Applications of Mindfulness in the Contemporary World

Nowadays, in describing mindfulness, it will be like “When you are mindful… You become keenly aware of yourself and your surroundings, but you simply observe these things as they are. You are aware of your own thoughts and feelings, but you do not react to them in the way that you would if you were on “autopilot”… But not labeling or judging the events and circumstances taking place around you, you are freed from your normal tendency to react to them.”

From the application perspective, mindfulness is defined as the “confluence of intention, attention and present time experience.” (Jon Kabat-Zinn). Thus, to break it down, the contemporary concept and practice of mindfulness will have the following four characteristics:

  • Paying focused attention;
  • On purpose;
  • Without judgment;
  • To the experience of the present moment

Many people associate mindfulness with insight meditation, which starts by focusing on the breath. In, out. When one mind wanders, notice where it goes (e.g. errands, a distressing conversation, etc.) and then bring attention back to the breath.  Actually, not to resist our mind’s natural urge to wander, but train it to return to the present.  By settling into our body and noticing how it feels, we center ourself in the moment we are living, too.

Since the concept and practice of mindfulness was first brought to the West in 1970s, it has been using as an adjunct to conventional medical therapies. The main areas of applications include:

  • mindfulness-based therapy used for psychological disorders
  • stress reduction for cancer patients and others
  • in workplace environments as a part of wellness programs, aiming to reduce stress and consequently reduce the health care costs
  • in hospices (for staff and patients)
  • in prisons
  • in schools

Jon Kabat-Zinn firstly developed the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre in the late 1970s. It started with helping patients suffering from chronic pain, and the mindfulness-based therapies indicate very good efficacy. Since then, the range of areas where mindfulness is applied has been growing rapidly; including anxiety, depression, eating disorders; relationship counseling etc. In Kabat-Zinn’s book of  “Full Catastrophe Living”, seven key elements are included in the MBSR program, and is outlined as follows:

  • Non-judging: consists in taking the position of an impartial witness to our own experience. It requires that practitioner become aware of the stream of judging and reacting to inner and outer experiences and step back from it. The habit of categorizing situations into good and bad or positive and negative locks us into mechanical reactions that we are not even aware of and that often have no objective basis at all;
  • Patience: it demonstrates that we understand and accept the fact that sometimes things unfold in their own time. Practicing mindfulness gives us a chance to give time and space to our own unfolding. Why rushing to the next ‘better’ moment when after all each moment we go through is our life in that moment;
  • Beginner’s mind: practicing mindfulness means to take the chance to see everything as it was for the first time and not allow our illusion of knowing prevent us from being present to our experiences;
  • Trust: developing a basic trust in ourselves and our feelings is an integral part of meditation practice. Do not get caught up in the reputation and authority of teachers. It is impossible to become like somebody else. Our only hope is to become more fully ourselves.
  • Non-striving: almost everything we do is for a purpose, meditation not! Actually this attitude can be a real obstacle in meditation. Although meditation takes a lot of work and energy, ultimately it is about non-doing. It has no goal other than for us to be ourselves.  The irony is that we already are! Do not sit to get relaxed, enlighten or sleep better. Sit to learn to carefully see what is happening and accept it.
  • Acceptance: often acceptance comes after we have gone through intense period of emotional turmoil and anger. Doing that uses up our energy in the struggle instead of using it for healing and change. We are much more likely to know what to do and have the inner conviction to act when our vision is not clouded by our mind’s self-serving judgments and desires or its fears and prejudices; and
  • Letting go: when we pay attention to our inner experience, we discover that there are certain thoughts, feeling and situations that the mind seems to want to hold on to. We try and prolong what we classify as pleasant and reject what we perceive unpleasant.  In meditation, we try to intentionally put aside the tendency to elevate some aspects of our experience and reject others.

With the success of mindfulness practice in medical therapies, it is recognized that the practice of mindful is instrumental in many ways to improve communication. By helping us ground ourselves in the here and now, we gain an empty space where we can meet with others. In addition, we learn with the practice of mindfulness that we do not need to react to everything we are exposed to. This again contributes to enhance our listening skills and follow each words and signals sent without having to do anything else than being aware of them. With a mindful approach to communication, we can create a collaborative communication style, using the present moment to just be connected and avoid imposing our plans of the future. We can possibly allow the mutual collaboration that arises from listening to each other help shape the future as it emerges from the exchange of ideas, beyond what an isolated individual would ever be able to formulate by oneself.

There are other benefits also being recognized with practicing mindfulness, such as enhancing emotional intelligence, notably self-awareness and the capacity to manage distressing emotions, and it also delivers the other measurable benefits:

  • Reduced stress
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improved memory
  • Less depression and anxiety

Through out the years, there are various researches being conducted on mindfulness, such as studying mindfulness on mental health, which is concluded that “mindfulness training might enhance general features of coping with distress and disability in everyday life, as well as under more extraordinary conditions of serious disorder or stress”.  In another study with cancer patients, it is demonstrated that “increases in mindfulness over time relate to declines in mood disturbance and stress.” In the area of psychological well-being, it is recognized that meditation “can produce increases in relative left-sided anterior activation that are associated with reductions in anxiety and negative affect, and increases in positive affect… ” and those with this brain activity recover relatively quickly after an emotional hijack/negative provocation. It will also strengthen the immune system, and diseases like depression, food and alcohol addictions, tinnitus and burn out are at the center of the attention of mindfulness therapists by applying MBSR, MBCT etc.

