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Mindfulness is trendy but that doesn’t mean it’s easy

Mindfulness has gone from fringe activity to self-improvement trend of the decade. But some of its core principles are getting lost in the noise.

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Long before mindfulness became a craze that included colouring books and a gazillion apps, Catherine Phillips would shut herself in her living room in Edmonton and sit, with her eyes closed. It was the mid-1980s and meditation was still considered weird; it carried a stale whiff of the flower-powered ’60s. “My family and friends thought I had joined a cult,” she says, “and told me in no uncertain terms all the bad things I was doing to my brain.”

But having experienced the benefits of training the brain to be more aware of the present moment, she stayed with it — though she kept it to herself for a few decades. (Despite being a psychiatrist, she refrained for years from talking about it with colleagues.) Phillips now teaches mindfulness meditation at the University of Alberta and runs the nearby Mindfulness Institute. Those benefits she found so helpful — clarity, focus, a greater facility to deal with stress — have become hot commodities.

Within a generation, mindfulness meditation has gone from a fringe and somewhat freaky activity to must-try self-improvement technique. It’s this decade’s step aerobics — but instead of buns of steel, we’re hoping for Teflon brains. Even if you’re a social media refusenik, there’s no denying our way of life has become increasingly virtual. Every time we text or swipe or surf, we are essentially transporting ourselves somewhere else. As our attention becomes more and more fragmented, the ability to bring ourselves back to the here and now has become more crucial than ever. “We all have the basic capacity to pay attention to what is happening now,” says John Dunne, a Buddhist scholar who works at the multidisciplinary Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “The problem is that capacity can be atrophied with modern life.”


Related: The health benefits of medical meditation


Mindfulness offers a way to reverse that decline while bringing about other potential changes: improved executive-brain function, greater ability to self-regulate, reduced stress and increased work productivity. According to Dan Harris, a journalist turned mindfulness advocate who wrote the bestselling book 10% Happier, it’s the next public health revolution. “We will soon think of mental exercise the same way we think of physical exercise,” he says. Like working out, however, mindfulness is not a remedy for all that ails us. And as its principles seep into the mainstream, some ideas are getting lost in translation.

Every week, there seems to be a new app, product or research paper. With all the workplace seminars, specialized ring tones, buckwheat-filled cushions, posh retreats and even dedicated teas, it’s hard to go through a day without being reminded of all this bloody mindfulness (and all the things you can buy to get some). These guises and gimmicks can have a diluting effect on the core message, while also ramping up our expectations. It’s often marketed as a kind of mental jiu-jitsu you whip out only when you get stressed, rather than a healthy way to live.

It’s easy to see why everyone from CEOs (LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner) to actors (Emma Watson) to professional athletes (the New York Knicks) to soldiers (the U.S. Marines) to your best friend (and your best friend’s friend) is doing it. There’s great promise in this field, but experts caution there’s also a lot that needs to be better understood.

Harris calls mindfulness a “superpower” and says that, if done right, the technique could give you heightened clarity in our info-saturated age. If it’s done wrong, you’ll probably remain as stressed and distracted as you are right now.

brainTrain your brain
Experts say that proper instruction when starting mindfulness meditation is crucial, whether learning through a person, a book or an app. That said, it isn’t something that can be practised only at a special time and place. In the book This Is Happening: Redesigning Mindfulness for Our Very Modern Lives, Rohan Gunatillake offers stealthy ways to reinforce mindfulness throughout the day.
Before you get out of bed, spend a minute noting something pleasant in your environment — how warm your toes are, for instance. “When you get up, watch how long your warm mood persists and notice what it is that makes it fade away,” says Gunatillake.
When you go for a walk, pay attention to the feeling of your feet striking the ground.
Each time you check your phone, use it as a cue to stop for a few seconds and check in with how you’re feeling.
Take note of your breathing in various situations. It may help identify moods or emotions before they become full-blown. You can then try slowing your breathing down as a way to encourage your mind to relax.
For a micro-meditation at work, move the cursor around on your computer. Keep your attention on it as
it moves. Then focus on the entire screen. Switch back and forth between the single-object focus of the cursor and the wider focus of the screen. “Remember,” Gunatillake says, “meditation is about learning; try to see what you can learn about what distracts you and what doesn’t.”

It’s hard to describe mindfulness without it sounding as though there should be pan flutes playing in the background. Basically, to be mindful is to be aware of your body and mind and your surroundings in such a way that you can be fully present for yourself and for the people around you. This heightened and non-judgmental awareness is cultivated through practice. “The most powerful way is through simple mindfulness meditation,” says Barry Boyce, editor of the Halifax-based Mindful magazine. The formal exercise, he says, “only asks you to pay attention to any kind of anchor that is readily available, so the breath is the most common — if you’re alive and breathing, it’s there.” You concentrate on your breath, and every time you catch your mind wandering, you bring your attention back. By regularly doing this, you can become more familiar with what’s going on in your body and mind and can avoid getting caught in destructive thought patterns. In other words, mindfulness meditation helps you practise being more mindful.

While mindfulness is a couple of decades old, meditation, of course, is not new. It has been around for more than 3,000 years, with various permutations developing as it spread from India up the Silk Road to Tibet and China through Hinduism and Buddhism. In the 20th century, it began to make inroads in the West with the rise of secular meditation. The Beatles’ flirtation with transcendental meditation imbued it with countercultural cachet, and wellness retreats such as California’s Esalen Institute (where Mad Men’s Don Draper went to find himself) gave people a place to test drive it. At the same time, the scientific community was beginning to seriously study its potential health benefits.

