What is Mindfulness Meditation?

Assistant editor Dan Hoffman wonders about the mystery behind its benefits.

Posted in , Feb 29, 2016

What are the benefits of mindfulness meditation?

Last year, I blogged about the healing power of prayer. Scientists have found that praying reduces anger and stress in people and increases feelings of forgiveness and trust.

More and more, a related practice has been getting the same kind of attention and scientific scrutiny: mindfulness meditation.

According to a new study led by psychologist J. David Creswell, a group of people who went to a three-day mindfulness treatment program showed increased brain improvement. In particular, participants in the program showed improved activity in areas of the brain that manage stress and support focus and calmness.

But what exactly is mindfulness meditation? This is not always well understood by a public who might imagine meditation as yogis levitating or Buddhist monks sitting in the woods in complete silence for hours on end.

While mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist practices, it does not require adherence to any religion, and it has long since been secularized by people like Jon Kabat-Zinn, a biologist who studies the benefits of meditation for pain management. 

According to Creswell, mindfulness meditation is simply “an open and receptive, nonjudgmental awareness of your present-moment experience.” 

This present-moment experience can include anything–thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, memories or even ambient sounds. Thoughts of God too. The meditator just watches what is going on in (or into) his or her head, without getting involved.

The practice itself isn’t that mysterious–but like prayer, the mystery is why it’s helpful. Science can’t necessarily explain this, but it has something to do with learning who we are and how to be with ourselves. 

It can be an awe-inspiring experience, as with prayer, because in meditation we give ourselves over to the constant flow of life.

In a way, we all experience something of what mindfulness meditation brings, without even trying. It happens in those moments when we’re mulling over a painful memory, and we look up and notice the way the sun is shining through the clouds; suddenly we’re aware of how that memory is coloring our experience, and how, even just for a moment, we can let it go and enjoy the sun.

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