Back to Basics: What is Mindfulness?

We’ve had so much new interest in our website lately…the word is out that scientists and high accountability professionals everywhere in the realm of law enforcement want to explore a better way of performing, enhancing, and growing in their respective careers.  I’m excited to have you here for a few minutes if you’d like to read further on our Back to Basics post!

I have never heard from anyone who wants to embrace mediocrity.  Excellence is your goal…in your family life, in your work product, in the way you treat your colleagues.  But excellence is elusive when we are sleep deprived, our cubicle mate is an asshole, our supervisor chronically under-appreciates us and Ben & Jerry’s comes out with a new flavor that must be consumed.  Bombarded with stimulus (good and bad), we may continue to slip into habits that may not serve us well.  Mindfulness can help by disrupting these habitual behaviors of spiked reactions,  uncontrolled emotions, and unruly thought processes.  But how in the world can sitting on a cushion (or chair, or mat, or floor) help us mitigate stressful situations and stay buoyant in our navigation through life?

Mindfulness teaches concentration skills

Mindfulness meditation is a practice in concentration, usually on an anchor point: the inhalation and exhalation of breath, a point in the body, a word or phrase, a concept.  Mindfulness isn’t letting go of your edge or releasing you ambitions to naval gaze. It’s honing your concentration skills. It’s a skill that takes practice…and a skill that’s practiced by CEO’s, NBA players, chiefs of police, DNA analysts, elite athletes, and bad asses like you all around the world.

Mindfulness changes your brain physiology…for the better

One of many studies on the effects of meditation and the brain (Lazar et al, “Meditation Experience Is Associated with Increased Cortical Thickness”, Neuroreport 16 [2005]:1893-97) shows that there is statistically significant enlargement of the brain in specific areas related to attention (prefrontal cortex), self-regulation (cingulate cortex and orbitofrontal cortex), and increased body awareness such as pain (somatomotor areas).  I’ve recommended this book before, but if you want a deep dive into the science of mindfulness, read Altered Traits, by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson.  An insanely enlightening read, with 23 pages worth of scientific citations regarding the benefits of mindful meditation.

Mindfulness changes your relationship with emotions

When you practice the skills of mindfulness meditation, you view emotions in a very different way.  Curiosity replaces distress, objectivity takes the place of subjectivity, openness replaces aversion.  The importance of this benefit can’t be overstated…when you remind yourself that “thoughts are not facts”, these thoughts lose power over you.  You have the increased ability to be flexible with thoughts…to explore them…then to let them gently go.  This pause for exploration and scrutiny of thoughts is essential and integral in the practice of emotional regulation.  When you pause briefly to explore what’s happening in your head, you have the ability to respond differently to things like habitual negative thinking, reactionary processes, and the proverbial “popping off” that I’m all-too-familiar with.

There are thousands of benefits to mindfulness…for a concentrated dose of some mindfulness education, check out this new article on regarding new scientific research on different mindfulness approaches to the regulation of emotions.

What Mindfulness is NOT: Myths and Misconceptions of Practicing Mindfulness

  1. Meditation is about clearing the mind of all thoughts

Nope, actually that’s not true.  And, it’s actually quite impossible…there’s the general rule that Dan Harris goes by that “if you have cleared your mind of all thought, you are either totally enlightened or you’re dead.”  Mindfulness is about recognizing your thoughts with open curiosity.  It’s actually having a laser-like focus on thoughts, and how to greet them when they stampede into your brain as you’re meditating.  Recognizing, welcoming, exploring, and analyzing thoughts (and their origins) is more the point of mindfulness.  Ultimately, the skill is to recognize, explore, and then release thoughts, while heading back to your anchor (breath, word, point on body, whatever you’ve chosen for that meditation).  Emptying your brain is not the goal; no one wants you catatonic.

