Updated: Aug 15
Mindfulness Meditation is defined as ‘paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally
Birth of Mindfulness
Derived from ancient Buddhist meditation practices, which pre-date the 5th Century BC, the first secular Mindfulness programme was introduced by an American scientist back in 1979. Inspired by his personal experience of Zen Buddhism, Jon Kabat-Zinn adapted some of the techniques to help patients suffering with chronic pan, anxiety and drug abuse, cope with their disorder. When conventional medicine failed, when pharmacological pain relief yielded no results, and when patients were told by their doctors, ‘You’re going to have to live with this,’ Kabat-Zinn introduced Mindfulness meditation practice to ‘help them learn how to live with it’ (Kingsland 2016).
His peers within the medical profession were unreceptive (some even hostile) to what they considered an alternative therapy. Alternative therapies are not taken seriously; in most cases they are kicked to the epistemological side-lines or banished completely. Consequently, Kabat-Zinn delivered meditation sessions to his patients in the hospital basement where he worked. Whilst he did conduct research, in an attempt to elucidate the associative benefits of daily meditation practice, publishing his findings in academic journals, he was constricted by the technological time lag. This meant that the foundation of his research was comprised solely of a sandy mix of the practitioners’ self-reported experience and the researcher’s interpretation of qualitative data. This is not exactly robust scientific enquiry.
However, in the advent of brain imaging technologies – fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery) and EEG (electroencephalograph) – a wealth of empirically backed research is emerging which proves Mindfulness Meditation to be more than merely an alternative therapy. ‘Neurobiologists are learning that mindfulness practice changes the brain structure and function in meaningful, desirable ways.’ Studies indicate that maintaining a consistent Mindfulness Meditation regime can alleviate many ‘psychological difficulties, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders and interpersonal disorders’ (Siegel, 2014). Other benefits include a significant reduction in the stress hormone Cortisol – a pernicious, health robbing biochemical – and enhanced neurological functioning.
There are numerous studies that corroborate the above claims. By way of example, researchers scanned the brains of people who meditate for around 6 hours per week and had been consistently doing so for ten years. They found that the thickness of the cortex, which is known to decline with age, appeared to defy this well documented trend and that the brains of meditators, compared to non-meditators, were as neurologically dense as people 20 years their junior (Lazar, 2005). This suggests that regular Mindfulness practice can slow the natural ageing process thus delaying the inevitable decline in cognitive ability.
Mindfulness Meditation has also been shown to improve cognitive performance by enhancing the practitioner’s powers of attention. But as a desirable skill, one which we should all endeavour to cultivate, it seems to have been long overlooked. Attention ‘is a crucial skill for understanding and relating to reality, by avoiding being distracted or fooled by the superficial appearance of things’ (Kingsland, 2016). The importance of this crucial skill was well understood by William James, the father of western psychology, who said:
'The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over, is the very root of judgement, character and will. No one is master of oneself if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.'
Low level absentmindedness is relatively harmless; we’re all susceptible to moments of forgetfulness, daydreaming and/or temporal slippage (squandering time thinking about things past or things not yet come). Actually, there is a tenuous link between a wandering mind, mild procrastination and genius. Einstein is famed for pulling paradigm shifting equations out the deep well of daydreaming whilst Nietzsche believed it to be of paramount importance to augmenting, even enhancing his literary creative skills.
There is, however, a darker side to this seemingly innocuous trait. ‘Rumination – a repetitive form of self-referential thinking – is a potent risk factor for clinical depression,’ (Kingsland, 2016). People prone to rumination are usually unduly harsh self-critics, they are more likely to compare themselves to others and are more vulnerable to suffering from a mental health disorder. The problem is a lot of the time we may not even realise that we are trapped in a vicious cycle of negative thinking, which makes the problem all the harder to resolve. How many times have you caught yourself staging an argument in your mind with that person you had crossed words with at work? Or ruminating over your inability to live up to that self-imposed ideal?
Mindfulness meditation techniques, simply bringing the attention back to the breath voluntarily, have proved remarkably effective at awaking people’s awareness to spells of rumination, enabling them to take control of their cognitive processes which makes for a much more enjoyable phenomenological experience. After all we would do well to remember that
Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it
The Rise of Mental Health
Emerging statistics on the worldwide mental health epidemic are grim. According to Whiteford et al., (2013) depression, the most common mental health condition, is the ‘second leading cause’ of disability. Though often consider a relatively minor mental health disorder, depression can, if left untreated, lead to suicide and ischemic heart disease. It is said that 1 in 4 people will suffer with common mental health (CMH) at least once in their lives and between 2007 and 2014 the number of diagnosed cases increased by a staggering 27% (McManus, et al., 2016). The World Health Organisation, furthermore, estimates that around 440 million people worldwide suffer from clinical depression and over 250 million have an anxiety disorder (Helliwell, et al., 2013).