In the late ’60s, Harvard Medical School cardiologist Herbert Benson discovered that meditation lowers heart rates, oxygen consumption and blood pressure and produces brain waves associated with relaxation. Armed with that knowledge, he developed a simplified version of transcendental meditation. A decade later, Jon Kabat-Zinn set up the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts, where doctors would send him patients dealing with chronic pain. MBSR courses are now taught across the globe. “The idea that the effects of mindfulness are measurable and we don’t just have to take someone’s word for it has given it quite a boost,” Boyce says.

Some of the research has been quite striking. In a seminal 2003 study, Kabat-Zinn and neuroscientist Richard Davidson at the Center for Healthy Minds found that just eight weeks of mindfulness meditation has a positive effect on the immune system. In subsequent research, Davidson and other researchers were able to show that meditation actually changes the structure of the brain, increasing density in regions linked to memory, empathy and learning and decreasing it in the amygdala, which is associated with fear and anxiety.

That last finding is particularly important, considering how much of our lives is filled with low-grade stress. While we are no longer being chased by sabre-toothed tigers, modern life presents a greater variety of pressures — daycare pickups, work demands, Facebook likes — and remaining in fight-or-flight mode can have a huge effect on our health. Inflammation, our body’s response to all forms of stress, has been linked to many major 21st-century diseases and conditions: heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, cancer. Even when the actual stressor has passed, we continue to wrestle with it: Think about how often you replay something in your mind or even worry about what might happen next. Dunne calls this “full-body simulation,” where those psychological stresses manifest themselves physically and create inflammation. “Mindfulness,” he says, “has the power of allowing us to draw back from a story and to see through it.”

The finding also sparked a high number of small studies showing the potential of mindfulness as a viable treatment option for PTSD, ADHD, binge eating, insomnia, fatigue, incontinence and smoking. And more and more people have been willing to try it out — earlier this year, the popular meditation app Headspace reported a user base of seven million people globally. (A yearly subscription is $123.) And that’s just one app.

Mindfulness is often marketed as a kind of mental jiu-jitsu you whip out only when you get stressed.

The positive press around mindfulness can make it sound as if it’s all that and a bag of kale chips — and it may well prove to be. But before it becomes part of a public health initiative, there’s a lot that needs to be clarified, including how often and how long one should meditate, what other effects it may have and why some people have exceptionally good or bad responses to it.

Brett Thombs, a psychological researcher at McGill University, says we shouldn’t be overly bullish about the potential benefits of mindfulness, especially when using it as a way to treat mental health. In a study published in April, Thombs and fellow researchers looked at 124 published trials of mindfulness as a mental health treatment and determined the findings were far more positive than should be statistically plausible. This doesn’t necessarily mean the evidence is flawed, but it could indicate a bias toward the benefits of the practice.

Thombs is quick to point out he is not against mindfulness — he himself meditates — but that a bit of caution is needed. “I am out to get honest and transparent evidence so that we know what mindfulness does,” he says. For instance, we don’t fully understand why a small subset of the population experiences negative responses to mindfulness, such as panic attacks.

Right now, he says, there are lots of tiny studies, which can easily skew results. “If we’re exaggerating how well mindfulness can work for a particular mental illness, we might be suggesting people try it, when they could be benefitting from something else that has been proven to work.”


Related: How to stop being a stress junkie


Thombs cites recent research out of the University of Oxford as the type of large-scale study we need more of — with larger sample sizes, scientists can more accurately identify patterns and better understand what “living in the now” is doing to our brains and how it can be best applied. In the Oxford study, researchers discovered that patients who practise mindfulness therapy as part of a supported treatment are 23 percent less likely to relapse into depression within 15 months — even if they stop taking their medication.

We may just need to temper our expectations and develop a better understanding of what mindfulness is and what it’s not; the recent surge in popularity has muddied the perception of it. One of the biggest misconceptions is that it’s primarily a relaxation technique — a refuge from a harried world, if you will — and that’s something marketers of adult colouring books have gleefully taken advantage of. (Four of the top 10 bestselling titles in the country last year were colouring books, according to BookNet Canada.) But zoning out with pencil crayons is not the same thing as being mindful, and when you’re meditating, you are doing much more than just sitting there.

As Phillips succinctly puts it, “Mindfulness is not a time out. It’s not a relaxation exercise. It’s very active.” In fact, the technique is intended to bring you closer to your thoughts and feelings, which are often uncomfortable or painful, and help you address those fears and self-sabotaging patterns. Nor is mindfulness a way to clear your mind. “It really is simply the practice of being as present in the moment as possible with openness and curiosity,” she says. And if that involves observing how jam-packed your mind is, then that’s what it is.

We’ve come to expect convenience and instant gratification in all things, but mindfulness can’t simply be bought or hand-delivered. Experienced meditators like to say that doing it is simple — but far from easy. “The notion that you can just kick back and listen to something and begin to cultivate your mindfulness — that’s not real mindfulness,” says Boyce. “There’s a relationship between how much commitment you make to it and the results.”

It requires repetition, sitting down on a regular basis and learning from an experienced meditator, whether through an app or a book or in person. “It’s kind of like Malcolm Gladwell’s idea of the 10,000 hours to create genius,” Phillips says. “The more you practise, the more your brain gets practised in making particular neural connections and the better your brain gets at it.”

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