May 17, 2016 by Angus
Meditation & Mindfulness, Not Quite What You Thought


It’s a sexy subject these days.

Everywhere you turn, somebody is talking about mindfulness.

Not a bad thing, really.

More and more research is coming out, suggesting mindfulness is a powerful antidote to many of the psychological issues that confront us today in the modern world

Mindfulness & Meditation, or the wrong cup of tea …

Many people, however, have already decided that “mindfulness” is not for them.

Often, people reject mindfulness or meditation because they have misconceptions about what it all means. Many think that meditation and mindfulness is about stilling the mind. They think it’s about eliminating all thoughts.

Now, if you go into the process of meditation or mindfulness with this view, then you’re very likely to end up disillusioned, very quickly.

People who think this way often end up deciding pretty quickly that their brain is an exception. They conclude that their brain just isn’t cut out for mindfulness.

There are others, too, who have an erroneous view on meditation and mindfulness. They think that people who are skilled in meditation and mindfulness can take anything in their stride. They believe those people are unaffected by emotions. Somehow, it is believed, those people learned to master their emotions and thoughts.

Today, however, we are going to try to open up a new perspective about meditation and mindfulness.

Challenging assumptions about mindfulness & meditation with science

Many years ago, I read an interesting study that completely changed my understanding mindfulness. It challenged my way of thinking about the potential benefits of mindfulness.

In the study, two groups of people were brought together in the same room. The first group had a long history of practice in mindfulness. The other group had no previous experience with mindfulness or mediation. Both groups were people matched for age and gender.

Now both groups were brought into a room, together. They were each shown a video that depicted images of disturbing and traumatic situations, like serious injuries and the results of war.

At this point in reading the study, I stopped to hypothesize, what would be the likely outcome of the experiment.

Would there be any difference between the two groups’ reactions?

If there was a difference in behaviour, what would it be?

One task of the study was to measure both the psychological and physiological responses each group demonstrated before, during and after watching the video. Measurements were taken on the day. There were also follow up measurements taken a few months after the experiment ended.

When I asked my clients what they thought would happen, the vast majority predicted that the group of meditators would have a far less intense emotional reaction than those who had no experience of meditation or mindfulness.

A common view held that meditation lead to the practitioner gaining “control” over their emotions. Many years of practice, it was assumed, would make you a master at “controlling” your emotions.

Is this what you suspect is true here?

When the common view on mindfulness falls apart …

Well, it’s actually not what happened. Take a look at the graph below.


We can see that the vertical axis is labelled “Emotions”. The horizontal axis is labelled “Time”

See the solid green line? Well, that represents the response process of the meditators. Their experience of emotion showed a fast acceleration of emotional response peaking at high levels. The non-meditators actually experienced a far less intense reaction (represented by the dotted line).

What is really instructive here is what else the graph tells us. The meditators returned very quickly to their normal levels of emotion. The non-meditators, however, did not reach the same level of intensity as the meditators but it took them a lot longer to return to pre-experiment levels of emotion.

Even weeks after the experiment ended, there was still important levels of residual “emotional background radiation” for the non-meditators.

Mindfulness, meditation & suffering

Let’s frame this by thinking of the concept of suffering. Imagine suffering is the area under the red dotted curve (the grey shaded area). For the non-meditators, the sum total of suffering related to the unpleasant experience was far greater than the meditators. The meditators area of suffering is represented by the grey shaded area under the green line. Despite their sudden high peak of emotional distress, they “recovered” quicker and “suffered” less.

Many people initially find this result quite shocking.

But upon reflection, the results begin to make sense.

The non-meditators are potentially using a range of strategies designed to avoid experiencing high levels of emotional upset. They have beliefs about how threatening the emotion is and how they need to distract themselves from it. They arrange things to avoid it. Forms of distraction or disassociation, for example, may reduce the short-term intensity of the emotion. Potentially, however, it’s left unprocessed longer.

this is very similar to the experience many people have with post-traumatic stress disorder. They can still suffer symptoms for years or decades after the incident. The lack of emotional processing at the time of the incident plays in here.

Where years of mediation can get you

What’s going on here, then?

What’s the point of dedicating years to practicing mediation and mindfulness?

Initially we might have thought that people who dedicate years to meditation are trying to take control of their emotions.

But here’s what their years of practice has done:
it has slowly changed their belief about emotion
the practice has removed some of the ideas regarding threat of higher levels of emotion
plus, they have had enough practice of emotion coming, rising and dissolving to be less afraid of the intense emotional peaks

Meditators have experienced the intensity and subsiding of emotion during many practices over the years. They are willing to open the “pipe” of emotions. The emotions are allowed to come through, be experienced and processed, without needing to avoid, distract or block.

In this way, the emotions are felt and processed in the most efficient timeframe possible. A timely return to baseline functioning is allowed.

For someone with these skills, too, there’s the possibility that they will not have to react to those emotions. They can refrain from “reactive behaviour”.

The “Zen-looking” person in the face of adversity may well be feeling the emotions at a very intense level but due to their beliefs and experience with intense emotions, they may not feel a desperate need to get rid of them. Therefore, they can act independently of those emotions. They can do whatever values-based behaviour they wish to undertake at that moment as their response.

So, looking through this prism, we can see that mindfulness and meditation is not about stopping thoughts that control the emotions. It is more about training our response to those thoughts and emotions.

That is, in the end, a very positive form of mastery, don’t you think?

I’d like to hear about your thoughts and experiences on this.

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