We can see from the above statistics that mental health conditions touch the lives of many. Fortunately in the majority of cases this may only be for a short spell; manifesting during a particularly stressful period or when life throws us one of its unexpected curved balls. For some poor few, in contradistinction, depression or CMH is a perpetual burden – like being followed by a black cloud that persistently rains – which they must contend with on a daily, even moment-by-moment, basis. It should not be this way.
In the UK alone over 70 million workdays, each and every year, are lost to some species of mental health (Mental Health Foundation, 2018). The economic impact of 70 million lost days is enormous. Assuming that each day is salaried at around the average yearly wage (supposedly £25,000), so about £200 a day, the equivalent of the NHS’s running deficit, which fluctuates around £3 billion, is lost each year. Sainsbury’s Centre for Mental Health (2009) argue that this sum could be as high as £8 billion. If mental health were its own company it would be one of the wealthiest in the country with annual revenues that exceed many multinationals.
I concede that it is quite crass – cruel, even – to discuss the impacts of mental health in terms of diminished productivity or economic disruption. I have, however, because there are individuals in prominent positions of power – such as business leaders and government MPs – that could affect positive change on the lives of people who suffer with a mental health condition, but do not because they are either unmoved or fail to see the sheer gravity of the situation. I suspect the case may be that money, not misery, is the language in which they speak. Here I endeavour to make communication.
In the two spheres of society, business and government, mental health exerts some of its most damaging effects. I will make a few general remarks, in the following paragraphs, for why it might be in the vested interests of businesses and government to step up and meet this challenge.
A business leader, whose primary concern is bottom-line profits, may tend to overlook the wellbeing of their staff. This can cause catastrophic consequences leading to a depressed and disaffected workforce, a spike in stress-related absences and losses in productive and creative quality. It has been estimated that ‘over 80 percent of visits to the doctor’s office in the developed world are for stress-related disorders’ which directly stem from excessive workplace pressure (Siegel, 2014). By introducing some simple, yet hugely effective interventions, stress can be all but banished from the working environment. When this dark pernicious power is dispelled staff morale awakens and with it a boost in productivity and profit. The relationship between a happy workforce and a successful, industry-leading company is causally linked.
In his book, The Organised Mind, Daniel Levitin (2016) brings to our attention an example of what happens when a misanthropic management team, of a manufacturing business, treats their staff as pawns for procuring fiscal advancement in the corporate game of chess. Employee satisfaction surveys identified that staff were anything but satisfied, sickness related absences were abnormally high and the general turnaround of workers more closely represented a carousel ride – the average employment length being a mere two years. What was most interesting about this case was the decline in company profits: working staff to the bone and saddling them with obscene workloads did not directly translate to an increase in corporate success, quite the opposite in fact. But here is the thing, the management team had a Scroogian epiphany and, after speaking with staff and listening to their opinions and ideas, successfully turned things around.
It has been demonstrated in numerous case studies, the above example included, that when workplace pressure and individual workloads are reduced, when staff are bequeathed with autonomy over their jobs and are valued for the individualistic qualities – seen as people not pawns – and yes, by even offering free Mindfulness Meditation or Yoga sessions in work’s time, by making these simple, inexpensive adjustments, business can have enormously beneficial impacts on reducing the incidences of mental health whilst augmenting bottom-line profits.
'The companies that are winning the productivity battle are those that allow their employees productivity hours, naps, a chance to exercise, and a calm, tranquil orderly environment in which to do their work.'
A head of government who cares for GDP figures, economic advancement and soaring crime figures will not ameliorate these performances and social problems through fiscal austerity measures and cuts to the mental health budget – which is currently happening across the UK. According to a recent report ‘Clinical commissioning groups in Sefton, Scarborough, the Isle of Wight, St Helens and Walsall are reducing spending on mental health by £4.5m’ (Independent 2018). This in spite of the Prime Minister’s pledge of a £1 billion budgetary injection to tackle the ‘stigma’ that surrounds mental health.
