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Engaging the Wandering Mind: Practicing Mindfulness

Submitted by on May 10, 2016 – 8:49 PM One Comment

mindfulness_meditationSince times immemorial, humans have been subjected to mental and psychological suffering. As conscious beings, our minds constantly ruminate over events from the past and fears of the future. Within reasonable limits this mind-wandering is necessary and has important survival value, but when excessive it leads to anxiety or depression.

 

Anxiety is worrying about the future, while depression originates from a real or perceived sense of loss related to past. An ancient and effective technique to cope with mind-wandering and achieve mental serenity is termed mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to intentionally remain in the present moment and to be conscious of one’s own thoughts and emotions.

 

Modern research has proven the value of mindfulness.  Mindfulness can be cultivated just like learning to swim or ride a bicycle. First let’s consider the nature of human sadness. Human sadness is often justified as the price we pay for being conscious of our existence and the pains associated with this existence.

 

Our cerebral hemispheres, the sites of thinking and reasoning, are the biggest and the most developed among the entire animal species past and present.  This brain (hardware) has enabled the human species to have an imaginative, creative and intelligent mind (software). In parenthesis I have used the computer terms in order to distinguish between brain and mind.

 

The human brain is material and the result of biological evolution over millions of years. And in this material brain the mind has evolved as a result of social and cultural evolution. This sophisticated mind possesses unique wandering and scheming abilities.

 

The mind’s ability to focus attention on something other than the present is marvelous: it allows us to learn, plan and reason by linking different pieces of information and has enabled us to achieve great intellectual heights and inventions. The ability of mind to travel in time helps us to learn from the past and to protect ourselves in future.

 

Paradoxically, these unique wandering and scheming abilities of the mind also creates serious mental problems. When this wandering becomes excessive or creates negative associations, the result may be depression or anxiety. In a bad mood, the wandering mind glides more over painful events and thus generates worrying thoughts and painful obsessions.

 

Prominent experts of psychology agree that mind-wandering and unhappiness are positively correlated.  Conversely, living ‘in the moment’ is believed to promote happiness and well-being. Consider the case of a nightmare, a scene generated by the mind from its store of past events and worries about future.

 

This feat of imagination appears to be solid reality and you wholly feel the mental anguish that a nightmare evokes. However, if due to some interference the dream is broken and your mind wakes up to the present moment, the pain and anguish quickly resolves. The cultivation of mindfulness is a tradition thousands of years old, practiced in monasteries of the Indian subcontinent and Far East – mainly a Buddhist legacy.

 

These practices focus on breathing, body sensations, thoughts or sounds, with the ultimate goal of finding awareness of the present.  Recent scientific analysis of such meditation practices has proven their effectiveness in reducing anxiety, depression and chronic pains. Magnetic resonance imaging has revealed changes in brain images caused by the mindfulness exercises.

 

Lisa A. Kilpatrick, 2011, found that mindfulness meditation training alters intrinsic functional connectivity in ways that may reflect a more consistent attention focus and enhanced sensory processing. In another study it was found that when people were mind-wandering, they reported feeling less happy compared to those who were focused on the present moment.

 

This effect was true regardless of the activity the person was doing — be it waiting in a traffic jam or eating a delicious dinner (Killingsworth,  2010). Similarly, Yu-Qin Deng, 2014, revealed that the wandering mind was positively associated with depression. Being a product of environment and genes, every human is a historical being.

 

The phrase coined by Sigmund Freud, ‘anatomy is destiny’ still holds true, and anatomy is tailored in the light of information carried in the genes. Genes also determine much of our behavior; an ever increasing number of genes related to behavior are being discovered. And genes, according to Richard Dawkins, are selfish molecules which ‘want’ their existence at any cost.

 

When their survival is threatened, in reality or supposedly, they incite the negative feelings of jealousy, anger and grief.  These innate defects reflected in the adult personality can be cured by cultivating rationality and mindfulness. This may be called empowering mind over the matter. Rubem, 1969, remarked that man is not born in the world of things, persons, and time as a finished product.  His being is not prior to history.

