Some reflections on mindfulness

(Jan and I just came back from a meditation retreat. On the retreat, someone we met asked for some links to websites that would provide information on scientific research on the benefits of mindfulness practice. I suppose, being on a retreat with a (relatively) clear mind, something was sparked in me and I ended up writing the following in about 20 minutes. I thought it might be fun to post, so……)

just posted this and see the links don’t show up – if you go to Michael Taft’s site, you can find all the links. Please note that all of this is aimed at someone not consciously involved in doing yoga – in fact, skeptical of it)


I’ve included a number of links at the end to articles providing information about the physiological and psychological benefits of meditation.

To help put them all in context, I’m providing a “naturalist” explanation of what mindfulness is. In scientific research, “methodological naturalism” involves refraining from accepting any supernatural, magical, or non-physical means of explanation.

So here is a brief description of what mindfulness is, how it works and what its effects are in purely naturalistic language.

Put very simply, mindfulness involves training attention and awareness to free our consciousness from the constraints of our evolutionary conditioning in order to experience a unified state of consciousness.

Let me provide a bit more detail to help you understand what I mean by “attention,” “awareness” and a “unified state of consciousness.”

Selective Attention and Peripheral Awareness

In every moment we are awake, there are two basic aspects of our consciousness which are functioning. Say you’ve gone out to eat, and you’re looking at the choices on the menu. Your capacity for “selective attention” allows you to tune out the sound of other people talking, the slight pain you may have in your hip or lower back or neck, the sights of the waiter walking by, the people at the next table, as well as the various thoughts and emotions that may be passing through your mind that are not related to your meal.

While you are focusing on the menu (unless you’re an extremely advanced mindfulness practitioner!!) all of that – the sounds, sights, physical sensations, passing thoughts and emotions – are still present in your consciousness but they’re on the periphery – they’re in your “peripheral awareness.”

Something may arise on your periphery (the waitress drops a plate and spatters some tomato sauce on your new shirt, or on the bag holding a vitally important flash drive) and even if you wanted to hold your attention on the menu, all kinds of emotions will rush up – annoyance, irritation, etc – to draw your attention away from the menu. Now, what was peripheral has become central!

For most of our lives, our attention is pulled this way and that – we want to be focusing on developing a new computer code, and any number of external (“I just have to check my email for the 18th time) and internal (oh my god, did I remember to turn off the stove) distractions are fighting for our attention.

The primary source of these distractions is really not the external things or obvious internal stuff we pay attention to. There is always something going on “under the surface” that has to do with ancient evolutionary programming, that is for most of us, much of the time, the real driver of our actions, emotions and thoughts.

Our Instinctive, Emotional and Mental Programming

Our instinctive programming – exquisitely designed through the extraordinary evolutionary process of random genetic variation and natural selection – worked for several hundred million years in very simple circumstances to keep us safe, to motivate us to master our environment, and guided us through pleasure – what helped us survive – and pain – what is dangerous to our physical survival.

But that old programming is no match for the sophistication of 21st century marketers. High class scientists are paid huge sums to study our instinctive programming and come up with just the right combination of salt, sugar and fat to override the evolutionary mechanisms that are supposed to protect us, leading us to eat what makes us sick rather than what makes us healthy.

Our emotional programming – particularly that which developed around 250 million years ago – emerged because mammals evolved who found greater survival benefits in forming strong bonds, and tight social groupings.

This emotional programming is at the root of the profound bonds of love and caring in human beings. But because of our complex society and the complex mind and self-identify we have developed, the programming is twisted and used to exploit, manipulate, control the people we perceive to be important to us, develop over-dependence, and all kinds of other problematic relationships.

Our mental programming – particularly that which emerged in early primates as well as in homo sapiens between 250000 and 50,000 years ago, leading to the prefrontal cortex, the most highly evolved part of our brain – has been immensely important to our survival and the development of civilization. It allows us to create a kind of simple heuristic, a shortcut, a complex web of stories, narratives, worldviews, etc which give us tremendous power in terms of navigating our world, and is largely responsible for the fantastic developments in science that have come about in recent centuries.

However, living in a world of stunning diversity, our “stories” and “worldviews” have developed enormous complexities, distortions, mistakes, and deviations which lead us to be in conflict, to hate people we have never met just because of our ideas about them, to have confused and conflicting ideas about ourselves, what we are capable of, what we cannot do, etc.

Mindfulness, selective attention and peripheral awareness

Over the last several thousand years, meditation practitioners in virtually every culture the world over have experimented – often for hours a day, over the course of decades of their lives – and made the amazing discovery that cultivating the abilities of our most highly evolved brain structure, the prefrontal cortex (PFC for short) has the capacity of “deconditioning” our ancient instinctive, emotional and mental programming, and reconditioning it in a way which makes it more harmonious with our complex 21st century society.