For many, the workplace is one of the most stressful places in their lives. Pressures are constant.  Differences, even non-conflictual ones, among people requires lots of neural energy to manage. Most people in this culture work too many hours, often without breaks. Many workers operate in a low-level flight or fight mode. Out of touch with feelings and the thinking patterns that reinforce stress and anxiety, many people constantly “re-trigger” those negative habits throughout the day. Mindfulness practice offers the possibilities of mental and emotional rest, despite the events that surface in the average workday.

In fact, a number of well-known companies have already implemented mindfulness programs for its employees. For example:

  • Apple
  • Google
  • McKinsey & Company
  • Deutsche Bank
  • Procter & Gamble
  • Astra Zeneca
  • Aetna
  • General Mills

General Mills has even begun research into its efficacy, and the early results are striking. After one of Marturano’s seven-week courses, 83 per cent of participants said they were “taking time each day to optimize my personal productivity” – up from 23 per cent before the course. 82 per cent said they now make time to eliminate tasks with limited productivity value – up from 32 per cent before the course. And among senior executives who took the course, 80 per cent reported a positive change in their ability to make better decisions, while 89 per cent said they became better listeners.

At work, when a person is stressed or overwhelmed by the quantity or difficulty of the work or the activity to be performed, the natural reaction is to think and speak a lot about the situation with oneself and others. It feeds the mental chatter and makes it hard to quiet the mind. At times, people end up spending more time thinking and explaining to themselves and others how much work they have to do than it would take to actually do it. This situation is symptomatic of the fact that the person has lost not only the necessary distance to appreciate the reality but also has no more access to the ability to size reasonably the importance and urgency of a given piece of work. This creates distress and prevent from moving on to a resourceful state. Taking some time out on a regular basis helps to regain distance and enable to access again one’s own resources. So one of the key motivations for people to practice mindfulness is to sustain balance and prevent disorder, strengthen concentration, and release stress at physical, emotional and mental levels or to address burn out symptoms. The value of practicing mindfulness therefore can always be measured by improvements like

  • release of body tensions;
  • improve capacity to concentrate;
  • develop the ability to gain awareness of their thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations;
  • realize that thoughts are not facts and that they are not their thoughts;
  • awareness of body reactions to problems;
  • develop healthier coping mechanisms;
  • learn self-help tools;
  • increase emotional skills;
  • take distance

In fact, this goal setting approach has been deviating from the conventional mindfulness teaching, practitioners make the experience that life balance is not something one strives for but that one allows to happen by cultivating awareness.  The experiences that practitioners make allow them to become aware of thoughts, physical sensations and feelings as they are without rejecting them or holding back on them is its original purpose. It is also about being able to live in the present moment without being trapped in the past or caught up planning the future. One becomes aware of the ongoing mental chatter, one’s own mental models that make us perceive the world around in a certain way and the ‘me centeredness’ that we are living in and causing to each one of us so much pain.

Having said that, the mindfulness practice has been becoming fashionable in the business world. There is one chapter in Contemplative Practices in Action is devoted to the impact of meditation in the lives of Silicon Valley leaders. In a seminar called Spirituality for Organizational Leadership at Santa Clara University, participants discuss how meditation practices can assist them in leading their organization. Those who complete the seminar tend to integrate what they learned into their busy lives in the following way:

  1. Anchor your day with a contemplative morning practice (e.g. Breath, Zen, Kabbala, etc.)
  2. Before entering the workplace, remind yourself of your organization’s purpose and recommit to your vocation as a leader
  3. Throughout the day, pause to be fully present in the moment before undertaking the next critical task
  4. Review the day’s events at the close of the day to prevent work stresses from spilling into your home life
  5. Before going to bed, engage in some spiritual reading

Another example in Google introduced a program to increase emotional intelligence using mindfulness, and backed by scientific research.  It’s called Search Inside Yourself and is now offered to organizations outside the Googleplex.

The potential of mindfulness application is yet to be full explored. In the mid 1990’s, a specific brain process called ‘mirror neuron system’ was scientifically established. This process builds in the mind of the observer not only the ability to imitate what one observes but also reproduces the feelings and perceptions of the signals sender.  This is a fundamental step in the understanding of the functioning of human interactions.  Through mirroring the mindsets, motivation and way of dealings with situations from those we come in contact with. On a different topic, application of mindfulness in education and parenting, it is recognized that the way parents and teachers behave can affect children not only recognize who they are but also who they could be in terms of potential and development possibilities.  Children live in the corridors of thoughts held by their educators.  Through the relations we have with children and teenagers, we shape in a decisive way what they will become. In addition to education and parenting, there are other scientific research undergoing continuously, such as started in the 1960s, the Transcendental Meditation (“TM”) on reduction of stress and anxiety; the physiological and psychological effects of meditation; neuroscience on how meditation can change the adult brain’s structure, connections and functions; epigenetic on human behavior and whether meditation would  influence our genes in making them active or dormant; brain research on whether  mindfulness increases the thickness of the cortex (the outer layer of the brain) etc.

In summary, the development of mindfulness is fast growing, in all different dimensions, with its own momentum, from covering its theoretical development in Buddhism and modern psychotherapy in medical and mental health environments, to its role play in Buddhism traditions and in the contemporary meditation practice.  There are some debates on issues like happiness, well-being and peace are considered as the side effects on the path, not the goals by themselves under Buddhism, while, the role of mindfulness in contemporary meditation practice is positioned as:

  • leading to improved well-being, contentment and happiness
  • aiming to achieve better health, increased enjoyments
  • enhancing relationships and greater success in life (e.g. mindfulness leads to “the ability to make adaptive decisions about handling difficult and problematic situations as they arise, as well as increased enjoyment of pleasant moments “ (Baer 2006: 10))

Nevertheless, for any development, difference in viewpoint is unavoidable. What is unquestionable in mindfulness is that its development is dynamic and in full force.

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