The Challenge of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is not a comfort zone. It’s a challenge.

First, let us consider what mindfulness, that is, sitting in meditation does. Numerous studies have shown there are tangible benefits to be gained from meditation. The most recent one will be published in the Jan. 30 issue of the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. MRI images were taken of the brains of volunteers two weeks before and after they took an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness.  MRI scans of a control group of people who did not participate in the course were also analyzed.

You can read the details here at Science Daily, where Sara Lazar, PhD, the study’s senior author is quoted as saying,

Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day. This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.

Specifically, the study found increase in the grey matter density in the hippocampus (important for learning and memory) in participants and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. No increases were found in the control group.

That brain structure is changed by meditation may not exactly be proof of Dogen’s maxim that “sitting is enlightenment” (“practice and enlightenment are one”, shusho-ichinyo) but just sitting certainly has verifiable and substantial benefits. These studies only confirm what many persons have known for a long time. In 1954, some fifty-seven years ago, meditation master Yin Shih Tzu wrote in Tranquil Sitting,

Meditation develops your innate energies. With practice, you can take charge of your mind and body, preventing disease before it arises. Shouldn’t everyone make an effort to learn something like this? Superficially, meditation looks easy, but if you practice without patience, determination, and a long-term sense of devotion, you will never realize its benefits.

Yin Shih Tzu alludes to the first two challenges of mindfulness. One, is simply to do it. Actually, meditation doesn’t always look easy. I can think of any number of activities that require less effort and concentration. The second challenge is to keep doing it. Not so easy either. Perhaps it is not everyone’s experience, but for me, maintaining a regular practice has at times been a real struggle.

However, the biggest challenge is to carry mindfulness in our daily life. It’s one thing to be mindful while sitting or when engaged in some dharma activity. What really matters, though, is when we are in any one of the seeming infinite irritating, frustrating, patience-testing, humor-losing, anger-provoking situations we encounter almost daily.  That’s when mindfulness really counts.

As the study cited above shows, just sitting in meditation, by itself, can naturally produce changes that help us keep our cool in stressful situations, as well as improve our ability to focus and maintain attention to whatever we’re doing; still, some active discipline is required on our part. There’s that split-second, that flash of a moment, when we make a decision to react in either a positive, neutral, or negative way. I know from my own experience that no amount of time spent on the meditation mat can aid if you have not learned the basic art of controlling your mind and emotions. Meditation helps with that, too, and that why we sometimes call it “training the mind”, and yet in the end, it’s up to us.

In the SGI they used to say, and no doubt still do, “Buddhism equals daily life.” This is the prime point of Buddhist practice. Because it’s in daily life that we confront our sufferings head on. And so, daily life is where we must overcome those sufferings. Total mindfulness.  That’s what we’re after. Or, as close to that as we can get. Daunting. Awesome.

Right meditation is not escapism; it is not meant to provide hiding-places for temporary oblivion. Realistic meditation has the purpose of training the mind to face, to understand and to conquer this very world in which we live.

Nyanaponika Thera, Power of Mindfulness

It’s important that always we make the connection between sitting and day to day activities. Daily life is the real challenge of mindfulness, and if you are like me, perhaps you’ve found that it is also where we get some of the most profound and useful realizations.

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5 thoughts on “The Challenge of Mindfulness

  1. What we need is someone in the Buddhist community to summarize and evaluate scientific studies done on meditation. Tom Rees over at Epiphenom does a great job of this for studies done on religion. He wants to try to understand the various things that make religion tick.

    Meditation research would be very different of course but I like Tom’s careful analysis and warnings not to jump beyond the data. It is important to not show a confirmation bias in our readings and try to make science say more than it is saying.

    Areas of the brain grow with any concentrated prolonged activity – piano playing, doing mathematics and so. As anyone knows who has meditated, it ain’t “zoning” out or “pure relaxation” — it is hard stuff. So I’d expect changes. The question is what those areas really mean, that seems up in the air. I agree, personally, with the direction of your suspicions, but I am not sure the data bears it out here.

    1. I don’t quite see what the link you provide has to do with mindfulness and research studies on meditation. Religion and meditation may be linked with one another but they are not the same thing. I think studies like the one I cited in the post are aimed at trying to find out what makes meditation tick or how the process of meditation works, but not in the same way a study researching a belief system would. Meditation does not require an abundance of belief or faith. At least, not any more that what exercise or dieting would require.

      I also don’t think anyone is jumping ahead of any data here. No grandiose claims are being made, only stating the fact that meditation produces real and verifiable changes which promote mental and physical health.

      I think the real significance of these studies is in the way they offer some actual proof and therefore take away any need for approaching meditation practice purely on the basis of some sort of faith. It gives us a more realistic view on what meditation is and provides an avenue for a more practical use of meditation. Demystifying it in this way is overall a good thing, although I am not suggesting that meditation should be stripped of all spiritual aspects and be reduced to mere psychology.

      By the way, I have seen some other recent studies that point to much the same thing as the one in Zurich that Rees mentions, and they have shown that countries where belief in a supreme being is more prevalent also have higher crime rates.

  2. Hello! Very recently have I began reading about mindfulness and meditation, and although without seeking professional opinion, I have already identified that should I enroll in a meditation course, I will be unable to focus. As I learn more from books and blogs (like this one) I tend to think that I have been living life mindlessly, doing things merely because it has been my routine for my whole life. I seriously am considering going into a meditation class, changing my perspective in life and being aware of myself and the life I am living. I have always had questioned whether I will be able to attain the state of “inner peace” by being mindful, but I guess I wouldn’t really know until I try. I do hope I will be able to be fully aware, “mindful” of myself. I just need to know the first step.

    1. Sorry, you’re commenting on such an old post, I guess I overlooked this. I respond to your question in today’s post.

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