sense of playfulness in learning. 

    Let's explore that word, "playfulness":

    By identifying less with our thought you can keep a more open mind towards new possibilities qua identifying problems and finding solutions. You're also more immersed in the moment through mindfulness, and less concerned with the future or past.

    All these qualities allow you to see learning as play instead of a duty. To me, the word duty is strongly associated with stress while play is associated with creativity.

    Overall, even though mindfulness may lower the functioning of your long-term memory (though disassociating you from your states of mind), the overall benefits are very positive for cognition.

    Big win...

    Let's now explore a counterintuitive mindfulness benefit:
  • Mindfulness may improve your gut function.[163; 248]

    Yes, really...

    Did you know that your gut function is to a very large extent influenced by your ability to cope with stress?

    In the absence of stress, for example, healthy fatty acids are automatically produced in the gut. Under stress that process can get short-circuited.

    Stress also alters the bacteria that are produced in the gut. Unfortunately, more high-quality studies are needed to confirm these effects.

    There's a direct link between the use of mindfulness and specific gut disorders improvements:

    In a condition called "irritable bowel syndrome" - an intestine disorder - mindfulness has been proven to increase the quality of life. How? People start to psychologically deal with their disorder in novel ways.

    The gut improvement effects of mindfulness meditation probably exist because of 1) stress reductions; 2) being more accepting of negative states of mind, which lowers suffering; 3) having an increased ability to think outside the box.

    Interesting to say the least...

    Ready for more benefits?

    Let's go:
  • Mindfulness increases self-control.[168-173; 175]

    Who cannot use that effect?

    And there's even more good news: this mindfulness benefit has been studied a lot.

    Self-control is quite important in life. With greater self-control, you're better able to focus and resist temptations - sticking to a diet or getting up early to work on a deadline become (more) effortless.

    You're also more able to regulate your emotions when using mindfulness meditation - specifically through the acceptance skill. Emotional regulation is a form of self-control as well.

    The most important skill for improving self-control, however, would actually be presence. With presence you'll be training your brain to focus on what you want while ignoring distractions. 

    From the standpoint of your brain, a bag of donuts can be a big distraction. Negative emotions such as anger or hatred can also be seen as a "distraction" from a presence point of view.

    Of course, to fully adequately deal with anger or hatred issues you also need the acceptance skill to (potentially) dissolve them.

    Overall, self-control helps you with surprisingly many situations in life, ranging from picking up new habits to improving your social life. 

    (Learn why mindfulness improves your social life in the next section.)

    There's (almost) no area in life in which more self-control does not lead to a better outcome. Let's now jump to the reason why so many people practice mindfulness in the first place:
  • Mindfulness reduces stress and, anxiety, and may positively affect depression.[103-107; 176-178; 228-234]

    Actually, mindfulness practice has been demonstrated to lower stress, emotional exhaustion, anxiety, and depression in many studies. 

    What's even more interesting is that your self-compassion, relaxation, and the way you value your personal accomplishments all go up.

    Mindfulness meditation even affects your body's basic biology: heart rate, (high) blood pressure and the levels of the stress hormone cortisol all go down. Even inflammation - which is present in many modern diseases such as heart disease or diabetes - is lowered.

    From a psychological perspective though, stress, depression or anxiety can all originate because you're unwilling to confront an experience that's judged as "negative" by your mind. 

    The acceptance mindfulness skill can sometimes massively help in these instances.

    Consider depression:


    I would define depression as the judgment that "all things considered, your life is not going in the right direction, and therefore, you're not feeling well". Of course, that definition is very heavily psychology-focused.

    I do assume, nonetheless, that on a fundamental level in your body, processes such as brain signaling substances or your general health almost always cause such depressive thoughts to originate in the first place.

    There's one caveat though:

    Mindfulness-based "cognitive therapy" option is promising for treating depression in people who've already had a few bouts of depression. If you've got a (major or clinical) depression for the very first time, mindfulness can actually worsen your results.

    If your depression is caused due to trauma, moreover, mindfulness generally tends to work better

    Whether mindfulness works for depression thus largely depends on your personal circumstance. Whether mindfulness is a great option for you is best determined through a consultation with your physician.

    Let's explore acceptance in relation to depression:

    Acceptance can help you connect to your states of mind - such as thoughts or feelings -  by observing them from a distance without being judgmental towards them.

    If you're depressed, for example, you'll probably have lots of negative thoughts and feelings: how you're never going to feel better, how life will never go your way, or how you'll never find (true) love.

    Acceptance allows you to fully entertain these states of mind while simultaneously understanding that the world does not end if you're having such thoughts. In other words, acceptance cultivates a new relationship to depressive states of mind.

    The more accepting you are of these thoughts, and the less you resist them, the more they'll also start to dissolve.

    I do recommend, however, to always rely on a general health program to combat depression and never to rely on mindfulness alone. If you eat poorly, you're more prone to be depressed as well - mindfulness cannot (directly) cure poor eating.

    Overall, the future treatment possibilities of depression through mindfulness seem promising...

    How about stress? Stress is where mindfulness shines...

    What happens in these cases of stress? In essence, you're judging that your capacity to influence the world cannot hold up to the standard you're willing to accept for that world.

    The skill of acceptance detaches you from the stressful thoughts and helps them stay in your consciousness without causing (harmful) rumination. Developing this acceptance skill has helped many people deal with stress:

    Stressing about a deadline? You're unable to accept a poor outcome.

    Stressing about your children? You're unable to entertain the thought that they might make big mistakes in their lives - even though you cannot control their actions.

    Stressing about money? You're unable to imagine being poor or losing money.

    In-acceptance, however, moves you towards the outcome you're trying to prevent in the first place. How? Again, when you suffer your ability to cope goes down. Acceptance prevents that suffering, reducing stress.

    Additionally, your overall quality of life goes up with mindfulness, which is another mechanism through which stress is undermined.