A government that allows funding cuts in such socially crucial areas like mental health, are asking – nay! begging – for trouble. For government it is not just a matter of declining profits but tears in the social fabric. Our government could and should be doing more to mitigate mental health. Society is powered, not by the cogs in our industrial machines, but by the cogs in the minds of its citizens. If those cogs become rusty, if screws become loose and things start falling apart, what, I wonder, will become of our country?
Mindfulness as a means of self-help
Perhaps the most functionally useful application of Mindfulness is to meliorate the self-assassinating nature of the human brain. It would be quite accurate to assert that the majority of us want to lead happy, fulfilling lives whilst enjoying rich relationships. Our brains often sabotage us in these endeavours – especially the first one. The problem is, unless we do a Hemmingway, we have to learn to live with our brains – reconciliation with the inner bully is difficult. And the only way to live with it is to understand it. But we can’t stop at understanding alone, this just isn’t enough. No, we must learn to love our brain and all of its hardwired faults to boot.
The prevailing misconception of Mindfulness is that it is a means of silencing the sadistic mind; that if we persist in daily meditation practice eventually those negative voices will fade away and what will be left in that vacuous space between the ears is calm, caring inner communication. Contrary to this fallacious belief the opposite is more accurate: Mindfulness is an auditory enabler, it is a means of opening a line of communication with the inner voices where we listen non-judgementally and we avoid making the erroneous mistake of attaching emotion to what they say.
Remember what Jon Kabat-Zinn said? Mindfulness Meditation is paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally. When we enter a state of meditation, when we slow our breathing and close our eyes, disengaging from the external world, we are left residing in the internal chaos of our minds. For some of us it is as though we have retreated into a harsh and hostile environment. We may feel like a solitary sailor struggling against the tempestuous tide of a storm swept ocean. But by adopting the principals of mindfulness, resisting the all-too human temptation to fight the overwhelming force of our nature, we can learn to orientate ourselves with the inner flow which makes for a far more pleasant voyage.
Paradoxically, we are not to shut out the voices, however malicious they may be. This was one of my initial stumbling blocks. I would try throughout my practice to suppress every thought, silence every voice. What we should actually do is open the floor to them, invite them in and listen to what they say. When we listen, though, we must concentrate on listening without forming judgement or assigning emotion. And all the while, most crucially, we place a mild focus on the breath, centring our awareness on the cool air drawing in through the nose, filling our lungs, and the feeling as we exhale warm air, emptying our lungs. It is this basic mental focus training that forms the foundation of Mindfulness Meditation and the beneficial impacts this training can have on our state of mind and health in general are quite tremendous.
I imagine a somewhat incredulous reader. After all, how can focusing on breathing promote mental well-being? It just sounds too simplistic. Surly we need a course of pills, a personal lifestyle coach or a trained counsellor.
Focused thought, whether that be meditation, playing a musical instrument or enjoying a walk through the woods, has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, inducing a sense of calmness whilst also switching off the cortisol activation mechanism – collectively called the ‘relaxation response’. A suppressed parasympathetic nervous system and persistent cortisol release are linked to chronic stress, anxiety, depression and a whole host of other psychological conditions.
I’ll briefly focus on just one of these conditions in an attempt to illustrate the plethora of associative health risks with what is widely regarded as a benign disorder, whilst making a case for why it might be wise to devote a little bit of time each day to meditation practice – or take up playing the violin as a hobby.
Stress, otherwise known as the silent killer, has been shown to impede the immune system, trigger inflammatory response throughout the body, affect neurogenesis in the brain (the process of hippocampal neural development) and raise the risk of cardiovascular disease (Kingsland, 2016). Stress can be thought of as a gateway to a whole host of other mental health disorders. ‘Significant life stress, including early life stress, represents a major risk factor for development of major depression’ (Pace, et al., 2006). Once depression manifests, they go on to say, it not only acts as a Trojan horse, inviting in a militia of mental health problems, but is decidedly difficult to remedy.
This is not necessarily the case with stress. Though early onset can be tricky to identify – as it ebbs and flows like a rising tide – it is easier to combat than, say, clinical depression or anxiety. However, if we ignore the early signs and symptoms, we become increasingly susceptible to being engulfed by a deluge of despair.
Stress is caused by heightened arousal in the autonomic nervous system. This anachronistic neurochemical mechanism is a self-preservation tool thought to have evolved to sharpen our survival instinct. And in short bursts it works wonders for when we might be required to evade a predator or giving a perilous precipice a wide birth. Though we don’t necessarily encounter such stressors in modern-day society, workplace pressure, social strife or tension within a relationship, trigger the same response. In fact, because they can keep the stress switch flipped up permanently, they are considerably more detrimental.