 

He becomes what he is through the history of his relations with his environment.  He is not, therefore, simply a being in the world; he comes into being with the world (Rubem, 1969). The thoughts and feelings of an individual human is the result of his/her social experiences and the biological brain.  So each one of us has to live with his/her own history.

 

This is the basis of human individuality. Moreover, no mechanism capable of selectively erasing memories is known to scientists.   It is a remarkable property of the brain that once written on it nothing can be deleted by ordinary means less than surgery.  Thus we must learn to live with our memories with mindful acceptance and commitment, and should never try to become someone-else.

 

Though we cannot edit our memories, but can change their appraisal, that is we can learn how to react rationally when a thought/emotion starts overwhelming us. In the words of Dr. Steven Hayes a prominent leader in this field, we need a transformation in our evaluation: “from our thoughts to at our thoughts”.

 

The essence of mindfulness is that one may not be taken unaware by the impulses of a Stone Age brain.  Being aware of these emerging thoughts make them easier to cope with.  According to Prof. Mark William, thoughts pop up in our minds automatically as it is the function of brain to produce thoughts, just like sound perception is the function of ear.

 

When mindful, we analyze thoughts that arise spontaneously and show response after a lapse of time, or just let them pass gently.  However, when we are not aware we may become victims to the dictates of negative thoughts, as they will produce negative emotions. Thus a mindful person will not suddenly become sad or angry by an event.

 

To reduce their sting, negative emotions should be quickly recognized and labeled as anger, fear or hate, and allowed to pass quietly; while doing so a mindful person is gentle to himself realizing that some evolutionary survival instinct is overplaying inside him.  Thus mindful acceptance and a sense of commitment will greatly help in overpowering the negative impulses of human brain.

 

 

Negative thoughts are often obsessive, repeated in mind again and again like a gramophone record repeating the same line perpetually. Ironically if you fight them or criticize them they become stronger.  One should accept them whole-heartedly and if they distress you too much, start doing something that occupies your mind.

 

Allow these negative thoughts to remain in the background, they will soon pass and eventually you will become used to them being there.  Realize that whatever is the cause of your miserable mood, the immediate thing that pinches you is only your thought.

 

Obviously, anger, hate, fear, jealousy and grief are nothing but mere mental processes. Mindfulness will also result in an attitude to the past and future taken only as imagined concepts, while considering only the present as real. In the words of Prof. Mark Williams, 2012, “We re-live past events and re-feel their pain, and we pre-live future disasters and so pre-feel their pain”.

 

Paradoxical though it may seem, but both past and future are the result of neuronal activities; the past is recorded by neurons while the future is a scenario generated by the extrapolation of the past and present. The future is a remote possibility unless it becomes a reality when transformed to now. Before discussing some practices useful in the cultivation of mindfulness, let us consider two comprehensive definitions of mindfulness:

 

  1. Zgierska, 2009, “Mindfulnessis the intentional accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment.” 
  2. Paul Salmon 2011, “Mindfulness is a state of alert attentiveness to one’s experience on a moment-by-moment basis, strongly anchored in the present moment.’’

 

We do many things in our daily life in a sort of autopilot mode – we may be doing a task, yet be almost completely unaware of it. The cultivation of mindfulness requires paying attention to whatever one does or feels, moment by moment, in his/her daily life, including even trivial activities like brushing ones teeth, combing, or riding a bicycle.   However, according to Jon Kabat Zinn, to be mindful is one of the most difficult things. But with practice, just like developing muscle by exercising in the gym, the ability to remain mindful can be developed.

 

Here are some techniques for the cultivation of mindfulness.

  • A very easy and effective technique for the cultivation of mindfulness is breathing meditation. One can do it anywhere. You can right now observe your breathing, concentrating on inhalation and exhalation. While doing so your mind will wander. When it does so, gently bring it back to the act of breathing. By selectively bringing our attention to the act of breathing we can develop the skill of mindfulness. This breathing exercise can be effective even if done for just three minutes.

 

  • Body scan, in which one pays attention to the various parts of body and the sensations arising out of them. One can start step wise from toe, legs, pelvis, abdomen, chest, hands and finally paying attention to neck and head. The body scan may be coupled with the breathing exercise during the part of the day that you spare for them.

