November 2, 2012

How the New "Dalai Lama Model" of Mindfulness Meditation Works for Me

Mindfulness meditation helps people maintain a healthy mind, quieting negative emotions like desire, anger and anxiety. It encourages positive dispositions like compassion, empathy and forgiveness. But how does that happen?

Researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital have proposed a new model that characterizes mindfulness as a broad framework of complex mind mechanisms. Called "Mind and Life XXIV: Latest Findings in Contemplative Neuroscience," this model was recently presented to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It differs from the current description of mindfulness as a way of paying attention, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. 

The researchers identified several cognitive functions active during mindfulness practice. These functions encourage:
  • Self-awareness to reduce biases and negative thoughts,
  • Self-regulation to enhance regulation of behavior,
  • Self-transcendence to increase positive, pro-social relationships with oneself and others.
This framework is apparently supported by neurobiological mechanisms active during meditation. The process starts with an intention to attain mindfulness and is followed by an awareness of one's bad habits. Then, one can create a discipline to become less emotionally reactive and recover from upsetting emotions.

"Through continued practice, the person can develop a psychological distance from any negative thoughts and can inhibit natural impulses that constantly fuel bad habits," says lead study author David Vago. He adds that practice can increase empathy, eliminate attachment to things we like, and reduce aversion to things we don't like. Vago recaps:
The result of practice is a new You with a new multidimensional skill set for reducing biases to one's internal and external experience and sustaining a healthy mind
How Mindfulness Works for this Neurotic
The current attention to meditation in general -- and mindfulness in particular -- is all well and good. But I want to keep my practice simple and uncluttered. I don't want to worry that I'm not "doing it right."

I had an experience a few days ago that demonstrated how my mindfulness meditation fits much of this new model. I'd had an evening with several angry flareups, which don't happen too often these days. I am fed up with the interminable election campaign. Confirming my tendency to veer from one side to the other, my 2008 adoration of Obama has turned to 2012 disappointment... verging on disdain. I expressed my disillusionment on Facebook, and got slapped down by several liberal pals. I then reacted angrily, which prompted additional (appropriate) negative reactions.

Then, we had a rare domestic flare-up, a silly TV dispute over whether to watch the start of the professional basketball season or PBS's rebroadcast of the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Award to Ellen Degeneres. (It shouldn't be difficult to figure out who was on each side of this dispute.)

I went to bed out of sorts. But before dozing off, I told myself to use the early morning meditation to keep this sour mood from corrupting the new day. As I settled in for the 5am meditation, I realized I'd been spending too much of my meditation hour recently testing different seated exercises for back pain relief, and too little time on actual meditation. So I concentrated on meditating. A key tenet of mindfulness meditation is focusing on the NOW, not brooding about the past or worrying about the future. I was able to relegate the flare-ups of the previous night to the trash bin, where they belonged. Soon enough, most of the passing thoughts concerned the many enjoyable things going on in my life.

I went back to sleep and woke up a few hours later. I started the new day in a good mood. I didn't need a researcher to tell me that mindfulness meditation helped this neurotic get a better balance.

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