2.  Meditation takes years of practice.  Only experts can reap the benefits.

I’m going to argue that this is a myth, based on the fact that if you have the intention to practice, you’re, like, 92% of the way there.  It always helps to have a guide in your meditation, whether you’re in a class with a qualified teacher or peer coach, or whether you’re in your office or home with a meditation app.  Practicing mindfulness is being in the present, with curiosity and without judgement,  focusing on an anchor you have set for yourself.  When your mind wanders (as it will…it does with everyone) you recognize it, congratulate your self for recognizing it, take a breath and go back to your anchor and start again.  And again.  And again.  Here’s the most fundamental fact about mindfulness that you may not know:

The act of recognizing that your mind has wandered, letting go gently of the thoughts that distracted you, and returning to your breath IS mindfulness.  That’s the muscle your are flexing when you practice…and when you do it over and over again, you gain strength in your skills!  Focusing on your breath is just one part of the skill…returning to the breath after you’ve strayed is the completion of the skill.

And by the way, there are numerous scientific studies that conclude even one minute meditations can improve neural connections and increase neuroplasticity.  How efficient is that, busy person?

3. Meditation is escapism.  I am not willing to lose my edge to meditate.

Aha!  If I’m too happy, I’ll lose all interest in everything, buy a bunch of flowy garments and instantaneously lose all of the muscle tone from my Cross Fit workout.  This is the classic Motivated-and-Serious-Career-Individual concern.  I totally get it, but I’m here to tell you it’s a myth.  False.  In my humble opinion.  There’s actually a lot of literature out there about this concern, because it’s a big one in our field of law enforcement/high accountability/high trauma careers.  If your intent is to practice mindfulness and develop these skills, it will absolutely enhance rather than erode your edge.  Your developing concentration, emotional regulation, self compassion, curiosity, objective scrutiny and intensity, and the ability to discern fact from fiction in your mental states.  How would those skills make you soft and apathetic?  If anything, you’ll get more energized, more curious, more courageous in your actions at work and at home.  These skills will strengthen you, not weaken you.  Win-win.  And if Navy SEALs are doing it, who is going to argue with that?

4. Meditation is religion.  Or religious.  Or anti-religious.  Or the opposite of religion. Meditation conflicts with religion.  Why don’t you just pray, if you’re a Christian?

Lots to unpack here, but I turn to Dan Harris’ second book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics for the nuts and bolts answer here:

The heart of prayer is humility and equanimity…it involves the belief that sometimes the right move is to trust and surrender to both the flow and the source of life.  This emerges naturally in meditation.  Additionally, many people get very concentrated in prayer…so many of the (meditative) skills are there.  the main difference is probably the feeling of being in relationship – folks who pray aren’t sitting alone with their stuff, but sharing it with a wise and loving other whom they can ask for guidance…I’m not sure how (meditation would conflict with faith), especially the secular approaches to mindfulness, which present all this very much as mental and emotional skills that anyone can benefit from, regardless of the nature of their existential belief wrappers….I think it can enhance the beautiful qualities of faith (the humility, the joy, the love) – and it might temper some of the more shadowy aspects that can emerge around doctrinal rigidity and intolerance. (p. 224-225)

In essence, the mindfulness meditation that I practice (along with Dan Harris and many others) is secular.  It neither conflicts nor disparages any religious beliefs.  I think of it as brain training for optimal performance.  In mindfulness, that optimal performance matrix just happens to involve things not traditionally (or traditional in Western thinking) deemed “performance-enhancers”, like compassion, equanimity, reflection, and loving kindness.

Bottom line: people meditate to enjoy a new experience, test themselves under new conditions, to experience the many physical and mental benefits of sitting quietly in awareness and concentration (such as lowered blood pressure, decreased cortisol levels, increased brain function), and a spiritual or religious belief system is not required for this.  It certainly can enhance or enrich your spiritual experiences, though.

There are a ton more myths about meditation out there: “my mind won’t settle down”, “I don’t have time”, etc. etc. etc.  Check out this article on meditation myths we need to STOP believing to get an even bigger dose of refreshing reasons to throw out the doubt and start meditating!

That’s all for now…feel free to contact me if you’ve got questions, are still skeptical, or just want to unpack a point or concept.  Here’s hoping you have a wonderful weekend.  Keep smiling!