 

  • Mindful listening to music in which one pay attention to the voice of the singer and all the instruments of the orchestra.

 

  • Mindful walking, paying attention to as many things as possible that come your way while walking. This may include plants, trees, the sounds of birds, flow of water, voices of children. During a walk one should also pay attention to the breeze and aromas that comes one way.

 

  • Prayer and meditation gives us peace because it brings us back to our selves and to the present moment. We halt and retreat to our own body while meditating.

 

  • In the course of time, one can design personal mindful exercises aiming at developing a state of mind that is conscious and remains in the moment. With practice and passage of time, mindfulness can be applied to all life activities of an average person. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, “mindfulness is a way of being”.

 

 

Ultimately, we must emphasize that mindfulness should not be taken just as a philosophy to read and accept; rather it is the practice of mindfulness which can bring well being. The goal of mindfulness is to live in the moment, and to live physically rather than in one’s head i.e. wandering and scheming most of the time.  Mindfulness necessitates that sensory experiences should be monitored in a neutral manner. We should observe our thoughts and emotions, instead of reacting automatically based on our prior conditioning and innate mechanisms of our brain.

 

Mindfulness with the passage of time inculcates the habit of self-reflection and liberates us from the dictates of unconscious impulsive mode of life.  Mindfulness leads to a transformation from a doing mode to a being mode of living. We acquire the ability to accept ourselves and accept life as it unfolds. We learn the lesson of living in every moment. In fact, appreciating every moment enables us to appreciate our whole life.

 

To quote Henry David Thoreau, ‘only that day dawns to which we are awake’. Since time immemorial, humans have been subjected to mental and psychological suffering. As conscious beings, our minds constantly ruminate over events from the past and fears of the future.

 

Within reasonable limits this mind-wandering is necessary and has important survival value, but when excessive it leads to anxiety or depression.  Anxiety is worrying about the future, while depression originates from a real or perceived sense of loss related to past. An ancient and effective technique to cope with mind-wandering and achieve mental serenity is termed mindfulness.

 

Mindfulness is the ability to intentionally remain in the present moment and to be conscious of one’s own thoughts and emotions. Modern research has proven the value of mindfulness.  Mindfulness can be cultivated just like learning to swim or ride a bicycle. First let’s consider the nature of human sadness.

 

Human sadness is often justified as the price we pay for being conscious of our existence and the pains associated with this existence. Our cerebral hemispheres, the sites of thinking and reasoning, are the biggest and the most developed among the entire animal species past and present.

 

This brain (hardware) has enabled the human species to have an imaginative, creative and intelligent mind (software). In parenthesis I have used the computer terms in order to distinguish between brain and mind. The human brain is material and the result of biological evolution over millions of years. And in this material brain the mind has evolved as a result of social and cultural evolution.

 

This sophisticated mind possesses unique wandering and scheming abilities. The mind’s ability to focus attention on something other than the present is marvelous: it allows us to learn, plan and reason by linking different pieces of information and has enabled us to achieve great intellectual heights and inventions.

 

The ability of mind to travel in time helps us to learn from the past and to protect ourselves in future. Paradoxically, these unique wandering and scheming abilities of the mind also creates serious mental problems. When this wandering becomes excessive or creates negative associations, the result may be depression or anxiety.

 

In a bad mood, the wandering mind glides more over painful events and thus generates worrying thoughts and painful obsessions. Prominent experts of psychology agree that mind-wandering and unhappiness are positively correlated.

 

Conversely, living ‘in the moment’ is believed to promote happiness and well-being. Consider the case of a nightmare, a scene generated by the mind from its store of past events and worries about future. This feat of imagination appears to be solid reality and you wholly feel the mental anguish that a nightmare evokes.

 

However, if due to some interference the dream is broken and your mind wakes up to the present moment, the pain and anguish quickly resolves. The cultivation of mindfulness is a tradition thousands of years old, practiced in monasteries of the Indian subcontinent and Far East – mainly a Buddhist legacy.

