Mindfulness vs. Mindlessness
Many of my clients and students say they aren’t good at meditation because they’ve been taught wrong. Unable to “empty their minds,” they grow frustrated and give up on meditation.
In actuality, the opposite of mindfulness, a quality of mind cultivated in meditation, is mindlessness, a sedated state of reduced consciousness. When you’re zoning out in front of the television your state could be characterized as “mindless.” Mindfulness, on the other hand, entails a heightened sense of awareness, wherein more of the world becomes available to your conscious mind.
Studying a Monk’s Brainwaves
Sure enough, science has shown that meditation produced an enhanced state of awareness compared to our normal resting states. When neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson studied experienced meditators’ brainwaves in his lab, he observed an abnormal amount of high-frequency brainwave activity. These gamma waves, as they are called, have been linked to states of bliss and heightened consciousness.
One monk, Matthieu Ricard, was even dubbed “the world’s happiest man” because of his brainwave activity.
His secret? Mindfulness meditation. Through practice, his brain had rewired itself to receive, in a sense, a software upgrade.
What is mindfulness, actually?
The buzzword “Mindfulness” is a state of mind that we cultivate in sitting meditation that can then be brought into the rest of the day. Revered meditation teacher Bhante G writes in Mindfulness in Plain English, “We must never forget… that seated meditation itself is not the game. It’s the practice. The game in which those basic skills are to be applied is the rest of one’s experiential existence. Meditation that is not applied to daily living is sterile and limited.”
In other words, meditation is not about getting good at sitting still with your eyes closed. It’s about integrating that mindset throughout daily life. That’s the practice we put in to play the game, that is, the rest of our lives, with the right mindset.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a Ph.D. molecular biologist who devised Meditation-Based Stress Reduction (or MBSR) to treat his patients, defines Mindfulness as, “The awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose in the present moment non-judgmentally.”
Let’s break this down.
If awareness is a floodlight, then attention is a focused beam of light. Dr. Kabat-Zinn states that we must direct the focused beam of attention on purpose, while also illuminating the larger field of awareness. So mindfulness involves gaining control over one’s attention, rather than being captivated by some arbitrary object.
Furthermore, this process is occurring in the present moment. You’re noticing whatever’s happening right here, right now.
Finally, and the component of that definition that often proves most challenging is that you’re performing all of this non-judgmentally. You’re accepting whatever gets noticed in this moment objectively without grasping at it or pushing it away.
How to Train Your Mind
Although not everyone will make the Olympics, anyone can learn to play a sport.
Similarly, while monks might be considered the Olympians of meditation, anyone can practice mindfulness.
So how do you go about practicing?
There are two primary ways to train the mind for optimal mental performance and clarity.
The first is sitting meditation. You sit quietly and intentionally direct your attention inward, noticing your moment-to-moment experience (sensations and thoughts) clearly, recognizing thoughts without getting lost in them. By sitting down in silent meditation, science has demonstrated that you create new neural networks and your brain begins to operate differently.
You can Google these techniques or learn them through a YouTube video. Since my team at FitMind was frustrated that most phone apps on the market only teach a very basic practice, we created a meditation app that teaches over 25 different styles, including the most advanced practices. For those serious about starting or deepening a practice, we feel this type of guided meditation is a good tool.
The second way to train your mind is through daily mindfulness, making an effort to bring that same sense of awareness to everyday activities. In doing so, living becomes more enjoyable and more productive. With time, your brain will wire itself to stay in a mindful state for longer periods of time and your quality of life will improve as a result.