    Practicing the presence skill, moreover, undercuts stress at its roots:

    You'll reduce your propensity to ruminate about the future. Please observe that 99% of stress and depression involves states of mind pertaining to the past or future--while there's nothing wrong in the present moment. 

    The very moment you practice presence worrying about the future or past becomes impossible. In turn, your amygdala (the rebellious teenager) immediately gets some well-deserved rest.

    All-in-all, mindfulness is thus a great strategy to make your mind healthier...

    We're not done yet though:

    How about anxiety?[108-111]

    I hope you're acquainted with my thinking pattern right now:

    "What's anxiety in the first place?"

    Underlying anxiety is an a-specific drive to avoid of negative experiences - anxiety is not specific such as fear of a deadline or death. In other words, anxiety is broader and does not always have a direct object.

    In the case of anxiety, I do consider the self-understanding skill very important. Why? Remember that human beings are always on the lookout for very bad scenarios. Anxiety is an outgrowth of that human tendency.

    Our innate human thought pattern of expecting bad scenarios, such as a lion behind every bush you look at, is no longer useful in modern society. In anxiety, you're afraid that something bad is going to happen to you, without knowing what specifically.

    Additionally, people with anxiety are often subconsciously assuming that the anxiety will keep them safe, while the opposite is true.

    Let me explain:

    With anxiety you're putting a continuous strain on your body, depriving it of its precious resources. Once you do need to act flexibly, you simply don't have the energy left to do so.

    The skills of acceptance will allow you to accept your anxious feelings without identifying with them - while self-understanding helps you see through its pattern. Presence, moreover, will demonstrate that there's no imminent danger right now.

    Mindfulness is one of the only ways to target your anxiety head-on. "Avoidance" strategies, such as taking prescription medicine or engaging in activity to convince yourself that "all is well" do not treat the root cause of anxiety (and thus do not offer long-term solutions).

    (Of course, again, anxiety is not just based on an inability to be present, but a complex disorder. My claim is merely that mindfulness may improve the condition.)

    I would even go so far as to say that lots of behaviors, such as drinking or needing to be around people all the time are (ultimately unsuccessful) coping strategies for anxiety.

    Anxiety is thus more widely present than you'd think...

    Next:
  • Mindfulness can slow down aging - and help you accept aging.[197-201; 247; 306-310]

    Yes, really.

    Let's first consider how to slow down aging...

    I'll treat three mechanisms.

    Firstly, because mindfulness reduces stress and rumination, the cellular damage to your DNA - which occurs as a result of stress - is decreased. To be more precise: your DNA strands have "telomeres", determine how many times your cells can still divide.

    While your telomeres can also grow again, your chances for getting many modern diseases increase once they're mostly used up. Mindfulness meditation may help reduce that telomere length reduction.

    Secondly, there's inflammation - which underlies many modern diseases - which can play a role in aging. Mindfulness reduced that inflammation to a small extent. 

    Thirdly, mindfulness keeps your brain young by increasing the number of nerve cells therein. The overall size of some parts of your brain may also stay larger while you get older. During aging, mindfulness even helps you maintain your cognitive abilities. 

    While more research is needed, these developments make me very excited...

    I'm not done yet though.

    There's a second layer to my argument:

    Mindfulness can help you accept aging.

    Let me explain...

    The acceptance skill can show us that aging is inevitable and cannot be avoided. If you feel down because you're getting older, simply accepting and allowing that state of mind will help it dissolve.

    Accepting aging is one of the hardest things there is - at least for me.

    Suffering over aging or death also lowers your ability to live life fully in the first place.

    I think aging and death are inevitable, even with modern-day technologies like stem cells. Even if you could become 1,000 or 10,000 years old through technology (theoretically), there's always the chance that you die from whatever unlikely event.

    As humans, I think we all have to face impermanence, no matter what.

    Merely thinking of dying can be very scary for some people. Most people are assuming that dying will be a painful or hard event. Observe that that conclusion is based on speculation (about the future).

    That fear of death itself can be softened though:

    From a mindfulness perspective, you'll find out there's no way of knowing how death will end up. There's no need to assume pain, as perhaps your last moments will be extremely beautiful.

    Let me re-iterate:

    Because you do not know how you will spend your last moments, and because that moment is located in the future, it's senseless to speculate about that moment.


    No animal ever suffered over getting older.


    Thus: just be present and enjoy the life you have...
  • Mindfulness may help you cope with trauma.[139-145]

    Of course, I'm not giving medical advice here, and I'm no expert in using mindfulness for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Please seek guidance if you've got PTSD to let someone guide you through the process.

    I'm also not describing the specific steps on how to apply mindfulness to PTSD because I do not consider myself qualified to do so. 

    Nevertheless, I do want to mention that studies demonstrate that mindfulness might help in this specific situation.

    Unsurprisingly, mental trauma such as PTSD is characterized by brain changes in the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. People with PTSD often have an overactive amygdala and underactive prefrontal cortex.

    Although I'm grossly oversimplifying here, people with PTSD have much more heightened and frequent fight, flight or freeze response to anything that remembers them of their initial trauma. These experiences are way more intense than normal stress.

    So how does mindfulness help you if you're traumatized? 

    The acceptance skill may help you with dealing with dissolving the stress over time. Lots of people with PTSD actually suppress the trauma, not allowing their experiences into their consciousness. 

    Depressive symptoms, fatigue, and tension have been proven to be reducible through mindfulness practice - anger issues, anxiety, and overall vitality have not (yet) been demonstrated to improve, sadly enough...

    Please discuss mindfulness with your physician because there might be viable treatment options for you there.

    Mindfulness can affect diseases that have a mental dimension, such as fibromyalgia or addiction.[132-134]

    While I do not think these conditions are fully psychological, I do assume that there is a strong psychological component.

    Let's start with a definition once again: fibromyalgia is a pain-disorder that's accompanied by fatigue, mood, and performance issues.

    Using mindfulness for fibromyalgia reduces pain and increases well-being. The extent to which fibromyalgia causes a disability also goes down, and even stress and depression are (partially) averted. 

