The Effectiveness of Meditation and Mental Practices

Jeffrey Ethan Jessum, Ph.D


What is Meditation?

Meditation is a term used in many different ways to describe a wide variety of intentional mental practices. Much of the recent research being done on meditation has come to use ‘mindfulness’ as a catch-all term for meditative practices. 

John Kabat-Zinn, one of the pioneers in the field of mindfulness research, defines it as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). 

In an analysis of several measures of mindfulness, Bear et al. (2006) have distilled the core elements of mindfulness into the following five constructs: 

1) Non-reactivity to inner experience;

2) Observing/noticing/attending to sensations/perceptions/thoughts/feelings;

3) Acting with awareness/not on automatic pilot/concentration/non-distraction;

4) Describing/labeling with words; and

5) Non-judging of experience. 

These qualities of mindfulness are simultaneously what are being practiced when one engages in meditation, as well as the outcome of the practice.  Mindfulness practice aims to cultivate these qualities through practicing them in formal ways with the intention of deepening these qualities in one’s everyday life experiences.

Mindfulness meditation training commonly involves concentration on an object such as the breath.  It involves techniques that cultivate an awareness of subjectivity – of how the mind works – in a manner that de-emphasizes the object of the initial focus (i.e. the object of the breath or the mental chatter itself). In such a practice, one then gains experiential access to the reflexive awareness - awareness of awareness - that is thought to reveal the bare aspect of mental process.

It is important to note that not everyone can sit on a meditation cushion and concentrate on their breath or their thoughts.  But the good news is that there are a wide variety of ways of increasing mindfulness that do not involve sitting and focusing in the traditional way. 

An integral approach looks at the strengths, inclinations and dispositions of an individual, in order to find the most effective and developmentally relevant way to engage in a mindfulness practice, .

Subjective Benefits of Mindfulness

Engaging in mindfulness practice has been found to have many positive effects. Listed below are some of the common subjective experiences people gain from engaging in a mindfulness practice. 

Increased introception -- the ability to sense what is occurring inside the body

Decreased enslavement by top-down mental influences and more receptivity to bottom-up mental influences

oTop-down influences: These are engrained brain states that result from prior learning and which create preconceived notions about things.  While in many instances prior learning and preconceptions can help us organize our experiences, they also frequently limit our experiences and imprison us in rigid ways of thinking.

oBottom-up influences: These are more primary, sensory experiences that access ipseity or our more basic core self experience (see below).

Increased ability to experience life with more of a sense of novelty and freshness, rather than a sense of monotony and stagnation.

Decreased proliferation of mind -- the seemingly endless cascade of thoughts that can be generated from a single thought.  This is the way that thoughts tend to generate more thoughts.

Increase in the ability to engage in the process of Discernment.

oDiscernment: a type of disidentification from the activity of one’s own mind which allows us to become aware that the activity of our mind is not the totality of who we are. 

oAs we become more aware of the activity of the mind, we come to see that this mental activity is not as solid as we once thought. 

oDiscernment helps us to watch our mental activity as we would watch a movie and, in doing so, we cultivate the ability to witness our experiences rather than being immersed in them.

oIn witnessing something, we loosen our sense of over-identification with the phenomenon we are witnessing.

oThis ability to detangle our sense of identity from the chatter of our mind is incredibly powerful. 

oWhen we are lost in thought, there is no separation between the thought and the self. We are the thought.  Discernment helps us gain some perspective, just as we do in a movie when we remind ourselves that it’s just a movie.

Cultivation of a sense of Ipseity -- an experience of life without the trappings of our constructed self. 

oIpseity is our essential way of being beneath the layers of thought and reaction, identity and adaptation.  It is a subjective sense of a core self, as opposed to our autobiographical sense of self. 

Increased volitional access to different states of consciousness—horizontal movement

Accelerated movement through the developmental stages—vertical movement. 

The Science of Mindfulness

There is increasing research demonstrating that mental practices such as mindfulness meditation have measurable benefits for people.  Below are a few studies that illustrate the powerful effect meditative practices can have on us. 

Mindfulness has been found to be associated with:

An increase in openness to experience, emotional intelligence and self-compassion, and a decrease in alexthymia, disassociation , absent-mindedness, general psychological symptoms, neuroticism, thought suppression, difficulties with emotional regulation, and experiential avoidance (Bear et al., 2006).

An increase in empathy (Block-Lerner, J., Adair, C., Plumb, J. C., Rhatigan, D. L., & Orsillo, S. M. 2007; Beddoe, A., & Murphy, S. 2004).

The enhancement of interpersonal relationships (Hutcherson, C., et al., 2008; Gale, J., 2009; Wachs, K., & Cordova, J. V., 2007; Carson, J. W., Carson, K. M., Gil, K. M., & Baucom, D. H., 2004).

A reduction in subjective states of suffering, nurturing of interpersonal relationships, increase in overall sense of well-being (Davidson et al. 2003; Grosman et al. 2004).

A decrease in addictive behaviors and a significant benefit in relapse prevention (Marlatt and Gordon, 1985).

A decrease in the incidence of relapse in chronic depression (Segal, Williams and Teasdale, 2002).

A benefit in treatment of Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder (Baxter, Schwarts, Bergman, Szuba, Guze, Mazziotta, et al, 1992).

An increase in health and longevity in patients with cardiovascular disease (Kabat-Zinn). 

Improved immune function; accelerated rates of healing (Davidson et al. 2003; Grossman et al. 2004).

Significantly improved executive functioning in adults and adolescents (Zylowska et al., 2008).

Significant thickening in two specific areas of the brain.  These areas are the middle prefrontal area, bilaterally, and a related neural circuit called the insula which was particularly thicker on the right side of the brain.  Of particular interest was the finding that the degree of thickness in these areas was correlated with how long someone had been meditating. The longer a meditation practice an individual had the more thickening there was in these regions (Lazar, et. al., 2005).

Increased levels of neural synchrony within the brain (Lutz et al., 2004).

Activation of areas of the brain associated with the mirror neuron circuitry (Lazar, et al, 2005 and Lutz et al., 2004, Brefczynski-Lewis, 2006).  The mirror neuron circuits of the brain enable us to have direct, felt experiences of the actions and emotional states of others. They “allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation; by feeling not by thinking” (Giacomo Rizzolatti, 2006).

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