Mindfulness. The word sounds attractive in a Zen sort of way. Not surprisingly it’s today a billion-dollar industry.
Green living enthusiasts use mindfulness to get in touch with the environment around them. Children are taught to meditate, some businesses are convinced that mindfulness improves employee performance, and war veterans use the practice to alleviate PTSD. Even premium athletes like Novak Djokovic vouch for its effectiveness.
But how can meditative focusing on your breath and body be so useful?
If so many people are into it, then it can’t be a lie. But is mindfulness the panacea that it is at times advertised to be?
Maybe it is not (yet) the total solution but it can be used as a part of treatment for anxiety, depression, stress and chronic pain.
In the right doses, it’s beneficial. If you dial it up beyond optimum or do it the wrong way then there are drawbacks, which we will get to in a bit.
But first, let’s look at some of the common types of meditative techniques.
How to Practice Mindfulness – Common Techniques
There are many different ways in which you can practice mindfulness, the two most common being:
- Mindful breathing
- Body scan
In mindful breathing, you focus your entire attention on your breathing.
In the body scan technique, the focus is on the entire body, where you observe and fee every sensation during the course of your meditative session.
Drawbacks and Limitations of Mindfulness
Turn a deaf ear to those false prophets proclaiming from the rooftops that mindfulness is here to deliver you from the plague.
Sure, it has benefits as we will discuss later, but it comes with its share of drawbacks.
1. Mindfulness can affect sleep
One of the benefits of mindfulness is that it increases alertness in the practitioner.
But what if you overdo the meditation bit?
A bit like coffee, mindfulness can make you attentive to the point that your sleep gets compromised.
It was noted in a study that people who meditated five days a week and more than 30 minutes every day suffered from lack of sleep quality.
2. It can be too much of a good thing
Staying with overmeditation, it’s easy to fall in love with mindfulness practices and crank them up more than you can take.
This typically happens in body scan meditation where heightened sensitivity to feelings can be overwhelming, resulting in stress and anxiety.
3. Does mindfulness really help to motivate?
Companies use meditation as a means to reduce stress among employees. At times mindfulness is also used as a tool of motivation.
While there is an argument for the former, can meditation really lead to more motivation?
If we think about it carefully, mindfulness is about being in the present, of being aware of your surroundings at that point in time. So, can it help to achieve future goals?
A study in the University of Minnesota showed that volunteers who meditated were less motivated to complete simple tasks than others who did not meditate. (Though, to be fair, they achieved the tasks with similar competence.)
4. It can lead to indifference
Mindfulness when used effectively can reduce stress and anxiety. Too much of it and you turn it into a package deal, dissociating you from not just stress and anxiety but also all sorts of positive feelings.
Can it result in an individual losing their ability to empathize, feel or love? A cyborg-like existence if you will.
Disconcertingly, yes. Something like that is not entirely out of the question, especially in extreme cases.
Mindfulness Offers Benefits If Done Correctly
So much for the red flags but mindfulness has a spectrum of benefits if done properly.
The techniques are not set in stone. You can adapt them if you feel your current way of meditating is not doing it for you.
Also, it helps to be flexible and keep yourself open to altering your dosages for specific situations.
1. Think outside of the box and body
If you are having problems with the breathing and body scan techniques, look for meditative targets outside of your body.
For example, indulge in some garden ecotherapy and focus your thoughts on your plants and flowers or on pages from your favorite author. This may help you reduce your anxiety levels and, importantly, get you in touch with your feelings.
Also, there are newer meditation techniques that help you understand people through their point of view, making you more compassionate, and combat feelings of loneliness.
2. Mindfulness regulates stress
A research in 2016 reported that three days of intensive meditation improved connectivity between the default mode network in the brain and some parts of the prefrontal cortex.
In other words, the “resting” mode of the brain and the regions that regulate stress.
The same study also noted that meditation reduced the levels of interleukin-6, a cytokine in the blood that is prominent in people with high stress.
3. It gives you the capacity to be in control
Some studies have shown that meditation in the right dosage can regulate the limbic system in the brain.
In simple language, this helps you to improve focus and create some sort of psychological distance, allowing you to respond better to unpleasant situations.
For instance, mindfulness may help people who panic easily when faced with a complex situation or those liable to fly off the handle.
4. Mindfulness helps with memory
Sadly, like our physical exterior, the brain cannot draw from the eternal fountain of youth.
Here, mindfulness practices may be of benefit to older people. Studies have shown meditation to increase grey matter in the region of the brain called hippocampus, which is essential to memory.
However, it is still unsure if these changes are sustained once a person stops meditating and also how much one should meditate for this to happen.
Mindfulness and Green Living
Being in the present, stress-free and fully aware of the environment may help you connect better with the world around you.
Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism and one of the religion’s teachings is interdependence with nature and how to live in harmony with it.
Focusing on the “now” also makes it easier for us to let go, a trait which is priceless for individuals who want to embrace minimalism as a way of life.
Is mindfulness overrated?
Considering our sometimes overoptimistic outlook, proclivity to jump on bandwagons and declare anything novel in health science an elixir to cure all ills, Yes!
Is it impractical?
No! There have been enough evidence, for instance its effectiveness with PTSD in war veterans, to consider mindfulness a useful practice.
The answer may lie somewhere in the middle.
The study of mindfulness is still in its infancy and research outcomes and far from conclusive.
However, this should not stop you from trying it if you really want to. Who knows, it might just improve the quality of your life. Though it’s advisable to first get a good teacher to guide you through the proper mindfulness techniques.
What are your thoughts on mindfulness? Which side of the fence do you sit? Have you tried it? Let us know in the comments.