    Overall, mindfulness can thus affect many dimensions of fibromyalgia.

    Addiction is another "disease" that has a strong mental component.[135-138]

    Of course, several types of addictions exist:

    Firstly there are behavioral addictions (e.g. gaming or gambling), and secondly, there are substance abuse addictions (e.g. alcoholism or drug abuse).

    Both types of addictions can be treated through mindfulness. In both behavioral and substance abuse addictions the number of cravings and dependence on the behavior (or substance) are reduced.

    That's a big win...

    Why does mindfulness work in these instances? 

    Well, I think a greater ability to be present - and thus allowing yourself to be happier in the now removes your attention towards craving a substance or behavior (which are always future-oriented).

    Being present undercuts our brain's propensity to be hedonistic, i.e. to strive for pleasure and avoid pain.

    I do think that many addictions arise to fill a certain gap in happiness for people. In the past I've written an extensive blog post on promoting happiness, arguing that you need very little (material possessions) to be happy (if you have the right mindset):

    Sunlight, good food, health, some income, and social relationships may already be sufficient.

    The root cause of the addiction exists rarely the substance or the behavior alone. Instead, at some point, people started filling the void of their lives with a substance or a behavior.

    Although addictions is a much more complex subject than I'm doing justice to right now, I do think that mindfulness is of enormous help.

    How?

    The acceptance skill entails being comfortable with the state of mind that you currently have, without having to replace that state of mind through drugs or gambling.

    Acceptance of your cravings and observing them from a "distance" can reduce their grip on your psyche. Developing the self-understanding skill help you gain the insight that cravings are not a necessary part of you, even though they seem to be.

    Even certain associations with addictions can be undermined through mindfulness. Example? Let's say I have a gambling addiction, and every time I walk through the city I'll get cravings to enter the casino.

    By simply practicing presence, and focusing on the here and now, I'm already undermining that craving to go gambling.

    Cultivating the skills of acceptance and self-understanding will also teach you how specifically cravings arise in the first place, help you learn when and how they originate and be comfortable with them. 

    Cravings then become more predictable...

    You can even practice acceptance while slowly moving closer to the substance or the place where your addiction is triggered - while continually accepting states of mind and dissolving them. Be careful with this method though.

    Of course, the method would work for all kinds of addictions, such as overeating, video games, shopping, etcetera.

    Done.

    Let's consider another big benefit:
  • Mindfulness can help you counter the negative effects of social isolation:

    For many people, being alone is a very negative experience. As an introvert, I have somewhat fewer problems with being alone--but as a blogger, even loneliness does become overbearing sometimes.

    There are evolutionary mechanisms why you're not looking forward to being lonely.[91-93] Social animals being ostracized from a group could simply imply death 200,000 years ago.

    Loneliness has big effects on your health:

    If you're lonely, you're more prone to have lower self-esteem, question the meaning of life, and experience discomfort. People who have lower self-esteem, in general, engage in more behavior that's off-putting, further increasing their chances of being lonely.[266] 

    Suffering over social isolation nevertheless adds insult to injury. The skill of acceptance can reduce that suffering. Mindfulness can make you more comfortable by being by yourself.[94-96]

    And yet, loneliness is not the only problem today:

    Some people in modern society have the opposite problem of loneliness: over-stimulation by their number of social interactions.

    An example would be if you're working 70 hours in a highly-demanding job with client interactions while using your weekends to visit your family with your spouse. In that case, you'll never have some time to "breathe".

    In all these cases the basic mindfulness skills will help...
  • Mindfulness reduces (chronic) pain perception.[105; 112-115]

    Chronic pain can be defined as pain that lasts longer than would normally be expected.

    Let me explain:

    If you bump your knee to a table and have light pain for 5 days, that's very normal. If you have pain for 5 months after that incident, that's abnormal. In the latter case, you'd speak about chronic pain.

    Shocking fact:

    Between 5 and 30% of this world's population actually deals with chronic pain. Pain is therefore not a "side-issue" that only affects a few human beings. 

    Painkillers are often prescribed as a treatment for chronic pain. Mindfulness meditation might be a great (lower-risk) alternative treatment strategy.

    Why?

    Mindfulness increases overall well-being in people with chronic pain, lowers their perception of pain, and helps them move better. Whether the effects of mindfulness meditation are properly maintained over time still needs to be investigated.

    There's not always a specific event that causes the chronic pain in the first place. In other words, chronic pain is not always preceded by a damaging insult to the body. 

    Very often chronic pain has a considerable psychological dimension.[115-118] For that reason, it's not a coincidence that psychological interventions, such as "cognitive behavior therapy" are very successful in pain management.

    Mindfulness meditation deals with the psychological component of a disease.

    Let me clarify...

    Fear, stress, and (chronic) pain are tightly interrelated.[119; 120] Chronic pain and chronic stress have even been named "two sides of the same coin".

    Pain causes stress in some people through which the body enters a vicious cycle. In turn, stress caused by pain causes fear and anger.

    Fear - combined with some pain that was originally there - makes you want to close off and participate less in life. Not doing much, however, feed a larger vicious cycle of pain, stress, fear, and doing less.

    Solution?

    Use the mindfulness acceptance skill. Observe your pain from a safe distance, and see how the pattern of pain changes over time. Accepting the pain undercuts the vicious cycle I've talked about earlier because the fear is (slowly) removed from the equation. 

    Without fear (and stress), only the pain sensation is left. With just pain you'll easier start exploring the ability to move more again, slowly breaking the vicious cycle. 

    In a cognitive sense, many people with chronic pain judge that "this sensation (of pain) is damaging me, and therefore I cannot accept that sensation".

    Mindfulness meditation - by practicing acceptance - observes: "I have this sensation. The sensation comes and goes. I am not the sensation of pain." In turn, you'll be more prone to start moving.

    (One assumption I do make is that you can move while being in chronic pain. I know physically moving is not possible for all people in chronic pain, but reducing suffering is always beneficial.)

