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Thursday, November 12, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence - Series 5


What is mindfulness meditation?

Institute of Meditation and Psychotherapy defines Mindfulness  as “awareness of present experience, with acceptance”. It is opposite of forgetfulness. It is not a mind "full of the past and the future", but one fully aware of the here and the now.  It is a variety of “analytical meditation” in which we use mindfulness ( as opposed to reason or imagination) as a tool to find our object of meditation and hold on to it. Object of meditation may be an image, a sound, states of mind such as loving kindness and compassion or concepts such as impermanence, inter-being, emptiness etc.,

Right mindfulness or samyak smriti is Step 3 in Buddha’s 8 Noble Truths. Buddha himself elaborated this in his Satipattana Sutta. In the Pali language the word Sati means attention and remembering, akin to the Sanskrit word smriti. Mindfulness meditation is based on this famous Sutta. This has become one of the more popular methods of meditation because of the work of Rev.Thich Naht Hanh and his school of Buddhism. More recently, Dr.Jon Kabat-Zinn adapted this to practical use in the modern world in the form of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program. Others have modified other aspects of this method and use it as part of Mindfulness based Cognitive Therapy programs. In fact, there is a new branch of neuroscience called Contemplative Neuroscience.

Mindfulness meditation is for the modern human living in a complex world, skeptical and stressed out, to bring the body and the mind together. It is to have increased self-awareness, a true acceptance and understanding of one’s self without judgment or grasping, thus leading to self-transformation. It is to help reduce stresses of modern-day life and thus reduce pain and suffering. It is to develop loving kindness and compassion and experience a feeling of oneness with the cosmos.

Mindfulness meditation techniques are easy to practice. Guided meditation practices have been developed over the years to learn to calm one’s mind, to focus on the here and now, to look deeply into one’s own body and mind without judgement, to learn forgiveness, to learn gratitude and to learn how to develop compassion.  Anyone belonging to any faith system can practice these as part of daily life.

Why is mindfulness meditation so popular? 

Of the several kinds of meditation practices, the Mindfulness Meditation based practices have been the best tested using scientific methods. Therefore, these methods have become part of Wellness and Mind-Body programs in Medical Schools, Industries and Educational institutions. For example, in a study of 70 physicians in primary care, many of them felt a sense of general well-being with reduced mood changes, reduced burn-out, and greater focus on patient centered care following 8 weeks of intensive training in mindfulness techniques followed by 10 monthly sessions. In another study of physicians, those who practiced mindful meditation experienced better quality of life, less burn-out and found greater meaning in their work.

In a large well controlled study of middle school children from a center city, children who took part in a 12 week course on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program had significantly less depression, negative  affect, somatization and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition to these clinical studies, neuroimaging and neurophysiological studies have shown differences in function and connectivity between different areas of the brain of meditators different from those of non-meditators. These studies also show that relevant areas of the brain show structural changes following even few weeks of meditation practice. Long term practitioners show greater changes than short term practitioners. In other words, some of the mental habits emphasized in meditation techniques can be learnt with demonstrable effects on the structure and function of our brain. This is what is called neuroplasticity.

There have been several studies to show that meditation techniques can be used as an adjunct to other forms of therapy in patients with chronic pain. These methods cannot make the pain go away. But will help develop a sense of self-control, reduce the need for addictive painkillers and help lead a more normal life by changing one’s attitude to pain. In fact, many Cognitive  Behavior Therapy programs based on meditation techniques are currently available.   (to continue)

(Here is an  excellent introductory text to help you get started with meditation. This is from the University of Wisconsin. Hopefully you can use these guidelines and start your practice. )

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