Selective attention helps us to hone in on an object of attention, noticing the fine details. It tends to interpret things in terms of what we know from the past, and generally works by “serial” or linear processing. If we over-focus with selective attention, we “see the trees but miss the forest.” This tends to make us tense and anxious, and can even bring about physiological problems.

Peripheral awareness helps us step back and see the larger picture, the “forest” within which the “trees” exist. We are able to understand the context of things, and are open to the new and the unknown. Peripheral awareness appears to involve massive parallel processing, which brings together many disparate functions of the brain.

Mindfulness helps us know how to make best use of each. We can step back even further and get a sense for what each moment requires for us to act most effectively. By balancing selective attention (on the breath, for example) with peripheral awareness (gently aware of but not reacting to the arising of thoughts, emotions and sensations impelled by our ancient programming) we are able to recondition that programming, the brain becomes more coherent, and we begin to discover a more spontaneous way of acting, that emerges naturally and intuitively.

Those times when an athlete’s hand just “glides” up to a basket, sinking the ball effortlessly, or when a scientist, pondering the solution of a problem in quantum physics, for decades, suddenly just “knows” the answer – it turns out this simple act of balancing selective attention and peripheral awareness leads to a state of harmony in the brain which allows such experiences of “being in flow” or “in the zone” to occur more often and more easily (this is why Phil Jackson decided to have all his basketball players learn mindfulness).

Unified Consciousness

Ultimately, at the most advanced stages (but glimpsed by everyone in moments of deep peace, letting go of concerns and often in moments of great fear or overcoming some great challenge) there is the experience of what Jan and I like to call “open heartful awareness. (some call it “pure consciousness;” others give it a religious name; it doesn’t matter what words you use or what you believe about it; people have reported this experience for centuries as well as the extraordinary benefits it confers).

When the capacity to balance selective attention and peripheral awareness is so well developed that the two become perfectly integrated, one experiences oneself and the world as seamlessly connected and one’s thoughts, actions, and words begin to emerge from that state of integration.

I say “begin” to emerge because for most people, it is a lifelong process of developing that kind of integration.


In 1999, I completed my doctoral research investigating the effects of mindfulness on physical pain. Since then, hundreds of subsequent research studies have been conducting reaffirming not only my work but many studies throughout the 1980s and 90s, showing that mindfulness practice can lead to a profound ability to reduce physical pain of all kinds. The effects are not only subjective, but show up in quantitative measurements of brain and nervous system functioning.

Mindfulness research in the last decades of the 20th century was often not of the highest quality. However, in the last 16 years, several thousand studies have been done at major research centers around the world, often of a quality equal to that of studies in most scientific fields.

Among psychological illnesses, mindfulness has been found to either reduce or eliminate symptoms in:

• Depression
• Anxiety
• Bipolar disorder
• Eating disorders
• Posttraumatic stress disorder
• Obsessive compulsive disorder
• Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
• Borderline and other personality disorders

In physiological conditions, mindfulness has been found particularly effective in reducing virtually all kinds of pain, including migraines, back pain, cancer-related pain, foot and knee pain, fibromyalgia, etc.

In various walks of life, mindfulness has been able to improve performance in a variety of sports, including basketball, golf and even among a number of Olympic activities.

There are now thousands of programs around the world employing mindfulness and mindfulness-related practices in schools from pre-Kindergarten to graduate school, and studies have shown repeated positive results in terms of improving test results, improving overall social-emotional skills, reducing bullying, and overall greater engagement and interest in learning.

Is Mindfulness a Panacea?

Did you think I was going to say no, or fudge the answer a bit? In fact, a simple short answer is “yes.” It is compatible with virtually any kind of psychotherapy and all forms of education. It has been found to be helpful in every kind of workplace (improving productivity and collaboration and reducing absenteeism) and has even been used in governments to facilitate greater cooperation and understanding between competing or conflicting sides of an issue.

Over a century ago, William James said that a method for training attention would be the single most important feature of an excellent education. Near the beginning of the 20th century, he brought a Buddhist monk into his Harvard psychology class and told the students, “This man has what will be the foundation of education 25 years from now.” It seems that Professor James was off by about 90 years, but his prophecy now appears to be coming true.


This is only the briefest of instructions. There’s a lot that can be very helpful, such as information about preparation, timing, posture, etc.

But you can still do 10 minutes of simple breath awareness to get at least a glimpse of what was just written.

