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The science is also showing interesting and important health benefits of such mind–body training and practices, and is now beginning to elucidate the various pathways though which mindfulness may be exerting its effects on the brain (emotion regulation, working memory, cognitive control, attention, activation in specific somatic maps of the body, cortical thickening in specific regions) and the body (symptom reduction, greater physical well-being, immune function enhancement, epigenetic up and down regulation of activity in large numbers and classes of genes). It is also showing that meditation can bring a sense of meaning and purpose to life, based on understanding the nonseparation of self and other. Given the condition we find ourselves in these days on this planet, understanding our interconnectedness is not a spiritual luxury; it’s a societal imperative.
Three or four hundred years ago, not so long in the scheme of things, people practicing meditation did so under fairly isolated conditions, mostly in monasteries. Now meditation is being practiced and studied in laboratories, hospitals, and clinics, and is even finding its way into primary and secondary schools. The people teaching and researching it have in many cases been involved with mindfulness for ten, twenty, thirty, or more years by now. They are not just jumping on some new mindfulness bandwagon. And their work has resulted in many professionals being drawn to mindfulness for the first time. That in itself is a wonderful phenomenon, as long as it is understood that mindfulness is not merely a nice “concept” but an orthogonal way of being that requires ongoing practice and cultivation.
What are some of the new frontiers that mindfulness has entered in recent years?
The mindfulness work is spilling into areas way beyond medicine and healthcare and also beyond psychology and neuroscience. It’s moving into programs on childbirth and parenting, education, business, athletics and professional sports, the legal profession, criminal justice, even politics. For instance, Tim Ryan, a Democratic congressman from Ohio, has become a major advocate of greater support for mindfulness research and program implementation in both healthcare and education, based on his own experiences with ongoing practice. In so many different domains, it’s becoming recognized as virtually axiomatic that the mind and body are and always have been on intimate speaking terms, at least biologically. We need to learn to be much more tuned in to the conversation and participate actively if we are going to function effectively and optimize our health and well-being.
Does the synchronizing of mind and body bring benefits beyond functioning effectively?
The awareness we are speaking of when we are using the term “mindfulness” also encompasses the motivations for our actions, for example, the ways we are driven by self-aggrandizement or greed. In the financial crisis of 2008-2009, we’ve seen the effects of greed played out on a massive scale in the banks and insurance companies. Healing that disease won’t just be a matter of bailouts, stimulus packages, and magically creating greater confidence in the economy. We need to create a different kind of confidence and a new kind of economics, one that's not about mindless spending but is more about marshalling resources for the greater good, for one’s own being, for society, and for the planet. Mindfulness can help open the door to that by helping us go beyond approaches that are based on conceptual thought alone and are driven by unbounded and legally sanctioned greed.
It seems that the notion that we can think our way out of our big problems has been tarnished recently.
That’s a key point. Even very, very smart people—and there are plenty of them around—are starting to recognize that thinking is only one of many forms of intelligence. If we don't recognize the multiple dimensions of intelligence, we are hampering our ability to find creative solutions and outcomes for problems that don't admit to simple-minded fixes. It’s like having a linear view in medicine that sees health care solely as fixing people up—an auto mechanic's model of the body that doesn't understand healing and transformation, doesn’t understand what happens when you harmonize mind and body. The element that's missing in that mechanical understanding is awareness.
Genuine awareness can modulate our thinking, so that we become less driven by unexamined motivations to put ourselves first, to control things to assuage our fear, to always proffer our brilliant answer. We can create an enormous amount of harm, for example, by not listening to other people who might have different views and insights. Fortunately, we have more of an opportunity these days to balance the cultivation of thinking with the cultivation of awareness. Anyone can restore some degree of balance between thinking and awareness right in this present moment, which is the only moment that any of us ever has anyway. The potential outcomes from purposefully learning to inhabit awareness and bring thought into greater balance are extremely positive and healthy for ourselves and the world at large.