The Proof is in the Practice

This post was originally written for Lexington Patch in 2011 and has been updated for this blog.

by Mary Ann Christie Burnside, EdD

This column highlights some of the benefits of practicing mindfulness, not the least of which is learning to enjoy life more. Curious? Read on, and consider participating in "mindfulness, the mini-series," which begins at the mindfulness studio in Concord Center on Feb 23 (evening section) and Feb 27 (morning section).

Although they did not have scientific proof, mindfulness practitioners have known for centuries that meditation can transform lives. People simply knew by virtue of personal experience, which by the way is how we come to know lots of things. In my experience, there really is no substitute for, well, experience.

Today, we have hard evidence to support these age-old claims and we're getting more and more of it. As I write this post, there are 2047 scholarly research articles on mindfulness meditation in the PubMed database, a 400% increase from just 3.5 years ago.  The scientific community is beginning to understand how and why mindfulness meditation can transform our lives in myriad ways. In one marvelous sentence, I can tell you that it affects the whole of our being, from our relationships to our thoughts and emotions, from the wiring in our brain to our immune system to our DNA. 

That's a lot of ground to cover. In this post, I highlight a few benefits, summarizing a small amount of what the scientific community has learned about the effects of mindfulness meditation on our health and well-being.

  1. Brain. The research of Harvard's Sara Lazar shows changes in brain structure in regions that are associated with stress, empathy, sense of self, learning and memory. Similar research shows enhanced left frontal activity of the brain, which is thought to be a neural basis for resilience. Mindful awareness practices, of which meditation is one, may also counteract the degeneration of the cortex that naturally occurs with aging, staving off or reducing memory loss and cognitive deficits.  
  2. Mind. Meditation has been shown to strengthen concentration, problem-solving and executive functioning. It also teaches us to skillfully observe our minds, which helps us notice the unexamined assumptions that can limit us or cause unnecessary stress or suffering in our lives. It supports a shift in the way we relate to mindstates, such as thought or emotion, which enables us to engage in a healthy practice of relating to our actual experiences rather than to our thoughts or feelings about them.
  3. Body. There is much research to support the physiological benefits of mindfulness meditation. This line of research, started by Jon Kabat-Zinn a few decades ago, suggests that it improves immune system functioning, reduces stress and, most recently, has the potential to slow the aging process at the cellular level.  
  4. Relationships. Research by several principal investigators around the country including Eileen Luders, Richie Davidson, Kristin Neff and Dan Siegel shows that mindfulness allows us to feel more compassionate and connected to ourselves, our lives and everyone in them. The essential message of their work is that happiness and emotional well-being are skills that can be learned through the cultivation of mindfulness. 
  5. Overall quality of life. Our primary relationship, the one we have with our own selves and our own lives, can also benefit from mindfulness. Research has shown that mindfulness helps lessen or alleviate depressive and anxiety disorders, teaches us to enjoy life more and more and learn to take it for granted less and less.  

These highlights are not exhaustive. They are but a few of the many compelling findings on mindfulness research coming from the fields of medicine, neuroscience and psychology. I’m currently unaware of any research that documents negative effects of mindfulness meditation, so I think we have nothing to lose except unhealthy habits that get in our way and add stress and suffering. 

Scientifically speaking, we know a lot more than we used to. And even though our knowledge base is tiny compared to what we don’t know, it's accurate to say that mindful awareness – which teaches us through practice to notice that we are alive in this moment, the present one, and how to approach it with clarity, wisdom and compassion – can have a profound effect on us, all those we know, and even on those we don't know.

Magical? No. Miraculous? I think so. And as Ed Halliwell, co-author of The Mindful Manifesto writes, although some of us may be drawn to mindfulness meditation “through the scientific promise of betterment, [we] may end up finding that once [we’ve gotten] started, the path is far more interesting than that.”