The Science of Mindfulness

November 28, 2023

The Science of Mindfulness

Many people talk about mindfulness meditation. Meditation is no longer exclusive to those who cultivate their minds. Research on mindfulness meditation continues to be published in prestigious journals of neuropsychology. Steve Jobs meditated. So does Lebron James. It seems clear that meditation is beneficial not only for monks but also for those facing mental health issues, and even for the general population. So, why is meditation effective? In this article, we will understand the rationale behind the effectiveness of meditation.

If you've ever practiced mindfulness meditation, you might have heard the instruction to "watch what arises in your mind without making any judgments". Understanding this guidance requires recognizing the following three premises:

  • First, thoughts have a symbolic effect on the brain.
  • Second, thoughts simply arise in the mind.
  • Third, trying to change thoughts can backfire.

Let's delve into each one.

First, thoughts have a symbolic effect on the brain.

The brain is a mysterious organ. For the brain, there seems to be no absolute truth. Among people whose arms have been amputated, some still feel pain from their absent hand. On the other hand, when using a prosthetic, the brain quickly adapts to treat it as a real body part. The brain can perceive pain that does not physically exist. For the brain, 'perception is reality'. The problem is that our brains accept the thoughts that arise in our minds as 'fact'. Here's an example. Picture a lemon. It's a yellow lemon. The surface is moist. Now, mentally cut the lemon in half. And imagine squeezing half of the lemon into your mouth. How do you feel? If you followed correctly, you will have excessive saliva in your mouth. Funny, right? What we imagined was just a few images. But our brains reacted strongly, producing real physical responses.

The brain responds to thoughts in the exact same way. Because of this characteristic, the past that has already disappeared can become a vivid reality in our minds, and worries about the future not yet arrived can also become the present reality. In the end, the past becomes depression, and worries become anxiety. This is an inevitable by-product, a residual effect from the process of human evolution.

Second, thoughts simply arise in the mind.

We have a problem, too. It's the fact that we are firmly under the illusion that we 'actively think'. But thoughts simply arise in the mind. Based on my past experiences and memories, thoughts are created in response to the current environment. Can I choose not to have a particular thought? No. Thoughts are simply created. If you are curious, you can experiment with this yourself. Close your eyes and try not to think about anything for a minute. There's nothing difficult. Just don't think about anything. Now, let's start. If a minute has passed, open your eyes. Was it possible? Probably not. At least, you would have thought something like "This is ridiculous, I'm just sitting here", "This is so boring", "Why am I doing this?" or "Am I not thinking of anything right now?" We can never think as we please. Many neuroscientific studies have already proven this.

Third, efforts to control thoughts backfire.

Thoughts just arise in the mind. Yet many people fail to understand this and start an endless fight with their thoughts. They strive not to have certain thoughts or try to keep only specific forms of thought in their mind, telling themselves, "I should only think positively." However, this is not possible from the outset. Even if it feels possible, it's temporary. The moment you realize that it's impossible, everything collapses even more furiously. Moreover, in the process, the negative significance of thoughts only amplifies. If someone tells you "Don't think of a pink elephant," ...

The Essence of Mental Health Management: Distance

This practice of viewing a thought as just a thought and distancing oneself from it is not exclusively learned through mindfulness meditation. In fact, most mental health management techniques and treatments utilize the principle of distancing. More technically, distancing is known as decentering, but regardless of the terminology, the principle is the same. It involves stepping back and looking at one's thoughts as if they were an object to reduce their impact. Freud's psychoanalysis, Aaron Beck's cognitive therapy, Jeffrey Young's schema therapy, Hayes's acceptance and commitment therapy, and mindfulness meditation all utilize the same principle, albeit with different methods and focus points. Various studies support this.

Are you going through a challenging time emotionally? Try practicing distancing from your thoughts. Treat a thought merely as an object. You can whisper to yourself, "Oh, such a thought has arisen in my mind". If it's difficult to do so on your own (especially if you have depression or an anxiety disorder), it might be helpful to utilize a cognitive therapy program that encompasses the principle of distancing.

I do not think freely. Therefore, my thoughts may not be accurate or helpful. Upon realizing this, paradoxically, you will be reborn as a truly free being.

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