    Additionally, mindfulness helps you distance yourself from your thinking pattern about pain. The self-understanding skill - seeing that you are not your thoughts - helps your mind gain the flexibility needed to think differently about chronic pain.

    In other words, by observing thoughts about pain from a distance you're gaining insight into how your thinking pattern keeps the (chronic) pain alive. 

    In most cases, the best way to often think about chronic pain is to accept the pain as a given and to focus on solutions that can make your overall health better, such as engaging in more movement or improving your diet. 

    By continuing to focus on the problem of pain - not willing to accept pain - you're actually also keeping the problem alive.
  • Mindfulness helps combat modern welfare diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.[202-211]

    Let's first consider heart disease - one of the most prevalent diseases in modern society.

    Of course, heart disease is an enormously complex problem that's influenced by many variables. Stress is nevertheless one main underlying reason why people get heart disease, and as you now know, mindfulness can help in that area.

    Mindfulness is especially helpful because it's an inexpensive intervention - I'm basically giving you the intervention away 100% free in this guide.

    By reducing stress, mindfulness can help prevent heart diseases. Having heart surgery 10 years down the road will be a lot pricier than implementing the strategies in this blog post.

    If you've got heart disease, mindfulness can increase your physical performance such as your ability to walk for a period of time. If you practice mindfulness for a longer, your blood pressure, mental functioning, and well-being also improve.

    How about diabetes?

    Interestingly enough, mindfulness can improve your longer-term blood glucose rates. This measurement called "HbA1c" should remain low because it reflects how many sugars were located in your blood over a 3-month period.

    Mindfulness may also lower your blood pressure if you've got diabetes. You'll likewise improve your ability to manage the disease and reduce complications.

    Great opportunity right?

    Mindfulness helps with the psychological management of diabetes as well: depression, distress, and anxiety levels all go down.

    You might think: "how are such outcomes possible?"

    I simply assume that simply being more "mindful" with your disease helps improve your condition: you'll make better choices. In other words, people who practice mindfulness may just eat better food, worry less, and move more, which all help manage diabetes.

    I, therefore, do not think that mindfulness has a direct physiological response that helps your blood sugar levels. 

    With mindfulness, you'll simply have more compassion for yourself - which helps. 

    "Compassion for yourself?"

    Never heard of that?

    Let's get into to that topic now then:
  • Ending this long list on a positive note: mindfulness helps you relax and love yourself.[45; 179-186]

    As you know by now, most of our suffering is created because our minds unintentionally wander to the past or future on a continuous basis - while unwilling to accept what's right here.

    Although research is somewhat mixed, people who have been practicing mindfulness may be able to switch more easily between awareness and mind wandering.

    Mind wandering is thus not wrong per se, but an inability to control that wandering is. The better you're able to intentionally control your mind wandering, the better off you are in terms of suffering - and relaxation.

    When your mind (unintentionally) wanders a lot, your overall anxiety levels will be higher. Mind wandering is associated with a lower control of your prefrontal cortex. 

    Practicing the simplest mindfulness skills such as presence and acceptance can help you with improving relaxation.

    In fact, people who practice the presence skill often end up with a feeling of deep relaxation. I've often experienced that relaxation first hand, simply because my mind was no longer somewhere else...

    How about loving yourself?[212-219]

    Loving yourself is often equated with the term "self-compassion".

    Self-compassion has less of a narcissistic connotation than "self-esteem". I would define self-compassion as not being unnecessarily harsh on yourself - a quality I must admit I do not always possess (yet). 

    Just by practicing mindfulness, becoming less judgmental towards your own states of mind will automatically make you more self-compassionate.

    The more self-compassion you have, for example, the better protected you are against burnout. Why? You're more prone to take good care of yourself because you think you actually deserve it...

    By the way:

    Compassion for yourself and compassion for others are not necessarily related - contrary to the assumption of many mindfulness practitioners.

    If you're always pushing yourself to help others while not taking care of yourself you'll still end up in a burnout. Self-compassion can (and should) be developed independently from cultivating compassion for others.

    Remember I also claimed that self-compassion is different from self-esteem?

    Let me explain...

    Self-esteem is more of a valuation of how well you are doing in life in comparison to others. While self-esteem does have benefits, it produces unwanted downsides too (especially socially).

    Self-compassion is more unconditional - allowing yourself to be loved regardless of circumstance. Self-esteem, on the other hand, requires that you perform better than others in order to be loved.

    Cultivating self-compassion - through mindfulness - simply entails being good for yourself:

    Why should you eat healthily? Because you deserve feeling and being well.
    Why should you relax? Because you're worthy of relaxing once in a while.
    Why should you avoid toxic people? Because you've earned a good social environment merely through the fact that you exist.

    Self-esteem, on the contrary, would make rewards conditional. E.g. you should relax because you've worked hard...

    The 30,000-foot view?

    People with higher self-compassion have better sleep, experience less stress, and are in greater health. 

    Sign me up...

Yes, that's it: a long list of mindfulness benefits.

That's not all though...

Mindfulness can have additional benefits, ranging from aiding in weight loss, helping people with psychiatric disorders (although mindfulness is not superior to regular treatment), treating epilepsy, and may help women when they give birth.[249; 250; 252-254]

So mindfulness' outcomes are all positive?

Not at all...

There's another side of mindfulness that we need to consider: contrary to what I initially expected, side-effects are possible

First of all, mindfulness may not be for everyone.[90; 221-227] 

Why? Not everyone will appreciate mindfulness in the same way.

To be more specific: character will (partially) determine how predisposed you are to develop mindfulness. To know why some people likely to use mindfulness while others don't, I need to tell you about what is called the "Big Five personality traits". 

Let's consider these 5 dimensions of personality traits:

  • Firstly, you're either more of an extrovert, who gains energy by spending time with others, or you're more of an introvert, who needs more alone time.

  • Secondly, you either score high or low on openness to experience.

    With high openness to experience, you're more open to trying new things, you're more curious, and you put more emphasis on abstract thinking (or the imagination).

