Brain Science: What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is one of the biggest buzzwords that is penetrating the Western culture today. From old hippies, to millennial New Agers, to the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies, and even to the military, it seems like everyone can’t stop talking about the benefits of mindfulness–reduced stress, decreased anxiety, and increased emotional well-being. But what does mindfulness actually mean? Nobody seems to know. Today, we will explain in detail what it means to be mindful.

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Mindfulness is one of the factors for enlightenment. The word “mindfulness” is a translation of the Pali sati, which denotes a mental state defined by three characteristics:

  1. Powerful, stable attention
  2. Clear awareness
  3. Equanimity

Let’s go into what these mean. First, we must examine the two primary ways of experiencing our conscious mind: attention and awareness.

We all know what it means when the teacher says, “Pay attention!” It means to focus our consciousness on the lecture. Attention is a concentrated type of consciousness activity that is marked by the activation of the left and right anterior cingulate cortex in the frontal lobe of the brain. According to Upasaka Culadasa, attention processes information sequentially in order to perform complex functions of logic and cognition. It often functions from an egocentric point of view by relating objects in our consciousness to ourselves and making value judgements such as good and bad, like and dislike.

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On the other hand, awareness is like our peripheral vision. While we may be focused on one thing in our visual range, we can be peripherally aware of the things around it. Awareness is marked by activation of the right medial anterior prefrontal cortex. It takes in information from a broad range of sources and processes the data in parallel. Imagine a gazelle on the savanna who vigilantly watches for predators. Its awareness is pointed in all directions, simultaneously. Awareness is able to take in this massive amount of data by minimally processing it without making value judgements.

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At any moment, our awareness contains everything in our consciousness field, while our attention focuses in on one particular thing. Without mindfulness training, our attention is constantly on the move. It either tries to scan objects already in our awareness, or runs to notice some new stimuli that has entered our field of consciousness. Its movement is also affected by our habitual thought patterns and emotional circumstances, giving rise to clinging thoughts and aversion. Thus, the first aim of mindfulness training is to stabilize our attention so that it stays still and only moves when we so choose.

Once attention has calmed down, our awareness begins to clarify just like a lake grows clear and transparent after a storm settles. With clear awareness, we are able to perceive ourselves without fogginess or distortion. This helps us attain the goal of experiencing reality as it actually is. Thus, the second aim of mindfulness training is to clarify our awareness so that it is as accurate and unimpeded as possible.

With clear awareness, we are then able to live life without the value judgements that distort our personal experience. When we can treat life with impartiality, all experiences cease to be either good or bad, but become just what they are. This condition, called equanimity, allows us not to suffer when things don’t go our way. This is the meaning of nirvana, which is Sankrit for “cessation.”

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Now that we understand the three factors of mindfulness, we can dive more into how to attain it and how it feels in future posts.

With metta,

Alex

2 thoughts on “Brain Science: What is mindfulness?

Add yours

  1. Good stuff Alex! This was a very interesting read. I think awareness is absolutely necessary to obtain any degree of mastery. When we make the move from attentiveness to awareness, the cognitive biases and outdated mental models are no longer a factor. We can then begin to find solutions that we could not perceive beforehand.

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    1. You’re right. When we make the shift, we begin to recognize attention for what it actually is: a useful tool for examining the self, not the actual self.

      Like

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