A mere ten minutes a day of Mindfulness meditation practice has proven surprisingly effective at flicking that switch off – and keeping it off. Furthermore, Mindfulness heightens our awareness to internal strife, enhancing our emotional stability, whilst augmenting our powers of cognitive control (Brewer 2011). Self-awareness and cognitive control are two powerful weapons we can use to combat stress. With the silent killer kept at bay we further fortify ourselves against the susceptibility of succumbing to more harmful mental health disorders.
You must complete 1 hour of Mindfulness Meditation practice every day for 30 days.
It is permissible to break the hour down into two 30 minute sessions or three 20 minute sessions.
When I was a young boy I started to learn Ta Kwon Do at a local martial arts club – most every adolescent goes through this phase (too many Bruce Lee films I suspect). My sensei instructed me to meditate every evening for twenty minutes. I never remember the why or how behind this instruction: Just find a quiet place, sit and quiet your mind, is what he told me. For an eight year old twenty minutes of immobility is profoundly – impossibly – difficult, especially when the rest of the family are sitting in front of the TV.
I hope, in my introduction, I have made a reasonably strong case for the why behind why we should meditate. As part of my participation log I will aim to explain the how.
Before we enter a state of meditation we should first consider our environment. This is more important for the beginner because even a slight distraction can disturb our practice: the gentlest touch will send a spinning top spiralling off point. External distractors, such as the TV, mobile phones or talkative spouse/sibling/offspring, should be silenced. We need then to sit in a comfortable position – neither slouching nor rigid. I adopted the classic meditation pose: legs crossed, back straight, hands resting in the lap – though because of the inflexibility around my hips and knees I required two firm pillows propped under my bum.
I would advise that you refrain from saddling yourself with any expectation prior to embarking on a meditation practice. By this I mean do not tell yourself that you must prevent any and all internal static. This is scarcely possible for the advanced practitioner. Instead enter a state of meditation with the knowledge that your brain will formulate thoughts; that there will be chatter; and that it will ceaselessly draw your attention to some trivial goings on that it deems important but actually are not. This is your brain’s natural function and getting frustrated with it is an act of folly. Below I have quoted at length a passage from Erich Fromm’s book The Art of Being as it more succinctly elucidates my argument:
For many months many other thoughts will pass through one’s mind and disrupt the concentration. Here, as with everything living, force does not do any goodit does not help to try to force out tangential thoughts, to treat them as if they were enemies, and hence to feel defeated if one has not won the battle. They need to be treated gently, and that means one must be patient with oneself. (Impatience is usually the outcome of the intention of force.) Slowly, very slowly indeed, will intruding thought diminish in frequency and one will be better able to concentrate.
To cope with these difficulties makes the learning of concentration so difficult because many, if not most, people become discouraged after a while. They may criticize themselves for their inability, or rationalize their failure by deciding that the whole method is no good anyway. Here, as in any act of learning, the capacity to tolerate failure is of crucial importance.
When you become aware of your wandering mind gently re-orientate your conscious awareness to align with the breath. Continue to do so until the practice concludes. I should stop here a moment because I fear I may have progressed too far too quickly. A mistake I made in the beginning of this challenge was to delve straight into focusing on the breath. I would cleanse my environment of any external distractors, sit on my two pillows with my legs crossed, close my eyes and then go in search of the illusive breath. But before long I was thinking about other things, sometimes I even caught myself planning out my day (I usually mediated in the morning). This is what happens when we rush into the practice. This is what I suggest:
Firstly, after satisfying the obligatory formalities, become aware of your body making contact with whatever surface you so happen to be seated on. Notice the force your body exerts as gravity seemingly pulls you down. Perhaps there are tingling sensations in your legs, maybe a mild pain as your muscles struggle to acclimatise to a foreign position. Focus your awareness on these sensations for the first few minutes of you session.
It is also likely that you will be holding tension in your shoulders and jaw. Concentrate on relaxing these areas: allow that unnecessary tension to dissipate, to dissolve from your muscles. Now it is time to find the breath. When you do ensure to breathe naturally – in through the nose and out through the nose.
A mediation practice that I enjoy (and which I believe compounds one’s powers of concentration) is to count each successive breath. Breathe in, then on the outward phase count one. I don’t just count one I also visualise the integer in my mind: I picture a big white one. I proceed in this fashion to whatever number I set myself the goal of reaching – which is usually one hundred. However, if on my numerical ascent I lose track, I start at the beginning again.