    People with low openness to experience usually prefer repetition and are more driven by the directly observable world.

  • Thirdly, you can score high or low on agreeableness. The higher your agreeableness, the more compassionate you are and the more you like to work together with others.

    If you're scoring low on agreeableness - which is called "disagreeable" - then you're more individualistic and "comfortable" with conflict.

  • You're either more conscientious or more easygoing.

    Conscientious people like efficiency and have their activities scheduled. Easygoing people love to live more laid back and keeping their options open.

  • Lastly, there's the issue of how neurotic you are. If you're more neurotic then you're more prone to have stress, anxiety, depression, and you'll be less assertive.

Please keep in mind that there is no right and wrong in terms of personality traits.

Personality is somewhat of a brute fact about you, that only slightly changes over the course of your lifetime.

You might be thinking: "where do you want to go with that argument?"

Let me tell you:

If you score higher in openness to experience you're more prone to keep practicing mindfulness meditation over the long-run. If you score high on agreeableness, moreover, you're more likely to faithfully practice mindfulness in group settings.

Then there's the issue of you "clicking" with mindfulness. 

Some people are just not interested in the technique - which, interestingly enough, are sometimes those who need mindfulness the most. Remember that angry uncle? He needs mindfulness even though he think's its "woo-woo".

Interestingly enough, practicing mindfulness can also slowly change your personality over time:

Your conscientiousness is increased while neuroticism decreases.

It's up to you to decide whether that's a good thing...

There are also data, moreover, on who will practice mindfulness:

In general, people who are extroverts and score high on openness to experience are more likely to practice mindfulness, while neurotic and conscientious people are less likely to take up the habit.


Two extroverts practicing presence
with each other?


Is that outcome good or bad?

Again: it depends...

Consider me, for example.

I score high on introversion, openness to experience, dis-agreeableness, and conscientiousness - and I'm not neurotic. 

Because I'm scoring high on conscientiousness I'm very disciplined and responsible - maybe too responsible. I have a hard time letting go because I'm fully immersed in activities I'm busy with. 

Becoming more conscientious would not be a perfect outcome for me. There another upside to integrating mindfulness in my life too: mindfulness will make me less neurotic, which helps during a difficult job (blogging.)

From the perspective of openness to experience, however, I am matching with mindfulness. And because I'm not an extrovert, I'm not matching.

Overall, mindfulness would be an okay match for me.

That trait of openness to experience should also tell you why some people think mindfulness is "woo-woo" or "New Age bullshit".

People who score lower on openness to experience are less interested in activities that require the imagination, preferring the observable world instead.

So the question is this: "should all people practice mindfulness, regardless of circumstance?"

I don't think so...

If your personality is low in openness to experience, for example, mindfulness may be less of a match for you.

I'm not saying "dont try the technique" though:

There's no downside to trying...

(People who are low in openness to experience are probably not reading my blog anyway - especially this far into the blog post.)

A person who's very low on openness to experience might do better relaxing with taking forest walks, meeting with friends, or cooking for relaxation - or other hobbies that rely more on sensory experience.

There's another reason why mindfulness might not be for everyone:

Meditation may induce side-effects (in rare instances).[237-240; 251] 

At worst, meditation can lead to side-effect such as psychosis--but such instances are infinitesimally rare. It's very probable that a person already has mental problems if such a serious side-effect occurs.

Fortunately, almost all mindfulness side-effects are mild and temporary. The latest high-quality study on the safety of mindfulness nonetheless reports that adverse reactions are extremely, extremely rare.[251]

Caveat:

Through mindfulness meditation practice, for example, you can have an increased (temporary) stress reaction.

Again, remember that you're accepting difficult emotions or thoughts - a practice which is always paired with some discomfort.

Then there's the issue of how big the effects of mindfulness are: in some studies, mindfulness' effects are not much greater than regular relaxation exercises.[241] 

Other studies conclude that mindfulness is the best thing since sliced bread - I'll come back to that topic in the next section. 

Overall, I do think that mindfulness is a great tool in almost everyone's toolbox - especially for people who practice a lot.

For me, mindfulness works best ad hoc. Focusing on the present moment immediately helps me avoid stress reactions. If I have "emotional troubles", I use the mindfulness skill of acceptance help dissolve the emotion.

I'll be 100% honest though:

My most regular meditation practice actually consists of mantra meditation, which is part of my paid Health Foundations Program.

I can't lie about that...

The reason I mainly choose mantra meditation as my formal meditation practice is because it can induce extremely deep relaxation in short sessions throughout the day.

Becoming an expert in mindfulness might requires hours of time investment a day. Reaping huge benefits from mantra meditation only takes two sessions of 20 minutes per day on the contrary.

Big difference...

Nevertheless, mindfulness meditation, as explicated in this article, should not be underestimated either. 

Stay with me to find out why in the 11th section...

Let's now hop to the next topic though: in the following 10th section you'll learn how mindfulness can improve your social relationships...

Return To Table Of Contents

10. MINDFULNESS AND YOUR SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS

Mindfulness in the social domain?

Of course...

Let's talk about presence:

Simply observe at how people are spending time in a restaurant nowadays. It has become very normal to see a family of four spending all their times looking at their phone while eating. People are not having true social interactions any longer.

To be sure, I'm not the most talkative person either. If you talk about the weather or gossip, you've just spent your last chance of connecting with me. Of course, that's an exaggeration-- but there's some truth to it as well. If you want to talk about interesting subjects, I'm all ears.

The issue is not a preference of conversation subjects here. Everyone has favorite subjects to talk about.

The issue is being fully present during your social interactions.

Once I'm talking with friends, I'm fully 100% invested in them.

Mindfulness can help you with creating attention to the people you're with. Heck, mindfulness can even help you connect with new people.

Why?

The more present you are, the more people will be drawn to you.

If you're socializing while spending 30% of your thoughts on the past or future, people are not going to be as captivated by you as they otherwise would. The mindfulness skill of presence can thus really help you focus in on the conversation you're having. 

