Part of the reason for lack of clarity is because the contemporary practice of mindfulness meditation combines elements from more than one Buddhist tradition, non-Buddhist traditions (Advaita and Taoism) and modern psychology. The operational definition of mindfulness offered here is based on theory combined with the author’s personal experience of traditional Buddhist mindfulness practice and the mindfulness taught in the context of cognitive therapy.
For the purposes of this article, mindfulness is the capacity to have insight into the processes of experience, consciously monitoring sensory stimuli, thoughts and the movements of attention from moment to moment. It may be developed by the practice of formal meditation, conceptual understanding of the processes of experience and consciously attending to experience in everyday life.
Formal mindfulness meditation can be divided into two categories: concentration and non-directive meditation.
Concentration meditation requires some effort to direct a focused attention on the chosen object. In mindfulness practice the chosen object will normally be body-based sensations including smell, taste, touch, pressure, stretch, and temperature located in a specific part of the body but may also be sounds or sight. This differs from concentration meditation practices which use an object such as a candle or a short phrase repeated verbally or silently (mantra).
Mindfulness of breath is probably the most commonly used form of concentration meditation, particularly in mindfulness meditation. When the attention is distracted by another sensation or a thought, the attention is simply redirected to the chosen object of concentration.
The aim of concentration meditation is not to reduce mental activity but to follow these simple instructions. Practicing with an attitude of non-judgmental self-acceptance produces a sense of ease by interrupting mental activity and defusing emotional arousal fed by thought.
Beginners may find that they become aware of mental activity of which they were previously unaware. This can be discouraging. Here a beginner needs to continue with the practice with self-acceptance.
Limitations of concentration
One benefit of concentration meditation is the ability to regulate emotions by interrupting thinking patterns, so reducing emotional reactivity. This capacity, however, has only limited benefits if it becomes merely a means to control emotions. This can become counter-productive.
It is important to develop non-directive meditation to produce more profound benefits. Indeed, this is what distinguishes mindfulness from other forms of meditation. These benefits come about with insight into, and the capacity for conscious awareness of, the processes of experience. Over time, long-term embodied patterns of traumatic emotions, beliefs and behaviour may be processed and transformed.
Non-directive meditation takes place when the attention is not directed at an object and is allowed to wander. Concentration meditation is the preparation for this. Following a period of concentration meditation, the focus of attention is then relaxed to produce an intermediate stage of body-based awareness. In this stage, attention is expanded to include awareness of the whole body.
By maintaining body awareness in this way, it may become possible to perceive changes in sensations in the body that are related to cognitive processes. Then thoughts can be perceived arising and dissipating in a field of awareness of subtly changing sensations in the body. Then, if attention becomes absorbed in thinking, redirecting it to bodily sensation.
The importance of body-based awareness
Body-scanning, a key element of mindfulness meditation, combines elements of concentration practice and non-directive meditation. In mindfulness courses, body-scanning is used to develop certain skills: the capacity to purposefully direct attention; to perceive sensations unmediated by thinking; and, to notice any tendency to want experience to be different from the way it is. None of these skills are exclusive to body-scanning.
What body-scanning does, that other practices do not do in the same way, is to develop body-based awareness. Most people will find that there are certain areas of the body where they find low levels of sensation or no sensations. Arguably, patterns of body-based awareness reflect embodied patterns of trauma. The practice will increase sensitivity to body-based awareness, which may, therefore, have a direct beneficial psychological and behavioural effect.
Significantly, the author maintains, without this background of body-based sensitivity in non-directive meditation, the attention will easily get drawn into thinking when the focus of concentration is relaxed.
Mindfulness has been found to have little benefit without self-compassion. Self-compassion and self-acceptance are closely related. Without self-acceptance, concentration practice is likely to become a means of self-control and may even become dissociative. Self-acceptance means accepting the unruly behaviour of the mind. Without it, concentration meditation is likely to produce frustration and greater, rather than lesser, mental activity.
After beginners experience the early benefits of concentration, which produces a sense of ease as a result of reduced mental activity, they may expect to reproduce these effects in subsequent practice and become frustrated when they fail to do so. Here, non-judgmental acceptance of the mind-state being experienced during meditation, whatever that is, will then need to be developed to make further progress.
One response to increased mental activity is to try to concentrate harder which produces greater levels of stress and embodied tension. This is the exact opposite of what is needed. Effort must be present in concentration practice with a light touch combined with self-acceptance.
Posture and intention
When sitting to practice mindfulness meditation, it is important to assume an appropriate posture. An upright, open chested, relaxed posture embodies confidence, self-acceptance and wakefulness. It is only possible to be generous and accepting if one feels well resourced. This posture produces the desired mind-state to practice mindfulness meditation. A posture, which expresses confidence, is a sign of social dominance. A socially dominant posture reduces stress hormones and increases levels of testosterone. A submissive, hunched posture will create more stress and mental activity. A slumped or slouched posture will not produce wakefulness.
The object of concentration in a sitting meditation may just be to monitor the posture from moment to moment. In mindfulness practice, the posture is normally set at the beginning of the practice and embodies the intention to be awake to experience during the practice. It is helpful to come back to the posture intermittently to refresh the intention to be confident, resourced and awake.
Combining the elements of practice
Mindfulness meditation practice will include all the elements described above. It is helpful to understand each element as they represent different operations that support each other. With practice, each operation will be repeated many times during a period of mindfulness meditation.
Transformation will only take place with practice. Regular small periods of practice are useful to build up a nourishing habit that will motivate further practice.
Healing body and mind with mindfulness
The primary cause of the trauma that is being addressed by mindfulness practice is the human narrative. A conception of self-existence comes with a conception of death which produces distress. When mindfulness practice is developed, it may promote physiological, neurological and psychological healing for this embodied trauma.
In other words, a person creates an idea of who they are and life becomes a strategy to keep this idea safe from harm. However, constantly avoiding existential distress creates chronic levels of stress that feeds negative beliefs. Patterns of negative beliefs affect behaviour and may become embodied in ways that eventually lead to disease.
In the practice of mindfulness meditation, some kind of discomfort will soon come into awareness. Perhaps the whole point of mindfulness meditation is this encounter. It could be emotional. It could be frustration or boredom. It could be doubt or anxiety or it could be some kind of physical discomfort.
Mindfulness meditation helps a person to reframe their relationship with this discomfort as they become aware of the patterns of avoidance that shape the narrative and how it is embodied. This becomes the means for developing insight and may be the vehicle for neurophysiologic processes of healing.
With increasing self-acceptance and understanding, greater understanding and compassion for others follows; a growing capacity for patience and kindness becomes part of the personality. This shapes the relationships a person makes and promotes mind-body states where hormonal, cellular and neurological functioning can promote growth, learning and repair.
This is how mindfulness may transform lives making a better world one moment at a time.
Copyright Mark Leonard 2015 under the following licence