We'll discuss meditation and its effects on the brain. Meditation is a popular term that has infiltrated every culture. Originally a practice started thousands of years ago in eastern cultures and the Buddhist religion, it was picked up by other world religions. But today, it's a secular practice.
The mind concept is often one that evades us because we can't clearly see it. You can see movement, you can see breathing, but you can't see the mind. Yet the mind is partly made up of your thoughts, and your thoughts come from your brain. I say partly because most of your mind is unconscious. The mind is the flow of information within the nervous system and awareness is one aspect of the mind.
Just like the brain is what forms your mind, the mind affects your brain and changes it. The flow of your thoughts sculpts your brain. Each time you have a thought, you increase blood flow to that area of your brain and you alter gene expression in your brain cells. With repeated thoughts, you fire the same set of neurons together that strengthens synapses between those neurons and is responsible for what we call plasticity.
A word about consciousness, if you look up the term consciousness in the Oxford Dictionary, you will see that it's defined as the state of being awake and aware of one's surroundings. For example, in the sentence she failed to regain consciousness and died two days later. But consciousness has other meanings, such as the awareness of perception of something by a person, like when you say, her acute consciousness of Mike's presence. Or the fact of awareness by the mind of itself and the world like consciousness emerges from the operations of the brain. And so it's a two-way street. Behavior and thoughts cause brain activity, which affects brain structure, which in turn affects brain activity and behavior.
Now that we have defined the concept of mind and consciousness, let me dive into the concept of mindfulness.
What is mindfulness? One definition by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the pioneer of mindfulness in the West, is that it has two components. The first is present moment awareness and attention. Think of it as the spotlight illuminating whatever it rests upon. The second is attitude of non-judgmental curiosity, which itself is made up of two central components. Regulation of attention to keep it on the immediate experience. And approaching experiences with curiosity, openness, and acceptance, regardless of whether the experiences are positive or negative.
The mechanisms of mindfulness per Shapiro et al require three components, intention, attentional control, and specific attitude towards experience marked by acceptance and friendliness. So you can be mind full or mindful. You want to be like your pet. Be present in the moment, don't think about the past, or about your plans in the future, things like what you're going to make for dinner. You need milk, you need to remember to pay your bills. You just want to be present in the moment, without judgement. And you can do this anywhere. You don't have to be sitting in a lotus position to do this. Mindfulness is not about relaxing or clearing the mind, about controlling thoughts, a quick fix to unpleasantness, necessarily easy or enjoyable in the beginning.
Mindfulness is training stability of awareness to understand our rising thoughts, emotions, and body sensations. It's decentering or learning how to relate differently from habits of mind, impartial observation versus emotional reactivity. It's shifting how one responds to pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral experiences with an attitude of acceptance and kindness.