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Mindfulness Is Not A Cure-All

I recently attended an online Mindfulness Summit where Dr Richard Davidson (Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Founder and Chair of the Centre for Healthy Minds) talked about how the emerging over-enthusiasm for Mindfulness has resulted in claims being made that are not well supported by scientific evidence. I’d like to share some of his insights.

The reader may have heard assertions that Mindfulness practice can cure just about every physical and mental challenge known to man. But unsubstantiated claims just undermine the practice rather than strengthening it.

Of course, nothing is a cure-all. However, there is strong scientific evidence that Mindfulness reduces stress and improves sleep. Given that stress and poor sleep are the causes of many of our modern health problems, this alone is an important benefit. Davidson, who was one of the first researchers into Mindfulness in the 1970s and has done extensive studies on the effect of Mindfulness on the brain, talks about the need for more robust research into the claimed benefits of Mindfulness.

At this summit, Davidson discussed what he calls the Four Pillars of Wellbeing that are required for human flourishing. Interestingly, each of these pillars can be shown to be strengthened by regular Mindfulness practice.

  1. Awareness, the capacity to regulate your attention. This is the basis of Mindfulness practice. We focus on one of our five bodily senses and when the attention wanders to thoughts, we notice the mind-wandering and refocus on the body. Included in this pillar is the concept of meta-awareness, being aware of being aware, ie knowing what your mind is doing. For example, you may be driving to an unfamiliar place and because your mind wandered, you went into “autopilot” and instead ended up somewhere else. Or you may have been reading a book and suddenly realised that you can’t remember the last few pages because you were mind-wandering. These situations describe a lapse in meta-awareness and there is ample evidence that Mindfulness practice strengthens awareness and meta-awareness.
  • Connection, expressing qualities that promote healthy social relationships, such as kindness, compassion, appreciation and gratitude. Much of the original research into the neuroscience of compassion was conducted by Richard Davidson and colleagues, providing strong evidence that practises such as Compassion Meditation enhance our capacity to connect with others in a positive way. Davidson goes on to say that we are born with an innate basic goodness, that babies exhibit a preference for prosocial encounters but then learn to become more selfish. Engaging in practices that cultivate kindness and compassion helps to build the pillar of connection.
  • Insight into the nature of our own self-narrative, having clarity about who we are. This requires openness, non-judgment and honesty about oneself. Davidson says that a healthy relationship to this narrative is essential to wellbeing. He explains that it’s not necessary to change the self-narrative, but rather see it for what it is. For example, many of us may hold negative self-beliefs and cannot see ourselves for who we really are. Insight helps us to observe the narrative and differentiate between what is just our inner dialogue and what actually defines us.
  • Purpose, identifying your true north. Human beings need a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. After all, if life has no purpose or meaning why should we persevere through hardship? Having a self-transcending purpose is what gets most of us up in the morning. It helps define the direction in which your life is heading. 

Davidson proposes that working on just one of these may cause an imbalance, like only exercising one set of muscles at the gym. He says that that human resilience emerges from the cultivation of all four of these pillars. All make a contribution to wellbeing and help us to recover faster from adversity.

So what does the science tell us about how these four pillars are supported by mindfulness practice?

  1. Awareness: when we strengthen meta-awareness, we also strengthen the brain circuits that regulate attention, for example within the pre-frontal cortex (the executive part of the brain). Studies show that this can happen with even with relatively modest amounts of practice.
  • Connection: the brain circuits important for empathy, perspective and connection with others are strengthened when we undertake pro-social activities, and also when we practice compassion meditation.  Davidson was responsible for leading the landmark research that described these neural changes.
  • Insight: when we “rest” we go into self-related thoughts, leading to a particular pattern of brain activity known as the “default network”. The default network is often negative. It is the state we are in when we ruminate over a problem. Insight alters the connectivity pattern of the brain, especially in the default mode, altering the baseline state of negativity. To achieve this, we don’t need to change the content of our self-related beliefs, just our relationship with that content. During mindfulness practice we repeatedly remove judgment from our self-related thoughts, observing rather than identifying with them.
  • Purpose: as we strengthen our sense of purpose, embracing more of everyday life, our stress circuitry becomes transformed, building our resilience, and leading us to recover more quickly from stressful life events.

To support your existing mindfulness practice or to help you build one, join our weekly online mindfulness group, where you can practice with like-minded people from the comfort of your own home. 

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