To be more precise: you ll become a really good listener.

Instead of looking for the next "quick fix" to divert your attention to, such as watching other people in the room or using your phone, mindfulness helps you be fully 100% focused on the person who's talking with you.

Just imagine what becoming the perfect listener can do for your work life and social circle. 

Mindfulness' benefits go deeper though:

Remember mindfulness acceptance skill?

By promoting acceptance, you'll not identify with any animosity you might have towards others.

Example?

Let's say you're having a disagreement with a good friend. In that case, not getting personally caught up in the state of mind associated with the disagreement - which might be confusion or anger - will help you find creative solutions to deal with the disagreement.

If you're fully bought into the emotion instead, it becomes much harder to see where the other person is coming from. Buying into states of mind such as thoughts and emotions also prohibits you from seeing that every problem can have two sides.

With better acceptance, you're more able to entertain a distance from your emotions so that you'll be more flexible in tending to the current needs of your friendship.


Focusing 100% on the other person
makes you like a peacock,

attracting more attention to yourself.

Additionally, mindfulness gives you a sixth sense in apprehending the states of mind of others.

The better you develop the skill of presence, the more you'll be able to identify states of mind in others - such as emotions. 

You'll thus become more observant.

Why?

Your attention is targeted towards the other person, instead of your work deadline or the groceries you still have to get.

Mindfulness can specifically helps you accept and identify distress in others.[65-68] While it might sound counter-intuitive, you're better able to connect with loved ones who are in pain or unhappy when you're not being influenced by that suffering yourself.

Contrary to common expectations, you joining in their suffering will not help the other person get ahead.

Acceptance may promote understanding others on a higher cognitive level (as opposed a merely feeling-based degree).[85-89] 

Let me explain...

Mindfulness improves your attribution of certain thoughts and feelings to other human beings. You need such an attribution to be able to successfully navigate the social domain.

Attributing thoughts and feelings to others is a very basic human skill that children learn when they're very young. In the very early years, babies think the world revolves all about them. Later on, toddler's learn to attribute states of mind to other beings.

When you're less wrapped up in your own states of mind, attribution improves.

The result? There's less chance of being unaware of invading someone's personal space or unintentionally hurting another's feelings. 

Your verbal communication skills will also improve...

When you're less identified with your own states of mind - accepting your states of mind as they come - your brain can allocate an excess of capacity to that prefrontal cortex.

Remember that creativity, planning, abstractions, and other higher-level thinking are the main tasks of that prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the driver of your brain.

The driver's capacities can help you in the social arena because they allow for insights you would otherwise not see if you're caught up in your emotions.

Overall, a better working brain is just quicker and more astute from a social standpoint.

How about self-control in social situations?

Let's say you're angry at someone or afraid of asking your boss for a raise. Not fully identifying with your state of mind (through acceptance) will help you envision the possibility of alternative courses of action. 

You'll just be calmer.

Other examples:

Even though you're in the grip of the emotion of anger, you don't have to act angryEven though you're anxious regarding asking for a raise, you don't have to let that emotion control your behavior.

Acceptance of your states of mind can thus prevent you from acting on a kind of "automatic pilot". Example? Many people who feel angry automatically assume that that feeling entails acting angry as well.

That's a potential mistake, as you know by now...

Mindfulness teaches you that there's a big disconnect between a state of mind and your behavior. 

Not only can acceptance help to improve your self-control - acceptance shortens your learning curve in the social domain.

How?

Let's say I make a big mistake in treating a customer at my website. The customer vouches never to return to Nature Builds Health again, and will also tell all his friends about my mistake.

Making mistakes such as that gives lots of people shame, guilt, or fear that the same behavior will happen again in the future. These three states of mind - shame, guilt, and fear - are rarely productive though. In fact, all three states of mind can even act as a form of self-sabotage.

Shame can increase fear of failure, for example, can increase your anxiety levels, and generate depressive symptoms.[97-99] Guilt is linked to depression.[100-102]

(Nevertheless, guilt may have some upsides such as motivating you to change your behavior.)

All things considered, I do not consider the emotions of shame, guilt or fear necessary to improve your behavior.

Just disconnecting from the guilty and shameful states of mind, while still realizing your mistakes, yields a superior strategy. With less guilt, shame or fear, I will not carry the negative states of mind into the interaction I have with the next customer. 

Undercut the vicious cycle...

Next:

Lastly, developing the "self-understanding" skill helps your social relationships as well.

Let me tell you a secret:

The self-understanding skill does not just pertain to you. As I've explicitly stated earlier in this blog post: self-understanding is not possible in isolation, but always formed through your interactions with the world.

Consequence?

Understanding yourself will help you understand other people. Understanding other people will help you understand yourself. 

Consider how states of mind are fundamentally transitory. When you're understanding the true nature of states of mind such as emotions you'll no longer take the emotions of others so personally.

In other words, you're better able to understand how others could be in the grasp of their emotions. Some negative emotions of others - such as anger or impatience - are no longer necessarily personally targeted towards you, but might be something they personally have to deal with.

And even if another person's negative state of mind was directed at you, such as a friend being angry, if you're better able to understand your reaction towards that anger you're better able to control yourself.

Am I completely convinced that all types of mindfulness meditation transform your social life for the good?

No.

There are exceptions:

One specific type of mindfulness meditation is called a "loving-kindness" meditation - which I do not (currently) advise using.[69-73]

Loving-kindness meditation advocates loving others independent of circumstance. An example of a loving-kindness meditation is imagining and focusing on sending your love to people around you, or these people sending love to you.

Just like self-compassion promotes unconditional love for yourself, loving kindness aims at giving unconditional love for others. 

Blind love or empathy for others can be dangerous though. One reason to distrust (blind) empathy is because it builds trust in those who are more like us:

  • If someone is hurting you, you don't want to actively promote love or empathy towards that person. By promoting empathy towards someone who's hurting you, you're damaging yourself.
  • As humans we're very prone to feel empathy towards terrestrial animals, for example, but not towards fish (that also feel pain).
  • We're more prone to feel empathy towards human beings who are more like us, compared to people who are very different.