 

These practices focus on breathing, body sensations, thoughts or sounds, with the ultimate goal of finding awareness of the present.  Recent scientific analysis of such meditation practices has proven their effectiveness in reducing anxiety, depression and chronic pains. Magnetic resonance imaging has revealed changes in brain images caused by the mindfulness exercises.

 

Lisa A. Kilpatrick, 2011, found that mindfulness meditation training alters intrinsic functional connectivity in ways that may reflect a more consistent attention focus and enhanced sensory processing. In another study it was found that when people were mind-wandering, they reported feeling less happy compared to those who were focused on the present moment.

 

This effect was true regardless of the activity the person was doing — be it waiting in a traffic jam or eating a delicious dinner (Killingsworth,  2010). Similarly, Yu-Qin Deng, 2014, revealed that the wandering mind was positively associated with depression. Being a product of environment and genes every human is a historical being.

 

The phrase coined by Sigmund Freud, ‘anatomy is destiny’ still holds true, and anatomy is tailored in the light of information carried in the genes. Genes also determine much of our behavior; an ever increasing number of genes related to behavior are being discovered. And genes, according to Richard Dawkins, are selfish molecules which ‘want’ their existence at any cost.

 

When their survival is threatened, in reality or supposedly, they incite the negative feelings of jealousy, anger and grief.  These innate defects reflected in the adult personality can be cured by cultivating rationality and mindfulness. This may be called empowering mind over the matter.

 

Rubem, 1969, remarked that man is not born in the world of things, persons, and time as a finished product.  His being is not prior to history.  He becomes what he is through the history of his relations with his environment.  He is not, therefore, simply a being in the world; he comes into being with the world (Rubem, 1969).

 

The thoughts and feelings of an individual human is the result of his/her social experiences and the biological brain.  So each one of us has to live with his/her own history. This is the basis of human individuality. Moreover, no mechanism capable of selectively erasing memories is known to scientists.

 

It is a remarkable property of the brain that once written on it nothing can be deleted by ordinary means less than surgery.  Thus we must learn to live with our memories with mindful acceptance and commitment, and should never try to become someone-else. Though we cannot edit our memories, but can change their appraisal, that is we can learn how to react rationally when a thought/emotion starts overwhelming us.

 

In the words of Dr. Steven Hayes a prominent leader in this field, we need a transformation in our evaluation: “from our thoughts to at our thoughts”. The essence of mindfulness is that one may not be taken unaware by the impulses of a Stone Age brain.  Being aware of these emerging thoughts make them easier to cope with.

 

According to Prof. Mark William, thoughts pop up in our minds automatically as it is the function of brain to produce thoughts, just like sound perception is the function of ear.  When mindful, we analyze thoughts that arise spontaneously and show response after a lapse of time, or just let them pass gently.  However, when we are not aware we may become victims to the dictates of negative thoughts, as they will produce negative emotions.

 

Thus a mindful person will not suddenly become sad or angry by an event.  To reduce their sting, negative emotions should be quickly recognized and labeled as anger, fear or hate, and allowed to pass quietly; while doing so a mindful person is gentle to himself realizing that some evolutionary survival instinct is overplaying inside him.

 

Thus mindful acceptance and a sense of commitment will greatly help in overpowering the negative impulses of human brain. Negative thoughts are often obsessive, repeated in mind again and again like a gramophone record repeating the same line perpetually.

 

Ironically if you fight them or criticize them they become stronger.  One should accept them whole-heartedly and if they distress you too much, start doing something that occupies your mind. Allow these negative thoughts to remain in the background, they will soon pass and eventually you will become used to them being there.

 

Realize that whatever is the cause of your miserable mood, the immediate thing that pinches you is only your thought. Obviously, anger, hate, fear, jealousy and grief are nothing but mere mental processes. Mindfulness will also result in an attitude to the past and future taken only as imagined concepts, while considering only the present as real.

 

In the words of Prof. Mark Williams, 2012, “We re-live past events and re-feel their pain, and we pre-live future disasters and so pre-feel their pain”.  Paradoxical though it may seem, but both past and future are the result of neuronal activities; the past is recorded by neurons while the future is a scenario generated by the extrapolation of the past and present. The future is a remote possibility unless it becomes a reality when transformed to now.

