Mindfulness – How and Why it Works

The core of the MINDFULNESS practice is training in meditation disciplines. There are a lot of misconceptions about what meditation is. There are a lot of practices which are called meditation which are quite different from each other, and which are not Mindfulness Meditation. Let me try and clear up some of these misconceptions – at least as they relate to Mindfulness.


Common misconceptions:

1.  Meditation is about emptying the mind – making it go blank.

In Mindfulness, there is no attempt to directly change the thoughts going on in the mind. One learns quite early on, just how difficult, or impossible it is to control what’s going on in the mind. When one sits down, stills the body, and pays attention to what is going on inside, one begins to notice the endless stream of thoughts that the mind generates. At some point, one has the direct realization that even the thoughts they are aware of, represent only the tip of a massive iceberg of thinking going on just under the surface of conscious awareness.


2.  A meditation session should feel good.

Many people think that meditation is like going for a massage – that at the end of a session, they expect to feel relaxed. Mindfulness is not about feeling good in any one session – it’s about cultivating a set of skills that, over time, change a person’s stress response so that there is less stress in their lives, allowing them to feel better, more relaxed ALL THE TIME!

Often, to achieve this, individual sessions can be anything but relaxing! It doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong. In fact, it may be a sign that the meditation is working – that something is right! If you go to the gym and have a vigorous workout, you would expect to feel a little sore and spent afterwards.


3.  The benefits of meditation should be immediate.

The benefits of Mindfulness Meditation are not immediate. You wouldn’t expect the benefits of an exercise program after your first few visits to the gym. In fact, at the beginning of an exercise program, you would probably feel worse with sore muscles and fatigue. It’s kind of like that with Mindfulness. Think of it as going to the gym of mind/body fitness. The benefits take time. Bit by bit, we start to notice the stress in our lives diminish. Most of the scientific research into the benefits of Mindfulness has been conducted on the basis of an 8 week program. Usually, in the groups I’ve facilitated, people start to tell stories of beneficial change they’ve noticed after five or six weeks of practice.


4.  Meditation is like a band aid – something to make pain go away.

Mindfulness meditation is definitely not a band aid. Jon Kabat-Zinn – the person who developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) 8 week program, says that Mindfulness is like weaving a parachute. You don’t want to start weaving the parachute when you’re about to get thrown out of a plane. You want to be weaving the parachute day in and day out, so that if you do get thrown out of a plane, you might have something that can hold you.

In Mindfulness, the strategy is not to try and make the pain go away. Rather, it’s to move right into the pain. To stop fighting or resisting the pain. Therein, a great discovery is made – usually, the actual pain is not nearly so bad as we thought it was. Most of the time, our stress reaction to the pain was quite exaggerated. Seeing this allows us to stop reacting – to reduce the stress – and to be able to better respond to the situation.


How Mindfulness Works

We’re all familiar with images of people meditating. The typical image is of someone sitting cross-legged on the floor, looking peaceful, calm, relaxed. What exactly are they doing? Why don’t they lie down on the couch or bed and go to sleep instead?

Although you can’t see it, they are hard at work. They are working of developing the two skills of Mindfulness: AWARENESS and EQUANIMITY.

AWARENESS (concentration, focus, wakefulness, perception) – The ability to perceive more of what’s going on, in finer detail, at greater depth, for longer sustained periods of time. AWARENESS is a skill.

EQUANIMITY (deep relaxation, acceptance, surrender, going with the flow, etc.) – The ability to be OK with the way things are. The serenity to accept the things we cannot change. The ability to let go of tension or stress in the body.

The first step is to simplify the environment. We close our eyes to remove visual stimulii. Meditation is usually done in a quiet setting so there is little distraction from sounds. There are no taste or smell distractions. And, we sit VERY still, so as to not generate any touch sensations. But there is still q lot going on – the mind is continuously thinking, with each thought producing sensations in the body.

Sensations come in two basic ‘flavours’ – pleasant (it feels good) and unpleasant (doesn’t feel good). However, there is a secondary reaction – this is where the problem comes in. This is where the stress reaction takes place. With pleasant sensations, the reaction is one of ‘I want more’. With unpleasant sensations, the reaction is ‘I don’t want. I hate. I want this to go away.’ It is our reaction to pleasant and unpleasant sensations that produces stress and ends up driving much of our behaviour as a result.

In the simplified meditation environment, it is relatively easier to see this action and reaction. Seeing this creates the possibility of changing the reaction. Bit by bit, we get better at detecting this phenomenon at subtler and subtler levels and we get better at reacting less and less. As a result, stress is reduced and new ways of relating to things that bother us is fostered.

As is mentioned elsewhere on this website: if you want to be more relaxed, calm, and peaceful, sit still and practice trying to make yourself more relaxed, calm, and peaceful. While it may sound simple, practicing Mindfulness is not easy. To sit still is not easy. At least not in the beginning. However, with a little effort, a little practice, anyone can learn how to meditate in this way. Anyone can reduce the stress in their lives.