Updated: Aug 15, 2020
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 edu