Sometimes, when I felt really rebellious, I meditated with a warm cup of lemon water in my hands. Throughout the practice I would take light sips and then focus intently on the various sensations as the warm, tangy liquid excited my taste buds, and offended others, and then trickled down my oesophagus into my stomach.
I would recommend that, after completing a meditation session, you spend a little time contemplating on how you now feel. Do you feel noticeably calmer? Do you feel a sense of stillness? Or have you left the practice more frustrated than when you entered it? Ask yourself, when you have identified your emotional/psychological state, why this is the case: I feel calm because I followed the basic process outlined above and I did not have any expectations before going into the sessions. Therefore, though my mind did wonder from my breath, I noticed and gently coerced it back. Or: I feel frustrated because I rushed into the session and my idiot brain kept dragging my attention back to that argument I had last month. This lack of self-control has left me feeling despondent.
I adopted this post-meditation strategy for the first week (I now only do so if I’ve had a particularly disastrous session; though I’m pleased to report that this is becoming increasingly rarer). I would then make the relevant changes to the next practice session based on my emotional/psychological outcome. For example, on experiencing the latter outcome – which I did on a number of occasions in the beginning – I endeavoured to iron-out, so to speak, those mistakes. But I’m afraid to say that this is a continual process of trial and error and for a good while to come we must continue to persevere. On that note I’ll leave you with a wise piece of advice from Fromm:
“As in any act of learning, the capacity to tolerate failure is of crucial importance.”
Post Challenge Outcomes
With hand on heart I can in all honestly say that at the end of this challenge I felt so much calmer within myself: My mind is quieter; I am more attuned to my psychological and emotional state; and my awareness of present-moment experience is richer. Also, I am not quite the egotistical self-absorbed arsehole that I was prior to embarking on this challenge.
Prior to the challenge I only ever practiced meditation for 10 minutes a day, and sometimes this was a chore. After committing to this challenge, and seeing it through to its completion, my normal 10 minute practice was not only effortless but not enough. I now practice for at least 30 minutes every day.
Mindfulness originates from Buddhist meditation practice. If we are to trace it back through the ages it will inevitably lead to one man. He was called Gautama Siddhartha, we know him as the Buddha. I thought it only right and proper, whilst on my Mindfulness journey, to take a detour and pay a visit to the home of he who conceived what has come to give me so much pleasure. What did I find there? A whole new universe populated with profound philosophical insights, wise teachings and possibly even fundamental truths. I have been left somewhat unsettled. I will not discuss the reasons behind this because I think the profundity of the Buddhist philosophy cannot be adequately described. It is my quiet contention that one has to find one’s own way to it. All I can say is that I am profoundly grateful that I did.
This Concludes the Challenge: 30 Mindfulness Meditation
Find below a suggested reading list of some insightful and enlightening books. I have included them for the individual interested in expanding their mind beyond the parochial, narrowing limitations of the prevailing paradigms that form the foundation on which stands the ivory tower of western intellectualism
- The Bhagavad Gita
- The Art Of Being – Erich Fromm
- Siddhartha’s Brain – James Kingsland
Fromm, E (1993). The Art Of Being. Constable. Great Britain.
Helliwell, J., Layard R. and Saches, J. (2013): World Happiness Report.
Kingsland, J (2016). Siddhartha’s Brain: The Science of Meditation, Mindfulness and Enlightenment. Robinson. Great Britain.
Levitin J. D (2015). The Organised Mind. Penguin Books. Great Britain
Whiteford, H. A. et al. (2013) Global burden of disease attributable to mental and substance use disorders: findings from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010. The Lancet. 382 (9904). pp. 1575-1586.
McManus S, Bebbington P, Jenkins R, Brugha T. (eds.) (2016). Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult psychiatric morbidity survey 2014. Leeds: NHS digital.
Mental Health Foundation – cited online 2018https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/statistics
Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health. (2009). Briefing 40: Removing Barriers. The facts about mental health and employment. Retrieved from ohrn.nhs.uk/resource/policy/TheFactsaboutMentalHealth.pdf
Thaddeus W.W. Pace, Ph.D. Tanja C. Mletzko, M.S. Oyetunde Alagbe, M.D. Dominique L. Musselman, M.D., M.S. Charles B. Nemeroff, M.D., Ph.D. Andrew H. Miller, M.D. Christine M. Heim, Ph.D (2006), On line Journal: Increased Stress-Induced Inflammatory Responses in Male Patients With Major Depression and Increased Early Life Stress.