1. Sit with your neck and back aligned, upright and relaxed.
2. Bring your attention to the feeling of the breath flowing in and out of your nose.
3. Before focusing on the breath, take just a moment to reflect on your motivation.
a. Understand that you are going to be practicing using a very gentle mode of selective attention on the feeling of the flow of breath, while allowing your peripheral awareness to take in but not get carried away by the various other aspects of your experience – sounds, body sensations, memories, desires, internal conversations – all will come and go, arising and passing away, and you don’t have to anything about them. Simply let them be and let them pass away. Remember also that even in the first practice session, or soon thereafter, it is possible (though not guaranteed!) to have at least a glimpse of that state of greater, more harmonious, unified consciousness.
b. Recognize that this gentle act of balancing selective attention and peripheral awareness is not a skill you’re developing in order to become a “better meditator.” It is something that will serve you at every moment of your waking life (and if you ever become interested in “lucid” or conscious dreaming, at every moment of your dream life too!).
c. Recognize that if you decide to persist in this practice, you are likely to begin to experience glimpses of a calm, peaceful unified state of wide open awareness, in which your whole field of experience feels to you to be one, unified whole, in which you are more receptive to intuitive promptings (as a result of a highly coherent brain) which can provide guidance in whatever you wish to do, from cultivating vegetables to cultivating deeper relationships to increased productivity to gaining a deeper sense of life’s meaningfulness and purposefulness.
4. Very gently bring your attention to the feeling of the flow of breath in and out of your nostrils.
a. If your mind is particularly distracted, you can use a word to help focus the mind – breathing “relax’ as you inhale, and “peace” as you exhale, or any words of your own choosing.
b. If you need a further aid to concentrate, you can count your cycle of breathing, counting “1” on the inhale, “2” on the exhale, up to “10,” then start over again.
5. As your mind gets quieter, let go of the counting or words, and just “be” with the breath. Before you finish your practice, try letting go of selective attention altogether and just rest, alert but relaxed, in that calm, quiet state of awareness. Be grateful for even the slightest measure of relaxation and calm that emerged.
6. Conclude by thinking of people you care about, and extending good will to them, wishing for them also to experience whatever measure of calm and peace you have experienced. If you wish to spend a bit longer at this, you may imagine as many people as possible – even ones toward whom you feel neutral, or even ones toward whom you have negative feelings! – to share in this experience of calm, quiet peacefulness.

That’s it!

Just 9,999 more hours, and you’ll be an expert.

(But don’t do it with any goal in mind; just enjoy the feeling of sitting quietly, the pleasant sensation of the flow of breath, the delight of knowing you are on the way toward mastering one of the most important skills any human being can develop).

Here are some excellent links for scientific research regarding the benefits of mindfulness:

From: “The Mindful Geek”:

Feel Better, Be More Effective, Relax
Mindfulness meditation revolves around paying attention to the present moment. Done properly over time, this simple practice can produce some dramatic results, including a surprising number of health benefits.
Get a free guided mindfulness meditation with Michael Taft and start your practice today.
Under the guidance of a seasoned coach, and with a committed practice mindfulness meditation can:
Improve Your Focus — Focus is a trainable skill, and meditation systematically trains you to focus. What’s more, your focus isn’t just better when you’re meditating, but all day long as you go about your business. Mindfulness’s positive effect on concentration has been proven in this long-term study, and this study, and has even been shown to make a big difference in novice meditators after only ten days.
Reduce Your Stress — We’ve all heard that meditation can help you to relax and become less stressed out. It is a proven way to deeply relax. Science shows that it can even make very stressful situations easier to handle. It lowers your cortisol levels—the hormone most responsible for stress. A 2010 meta-analysis of 39 studies found that mindfulness is a useful intervention for treating anxiety and mood disorders.
Enhance Your Empathy — Mindfulness will help you connect to other people. One mindfulness practice is called “loving kindness” meditation, in which you focus on feelings of love and compassion. Experiments show that over time this can dramatically boost your empathy (sense of emotional connection) with other people. Medical students under intense stress report higher levels of empathy when they meditate.
Reduce Your Emotional Reactivity — How long does it take you to recover from an upsetting event? Mindfulness can reduce that time measurably, and get you back on your feet faster after emotional upheavals.
Increase Your Cognitive Flexibility — Tired of being stuck in the same old rut? Mindfulness has been shown to increase “cognitive flexibility,” which means it allows you to see the world in a new way, and behave differently than you have in the past. It helps you to respond to negative or stressful situations more skillfully.
Boost Your Memory — How many facts you can hold in your head at once, what scientists call “working memory” is a crucial aspect of effectiveness in learning, problem solving, and organization. A study of military personnel under stress showed that those who practiced mindfulness experienced a boost in working memory, as well as feeling better than those who didn’t practice. Another study shows that it not only improves memory, but boosts test scores, too. Even practicing mindfulness for as short as 4 days may improve memory and other cognitive skills.
Make You Less Sensitive to Pain — Mindfulness meditation changes your physical brain structure in many ways; one is that it actually increases the thickness of your cortex, which reduces your sensitivity to pain.
Give You a Better Brain — Mindfulness trains the prefrontal lobe area of your brain (it actually gets bigger!), as well as enhancing other areas which give the benefits of an entire package of related functions such as self-insight, morality, intuition, and fear modulation.


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