As sort of a counterpoint to a recent post, Buddhists are wrong about a "witnessing mind," check out How Meditation Works. This story in The Atlantic is a good overview of mindfulness meditation from a secular scientific perspective.
I still wonder what it means to watch thoughts arise or be aware of emotions blossoming. Hard to believe that our consciousness is outside of the brain where all of this stuff is going on.
Thus it sure seems like being "mindful" of what the mind is doing is another activity of the mind that we can be mindful of. And, of course, we could be mindful of being mindful of mindfulness... and so on and so on and so on.
Which doesn't take away from the benefit of rising up a "strange loop" or two within the brain's goings on. We're still the brain doing its thing; but a more self-aware brain doing its thing.
Below are some excerpt's from the story. In addition to reading the whole piece, I recommend taking a look at the comments. Interesting how many people spoke of physical activity/exercise being more "meditative" for them than sitting meditation.
I agree. When I'm doing my land paddling on a longboard, I get into a state where I'm barely aware that "I" am doing anything. Probably because in those flow-moments "I" don't exist any more (assuming I ever do).
So it could be argued that being aware of thoughts, emotions, and such arising is less genuinely "mindful" than just thinking, feeling, and such. But who the hell knows?
In fact, if you strip it of its religio-historical context, mindfulness meditation is essentially cognitive fitness with a humanist face.
As Dr. MacLean understands it: "It's a way to become familiar with your own mind."
...Two years ago researchers at Justus Liebig-University in Giessen, Germany and Harvard Medical School integrated decades of existing research into a comprehensive conjectural report, which explains the various neurological and conceptual processes through which mindfulness meditation works (and which recent studies have continued to affirm.)
The report suggests that mindfulness meditation operates through a combination of several distinct mechanisms: attention regulation, body awareness, emotion regulation, and a change in perspective on the self.
Each component is believed to assist us in various aspects of our lives, and when functioning together, the cumulative process claims to lend an enhanced capacity for "self-regulation" -- the ability to control our own "thought, affect, behavior, or attention" (The loss of which has been cited as the cause of much psychological distress and suffering).
In other words, the researchers suggest that the practice allows us to develop a stronger command over the machinery of the mind, a dexterity which, according to a study released this week, stays with you long after you finish meditating.
...Or as Dr. Maclean characterizes it, we submit ourselves to a situation of "exposure," which we "prolong until the scary things aren't so scary anymore."
It's like Fear Factor for the mind, a contest few of us likely have any interest in entering upon first thought. The authors of the Justus Liebig-Harvard report recognize that "people who are new to meditation often initially find this process counterintuitive," but many find that the feelings of unpleasantness eventually dissipate, leading to either a situation of reappraisal (seeing something in a new light) or extinction (getting rid of our habitual response all together).
For Deb, "It meant taking a thought of anger or fear, and 'dropping it like a boulder.'" It meant learning how to stop living her life "in earnest and clawing for each day, but just to take it in."
It meant being able to sit back and be in a moment without the fear of losing it.
...The disassociation between our thoughts and our identity is the final mechanism through which mindfulness meditation is said to function (one which is believed to become more apparent the deeper in practice we become). In a culture that continually emphasizes the cultivation of the self, this may be the most profound lesson that mindfulness meditation has to offer, and certainly the most bewildering.
According to the Justus Liebig-University and Harvard Medical School report, upon achieving a strong sense of internal awareness and the ability to "observe our mental processes with increasing clarity," we begin to see the self as something that is continually arising, rather than fixed. Dr. MacLean describes it as a continuum of the letting go process we experience while observing our emotional responses. "Eventually all you have to let go of is this sense of a fixed identity ... And then you can begin to deconstruct the self."
But why, exactly, would anyone want to do such a thing? It sounds abstract, overly existential, disorienting, and frankly terrifying. But, as Dr. MacLean stresses, it sounds more severe as a concept than it is in practice. Once understood, she says, it can eventually become remarkably useful, and in many cases, incredibly comforting.
By beginning to understand identity as impermanent, "there isn't this sense that you have to defend yourself anymore," she says. It's an act of "decentering," allowing us to expel the attachment and hostility that arises when we perceive our inner-selves to be static. This then "burns up the fuel which runs our repetitive habits," ultimately giving way to a more transitory understanding of existence. From there, she says, we can begin to develop a greater sense of compassion and a more genuine way of being.
...Still, Dr. MacLean found one fear exceptionally difficult to get past.
She was afraid of death. She had panic attacks and premonitions on planes. If you were late or sick, she would assume the worst.
But, through her meditation, Dr. Maclean eventually began to understand the source of the problem. She realized that her deep-rooted anxiety had stemmed from something she had begun to feel during her practice: that her long-standing sense of self was only an illusion. "It felt like reality had been pulled out from under me," she says. But like Gary and Deb, she exposed herself to the fear until it gave way to a sense of "clarity, lightness, compassion, and security."
In time, Dr. MacLean's fear was put to the test. Her younger sister was admitted to the hospital with a metastatic form of cancer, and she was dying.
There are few things more horrifying in the scope of human life than the death sentence of a loved one, but Dr. MacLean believes that mindfulness meditation allowed her to build up a kind of mental armor that left her with a staggering level of equanimity. She had trained herself to "let go of this sense that you are at the center of the universe and that the world is something set up for you."
So as she sat at the bedside of her dying sister over the next few weeks, Dr. MacLean felt prepared. "I was able to be with her in space that for me felt very empty, and very clear, yet completely full of love," she says. "I didn't have much of my own baggage or my own expectations, so for the most part it kind of felt like this very natural, easy thing.