 

Before discussing some practices useful in the cultivation of mindfulness, let us consider two comprehensive definitions of mindfulness:

  1. Zgierska, 2009, “Mindfulnessis the intentional accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment.” 
  2. Paul Salmon 2011, “Mindfulness is a state of alert attentiveness to one’s experience on a moment-by-moment basis, strongly anchored in the present moment.’’

 

We do many things in our daily life in a sort of autopilot mode – we may be doing a task, yet be almost completely unaware of it. The cultivation of mindfulness requires paying attention to whatever one does or feels, moment by moment, in his/her daily life, including even trivial activities like brushing ones teeth, combing, or riding a bicycle.   However, according to Jon Kabat Zinn, to be mindful is one of the most difficult things. But with practice, just like developing muscle by exercising in the gym, the ability to remain mindful can be developed.

 

Here are some techniques for the cultivation of mindfulness.

  • A very easy and effective technique for the cultivation of mindfulness is breathing meditation. One can do it anywhere. You can right now observe your breathing, concentrating on inhalation and exhalation. While doing so your mind will wander. When it does so, gently bring it back to the act of breathing. By selectively bringing our attention to the act of breathing we can develop the skill of mindfulness. This breathing exercise can be effective even if done for just three minutes.

 

  • Body scan, in which one pays attention to the various parts of body and the sensations arising out of them. One can start step wise from toe, legs, pelvis, abdomen, chest, hands and finally paying attention to neck and head. The body scan may be coupled with the breathing exercise during the part of the day that you spare for them.

 

  • Mindful listening to music in which one pay attention to the voice of the singer and all the instruments of the orchestra.

 

  • Mindful walking, paying attention to as many things as possible that come your way while walking. This may include plants, trees, the sounds of birds, flow of water, voices of children. During a walk one should also pay attention to the breeze and aromas that comes one way.

 

  • Prayer and meditation gives us peace because it brings us back to our selves and to the present moment. We halt and retreat to our own body while meditating.

In the course of time, one can design personal mindful exercises aiming at developing a state of mind that is conscious and remains in the moment. With practice and passage of time, mindfulness can be applied to all life activities of an average person. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, “mindfulness is a way of being”.

 

Ultimately, we must emphasize that mindfulness should not be taken just as a philosophy to read and accept; rather it is the practice of mindfulness which can bring wellbeing. The goal of mindfulness is to live in the moment, and to live physically rather than in one’s head i.e. wandering and scheming most of the time.  Mindfulness necessitates that sensory experiences should be monitored in a neutral manner. We should observe our thoughts and emotions, instead of reacting automatically based on our prior conditioning and innate mechanisms of our brain.

 

Mindfulness with the passage of time inculcates the habit of self-reflection and liberates us from the dictates of unconscious impulsive mode of life.  Mindfulness leads to a transformation from a doing mode to a being mode of living. We acquire the ability to accept ourselves and accept life as it unfolds. We learn the lesson of living in every moment. In fact, appreciating every moment enables us to appreciate our whole life. To quote Henry David Thoreau, ‘only that day dawns to which we are awake’.

 

References:
Elizabeth B. Liddle et al(2010) Task-related default mode network modulation and inhibitory control in ADHD: effects of motivation and methylphenidate. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 10: 1469-7610.
Wellcome Trust(2011) Brain scans show children with ADHD have faulty off-switch for mind-wandering. Science Daily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110105094117.htm>.
 Williams Mark, Penman Danny(2012) Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World. Rodale inc New york NY
Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010) A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(60
Yu-Qin DengSong Li(2014) The Relationship Between Wandering Mind, Depression and Mindfulness. Mindfulness 5: 124-128.
Lisa A. Kilpatrick, Brandall Y. Suyenobu(2011) Impact of mindfulness-based stress reduction training on intrinsic brain connectivity. Neurolimage 1:290–298
Jon Kabat Zinn http://en.wikipedia.org                                     
Rubem A Alves, A Theology of Human Hope, 1969

 

 

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  • Waleed Ahmad

    Nicely written :)