Overall, promoting empathy through a loving-kindness meditation may thus exacerbate existing biases in the human psyche.

There's another problem in that empathy alone is not enough for moral action. In fact, I'm convinced that empathy often even counters morality in some instances (although that's a discussion for another time).

Of course, empathy is not all wrong - there's enormous value to empathy in many situations which I won't go into now. The main pointe is that empathy should not be promoted towards blindly without regard to the circumstances.

And in defense of loving-kindness meditation: there's evidence that the method can promote positive emotions, empathy, giving behavior, and even aid in psychiatric disorders. 

Overall, I do think that developing the mindfulness skill of acceptance is superior to promoting loving-kindness. The reason is that you're not promoting a blind empathy that way, while still increasing compassion for yourself.

Mindfulness can thus help many aspects of your social life, such as becoming a better listening, improving identification of emotions in others, and finding creative solutions to social challenges.

Are we going to the conclusion?

No

I'm yet done yet:

Let's lastly look at how mindfulness alters our self-understanding. Because of the radical argument, I have intentionally placed this section at the end of this blog post ...

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11. MINDFULNESS AND HUMAN NATURE

The deepest layer of my argument.

This section is somewhat more speculative and not (always) supported by hard science (yet) - therefore the topic ended up with a section of its own.

This section will not be interesting for all readers. If you're a mindfulness meditation novice, just practice the presence and acceptance skills to receive good benefits. Remember that presence is the mindfulness skill that stays mostly at the surface.

Self-understanding, contrary to presence and acceptance, is the mindfulness skill that has the biggest impact on your perception of reality.

Through practicing mindfulness over the years your conception of who you are and of reality can dramatically change. That change can go so far that it makes you believe that the naive sense perceptions that we apprehend as ordinary humans are entirely wrong.

With "naive sense perception" I denote the ordinary understanding that most humans have - the blind acceptance that the world apprehended by our basic senses, and our "inner world" of thoughts and feelings are to be equated to reality.

If you're thinking:

"Why doubt that naive sense perception?"

Then this is my answer:

Our ordinary self-understanding is based upon a (naive) worldview that does not have your best interest in mind. 

Why?

Your ordinary self-understanding is based upon evolutionary programming to spread your genes.

Let me explain...

The fight, flight, and freeze response I've talked about earlier are mainly meant to help you survive. Engaging in that programming too often, however, makes you miserable.

The motivational program in your brain has the goal of making you procreate. That same program can also sabotage your happiness because you'll be excessively indulging in food, sex, risk-taking, drugs, and alcohol.

Going back to our car analogy, human beings have ended up with some passenger in our car such as the amygdala that is not so positive for our functioning in the modern world. Continuous anxiety and fear inhibit your ability to thrive.

Striving for ever more success will do the same (through the motivation system.)

What's my point?

Evolution placed you upon an endless staircase of suffering that never ends:

No matter how high you climb that staircase, there will always be a next step to take. In other words, climbing the endless staircase will keep you eternally unfulfilled.

Sure, you might be happy that you've accomplished taking some steps up on that staircase, but you'll immediately be wanting for more.

Let me explain the analogy is more detail, and tie the aforementioned  human drives to that analogy:

  • The fight, flight, or freeze response is a reaction to steps of the stairway that you have yet to take or a projection into the future of the suffering you endured when taking previous (difficult).

    This part of the cycle becomes troublesome through the brain's alarm clock: the amygdala (the teenager in the car).

    People in general also overestimate how difficult future steps are to take, which creates additional of suffering.

    In essence, from an evolutionary standpoint the teenager in your brain continually tells you: "if you take more steps you're going to get hurt", or "if you don't take steps quicker you're getting in trouble."

    By going along with the rebellious teenager, however, you'll increase suffering.

  • The motivation system in your brain is a drive to keep taking more and more steps.

    The promise of that approach is that "in five steps, or five hundred steps, you'll be happy"

    The problem with this approach is that you're never done climbing. 

    Examples:

    Bowl of ice cream? Take another bowl or lust for a larger one. Promotion at work? Plan for another promotion 2 years down the road. 

    Most people consistently misjudge how much happiness certain hedonistic pleasures or accomplishments will bring. From the perspective of this analogy, most people falsely assume that if they take 1,000 additional steps they'll be fulfilled.

    Why is that assumption wrong?

    Pursuing a promotion at work may take months or even years of effort, but the happiness will only last a week (if you're lucky). You're thus suffering a lot and gain very little pleasure in return.

    Many actions that promote hedonistic happiness are hardwired into your brain to leave you unfulfilled in the long-run. 

    Your brain is made in such a way that you'll be temporarily happy, and then seek out new stimuli.

    What are pain and pleasure from an evolutionary standpoint? A means to make sure you survive and procreate.[289-292]

Mindfulness, at its deepest levels, will help you see the infinite staircase and the person climbing that staircase for what they truly are.

In other words, mindfulness can (partially) change your self-understanding so that you're less affected by your evolutionary programming. 

Mindfulness allows you to stay on a given step, and be content.

Let's explore what the implications of that self-understanding are...

From an evolutionary perspective, even your perception of reality is created to ensure survival and procreation

Remember the many biases I talked about earlier? Human beings will do many things to protect their own ego, such as viewing themselves as more competent than they really are, or hiding their true motivations for actions from themselves (in their subconscious minds).

Many happy moments, such as making your first million dollars or having sex for the first time, can be envisioned as gargantuan failures on the infinite stairway of suffering.

Naively trusting states of mind as adequately depicting reality systematically distorts your ability to actually understand reality.

Let's return to the case of stress.

Remember that human beings are continually on the lookout for trouble in our environment: not seeing a predator is deadly, while falsely thinking there's a predator costs very little.

