4 Little-Known Reasons to Study and Practice Mindfulness Meditation
1. Differentiation: The classical guidelines for practicing mindfulness meditation, according to the Sutta (Four Foundation of Mindfulness), is to chunk our experience into categories, a process called “differentiation” in psychology. By categorizing our experience, life becomes more manageable, and self-awareness increases. For example, imagine a person is driving and late for a meeting and suddenly becomes stuck in traffic at a stoplight that seems to be unchanging for five whole minutes. As the minutes tick by, they feel worse and worse, and by the time they get to the meeting, they are so frazzled they are unable to concentrate or listen to social cues. Then they beat themself up for being so distracted and spend the rest of their day in a terrible mood, unable to concentrate, absentmindedly browsing youtube cat videos.
Imagine the same scenario, but this time, the person has mindfulness training; They are late for a meeting and get stuck at the red light. Mindfulness kicks in, and they notice their stomach and diaphragm begin to clench (body sensation), anxiety increasing (emotion), catastrophizing thoughts arising like “I’m going to be fired” (cognition), and the general unpleasant nature of the experience (hedonic valance/feeling tone). As the minutes tick by, mindfulness watches these experiences without reactivity; the muscles in the belly start to ease, the anxiety changes in amplitude, the catastrophizing thoughts are questioned (Am I really going to be fired for being 5 minutes late?), and the overall hedonic valance of the experience shifts from very unpleasant to neutral or even pleasant relief. Without differentiation, the experience was overwhelming, like a symphony with the horn section and string section out-of-sink and listening to different conductors. With differentiation, the experience, albeit an unpleasant one, was manageable.
2. Identifying cognitive distortions: Part of the art mindfulness meditation is learning how to observe one’s thinking process much like a scientist would observe their research. When the meditator gets enough observing ego online, they can begin to see their thoughts arise, pass like clouds in the sky, and even question the validity of specific thought patterns.
Psychologists have identified specific thought patterns that can be especially damaging and untrue, called cognitive distortions. A cognitive distortion is an exaggerated or irrational thought pattern involved in the onset or perpetuation of psychopathological states, such as depression and anxiety. Classic cognitive distortions include black and white thinking (ignoring complexity), catastrophizing (imagining the worst-case scenario), and overgeneralization (assuming a rule from one experience). Even the most well-adjusted person has some cognitive distortions going on, and without mindfulness, we very may well be doomed to believe them without question. Like the California bumper sticker says: Don’t believe everything that you think.
3. Understanding Impermanence: With mindfulness training, we can learn how to be in the present moment for a prolonged amount of time. With this experience, we can develop a different relationship to experience; we can see for ourselves how the law of impermanence applies to all phenomena. In meditation, we can see thoughts arise and pass, lasting little more than a few seconds. We can track the half-life of the adrenaline spike of anxiety, perhaps 90 seconds or so. We can watch body sensations swirl around, contract, and relax. The meditator learns to observe experience arising and passing all on its own.
4. Avoiding Feeback Loops: Without mindfulness, it is easy to get caught in a positive feedback loop with negative results. For example, the driver in the first example was caught in traffic and had the catastrophizing thought, “I’m going to be fired.” Without mindfulness, this thought would probably be believed without question. If accepted, this would probably bump up the level of anxiety in the emotion channel and constrict the physical body’s muscles. With the muscle constriction, it’s harder to breathe, which might give rise to another catastrophizing thought: “What if I have a panic attack in the middle of the meeting?!”, which makes the muscles in the body tighter, which makes it harder to breathe, which leads to more catastrophizing thoughts, etc.
With a deep understanding of impermanence, the mindfulness practitioner can observe the thoughts and anxiety without reactivity (the reactivity is what creates the feedback loop) and track the half-life of each thought, emotion, and body experience. Much like pointing a microphone away from an active speaker, this breaks the feedback loop’s chain.
Posted by: Brent Morton.
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