The Power and Efficacy of Mindful Awareness

Dr. Lucinda Green, RMI Founder and Spiritual Director  

Sit down. Close your eyes, observe your breath, and do nothing else.

This is the basic instruction for anapana sati, mindfulness of breathing, from the first foundation of mindfulness as taught by the Buddha.

Much ensues from the simple act of observing, from mindful awareness, and in this case observing the breath. When we observe something, we create the time, and the space to be aware of what is occurring.

This is a great departure from our normal way of living and being. We are usually caught up in our thoughts, ideas, beliefs, emotions, opinions, and behaviors. Our minds are moving at the speed of light.

“Here I am sitting, and I could be accomplishing at least one or two of the ten zillion things that I need to be doing. What I need to get done is far more important than just sitting here, and doing nothing. I’m supposed to be observing …what? My breath? My breath will get along without my paying attention to it. And besides, what’s so important about the breath?”

Meditation allows us to step off that train of thought. Picture yourself sitting on a bench near a railway station. You watch for the train, see the train approaching and as it zooms by, you jump on the train and are off and running. You end up in Albuquerque before you know it, and wonder how did I get here?

Meditation allows us to step off that train, take the time, and create the space between what is occurring in our thoughts, emotions, opinions, ideas and habitual behaviors, and see what is occurring. See what is arising, and what is passing away. So too, just as our breath arises and ceases, comes into being and passes away.

Disciplining our attention to stay on the primary object allows the sight and the sounds of the train to go by without jumping on, while remaining alert, aware, calm, concentrated and relaxed.  Ahhh… The power comes from the sustained attention to the object, and observation, applying mindful awareness.

In the case of anapana sati, the breath is the primary object. Every meditation requires an object, requires a point of focus, something upon which to pay particular close attention.

Using the breath as a primary object is handy. It accompanies us where ever we go. No special situation, environments, or accoutrements are required. You can pay attention to our breath wherever you are. In and out. Long/short/deep/shallow.

The breath’s immediacy and availability are advantages of using it as an object, for our mindful attention. The breath also sustains our lives.

It is interesting to note a number of beneficial results occurring naturally as a result of meditating regularly for only a few months.  Consistency is an important factor for these changes to occur and is not dependent on you feeling successful as you meditate, i.e. being able to concentrate, remain one pointed, be free from monkey mind distraction and restlessness.

Many meditators report feeling more peaceful, feeling less anxious. The most notable reported effect is being less reactive. Some notice a marked shift in volatility, no longer going from zero to a hundred. They may still feel angered easily, but the decibel level allows them to think and be more in charge of their faculties as opposed to explode with unbridled anger.

Others notice they are no longer bothered by conversation or behaviors with coworkers that formerly causing them considerable discomfort.

Many people find they get upset less over things in general and specifically small things, such as their children not putting away all of their toys, or leaving their socks here and there…to more major stressors such as Millie the mother-in-law (no offense to Millie) insisting that every family member be present at the upcoming holiday meal.

In many cases, the only change in people’s lives is meditation. Others may have meditated on and off for decades on a hit or miss basis, and then buckle down establishing a dedicated practice. It is at that time they experience the effects spoken of here.

This shift in non-reactivity is a huge carrot! And keeps people coming back to the cushion, time and time again.

These changes have issued forth from simply observing the breath! And it seems almost magical. Even when our thoughts are running amok during meditation, we’re restless, or the mind is dull or the body sleepy, simply stopping, closing your eyes and watching the breath is transformative. The body does what it is trained to do. So too, the mind. We are training the attention to be aware of the mind and observe itself.

The magic of meditation is now understood by neuroscientists who research the topic. This, from an article by Kristyna Zapletal, in the Observer, in which she quotes a few neuroscientists.  “Our brain develops and adapts throughout our whole lives. This phenomenon called neuroplasticity, means that gray matter can thicken or shrink, connections between neurons can be improved, new ones can be created, and old ones degraded or even terminated.

Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, uses the MRI technology to look at very fine, detailed brain structures and see what is happening to the brain while a person is performing tasks, including yoga and meditation.

According to her own words, Lazar herself used to be skeptical about the lofty claims her yoga teacher had made about the emotional benefits of meditations she should have expected to experience. When after attending several classes, she indeed felt calmer, happier, and more compassionate, she decided to re-focus her research on the changes in the brain’s physical structure as a result of meditation practice.

In one of her studies she engaged people who had never meditated before and put them through a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training program, where they took a weekly class and were told to perform mindfulness exercises, including body scan, mindful yoga, and sitting meditation, every day for 30 to 40 minutes.

After eight weeks, she found out that the brain volume increased in four regions, from which the most relevant were:

HIPPOCAMPUS: a seahorse-shaped structure responsible for learning, storage of memories, spatial orientation, and regulation of emotions. 

TEMPOROPARIETAL JUNCTION: the area where temporal and parietal lobes meet and which is responsible for empathy and compassion.

On the other hand, the one area whose brain volume decreased was:

AMYGDALA: an almond-shaped structure responsible for triggering the fight-or-flight response as a reaction to a threat, whether real or only perceived.

Here, the decrease in gray matter correlated with changes in the levels of stress. The smaller their amygdala became, the less stressed people felt, even though their external environment remained the same. It proved that the change in amygdala reflected the change in the people’s reactions to their environment, not in the environment itself.”

Hence less reactivity as I mentioned above. Less reactivity to the same stimulus. 

“Neuroscientist Lara Boyd from the University of British Columbia points out that the human brain changes in three ways to support learning of new things:

  1. CHEMICAL — Transfer of chemical signals between neurons, which is linked to short-term improvement (e.g. of a memory or a motor skill).
  2. STRUCTURAL — (which is what we have been talking about here) Changes in connections between neurons, which are linked to long-term improvement.

It means that the brain regions that are important for specific behaviors may change their structure or enlarge. These changes need more time to take place, which underlines the importance of a consistent practice.

  1. FUNCTIONAL — Increased excitability of a brain region in relation to a certain behavior.

In essence, the more you use a particular brain region, the easier it is to trigger its use again.

“Repeat those behaviors that are healthy for your brain and break those behaviors and habits that are not. Practice… and build the brain you want.” —Lara Boyd, PT, PhD

This is exciting and wonderful information, and confirms the discovery made by the Buddha some 2,600 years ago.

It helps us to have faith in the meditation practice, as we develop our practice, and build confidence, in the power of the practice. The word for confidence is Saddha, in Pali, Sraddha, in Sanskrit, and refers to the concept of faith, in our Theravada Buddhist tradition. Faith equals confidence in our own direct experience.

By sitting down and training the mind to observe, the mind becomes more observant. The mind sees itself. The mind sees beyond itself.  By seeing through and beyond itself the mind is able to recognize and notice that what arises in ourselves, arises in others. The wish for happiness is universal. Others are breathing the air that I breathe, be they in New York, Colombo, Nairobi, or Sao Paolo. Breathing the breath of life is a universal impersonal phenomenon which connects one of us to all of us, through a single breath. This is occurring right now, in this room. Air is a naturally shared common resource. We are all sharing the air in this room with every breath.

We are able to realize too, that the breath is breathing us. We are being breathed. This is the involuntary aspect of the breath.

What happens if we let go of “doing” the breathing, and focus rather on the involuntary aspect, that the breath comes in and goes out, on its own. inhale and exhale. We are being breathed.

Is it possible then to let go, allow and trust, let go of the fight, the struggle, working so hard, stressing so much, to simply live and breathe, be and feel supported in our lives?

Contemplating the nature of breathing, as voluntary and involuntary, allows us to directly experience the interconnection between us all.

Observing creates the time and space for the mind to know itself, and changes the trajectory of our lives, as we become less reactive, see more clearly, and become more compassionate. These changes are reflected in the structure and the functions of the brain.

Who knew that sitting down and observing the breath could yield so much?  And yet, it does. And knowing all we know, it still feels magical.