Anxiety, for example, may be a mechanism that might have been created to make sure you're making a good impression on others.[293-295] 

Human beings lived in small groups in the past, and your position within a group was of critical importance. Expulsion from your group could entail death. Certain states of mind, such as anxiety, thus certainly do have merit in the proper context.

The goal of mindfulness, in this case, is not to eliminate states of mind such as emotions. The goal is to develop a new relationship with these states of mind.



(Nerd section: most of my argument in this section may seem to be based on a book Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, but nevertheless, my argument also has influences from the Vedic Eastern tradition's conception of (non-)duality and the role of stress in altering human perception. Contrary to the author of the book Why Buddhism Is True, I do not see mindfulness as the primary method for human actualization, but mantra meditation as its pinnacle instead. For a background on that Vedic tradition, consider Thom Knoles podcast on the Vedic tradition.)



By doing so, you'll develop a new relationship to the staircase. You'll suffer less over climbing, and won't have the illusion that taking more steps will pay off more.

How do I know our perceptions are distorted?

Our human brain, for example, only consciously apprehends 2% of all frequencies of light in existence. The light you see "out there" is thus not all there is to reality. 

In the same way, your brain is created in such a way to almost maximize suffering. 

From the perspective of self-delusion and the distortion of reality, Goethe's quote of "know thyself? If I knew myself, I'd run away" makes much more sense from the viewpoint I'm taking now.[7]

Seeing through the reality that evolution is trying to force upon us is scary, from the perspective of the mindfulness skill of self-understanding.

And there's an additional layer:

The "self-understanding" to which mindfulness leads is not really an understanding of the "self" either.

The self, as construed by naive sense perception, turns out to be (partially) an illusion. Most of our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are so as well.

Nature has designed you to be fooled.

Problems originate when you blindly trust states of minds such as thoughts and emotions without taking their deceptive pattern into account. 

The ultimate goal of mindfulness is to help you see through that illusion. 

When you're seeing how your own states of mind are biased, and thereby you're understanding how the world you thought you see is different than expected. 

The final claim of the mindfulness tradition - which is why this section is separated from other sections - is that there is no individual you that's separate from other (human) beings.

It's very hard for me to comment on that claim because I've not (yet) experienced such a separation myself. For that reason, I've phrased the statement as "a claim of the mindfulness tradition" instead of my claim.

As I've stated at the beginning of this blog post that you'd be able to verify all the claims experimentally, this conception of self-understanding wound up with a section of its own.

At the bottom of the argument of the Eastern tradition lies thus a truly radical argument: the notion of an "individual" is illusory and destructive.

Many of the vices in human nature, such as greed and hatred, originate from biases embedded into us (such as self-delusion and protection of your ego). 

These vices exist because humans do not fundamentally understand the (deceptive) staircase we're on. These biases are kept firmly in place due to that destructive illusion.

By promoting self-understanding, mindfulness may thus decrease some of the more destructive tendencies that human beings have:

  • If you no longer need a billion dollars, you might realize that you can live happily in a small house somewhere. There's no need for everyone to have a private jet and destroy the environment.

    (There's no need to climb higher and higher on the staircase)

  • If your drive for more and more pleasure never ends, you might realize that having three good meals a day is "enough" for enjoyment. 

    (Again, there's no need to climb higher and higher on the staircase)

  • If most of your stresses are based on an illusion, you may seek out a radically different lifestyle that will bring true happiness.

    (You can simply enjoy and accept being on one part of the staircase, without minding the next part).

There are many ways to explain the relationship between the individual and the "outside world". Suffice it to say that I won't go deeply into that topic right now - I'll leave that topic to the "experts".

Significance?

In the end, mindfulness may be a profound means to improve your time on the endless staircase.

Choose wisely.



Freedom from suffering: a big promise

 



(Nerd section: not all Eastern traditions accept that no self exists. Some Hindu traditions run 100% counter to the teaching that an individual self - as "soul" - is illusory. The thought that a soul is separate from the body, is continuous even though the body changes throughout life, is such an argument.)



Finally, let's conclude...

By the way, do you want to learn about two more mindfulness-like techniques that are easy to implement into your life? Sign up below:

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12. CONCLUSION: THE JURY'S STILL OUT

Let's complete the circle.

This blog post began with philosophy and will end with philosophy. Friedrich Nietzsche once said:

 "Active, successful natures shun the dictum 'know thyself' and follow the commandment: 'Will thyself.'"[46]

From a mindfulness standpoint, Nietzsche could not be more wrong: willing can lead to the vicious cycle of suffering. 

The first step in practicing mindfulness does entail an intentional choice: starting the practice.

You just need to begin.

And after the first successes, you'll start steamrolling.

It's also important to remember that the goal of mindfulness is not to eliminate all your desires and your purpose in life but to guide them into a more sustainable version.

The paradox is that if you can be happier in the present moment, you'll become a lot more effective in life and attract more success.

Practicing mindfulness over the years may help you achieve more happiness. 

I'm very curious how the research on mindfulness will develop in the coming decades. Some people are radically in favor of the lifestyle, assuming it's going to change the world. That outcome may be possible.

Others are more skeptical towards the claims of mindfulness - which include me. The possible deep changes accomplished in our self-understanding are nevertheless very interesting. 

For 2,500 years mindfulness has been changing lives.

Mindfulness is not a quick fix nor a gimmick.

You won't have massive results instantly.

But you can do it.

You really can.

Take the first step.

Change your life over time.

Remember: small steps taken over time will give you massive results in the end...



*Post can contain affiliate links. Read my affiliate, medical, and privacy disclosure for more information.

Author: Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MSc - Cum Laude), and Clinical Health Science (MSc).



See other blog posts:

Conquer (Chronic) Stress: The Ultimate Guide To Stress Relief.

Cannabis: CBD (Oil) And THC For Health? The Scientific Verdict (2018)

How To Be Happy: Why Health Is Essential In The Pursuit Of Happiness

Beat Insomnia. Everything You Need To Know About Sleep Quality.

Rethinking Magnesium: Why You're Deficient And Need To Supplement

 

 

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