As determined from research and personal experience, meditation and mindfulness practices have numerous benefits in terms of stress reduction and wellbeing. “We don’t have to prove that [the practices are] helpful for some people anymore but understand why,” says Dr. Norman Farb, an associate professor of psychology at UTM and a faculty member of the Health, Adaptation, and Well-Being Cluster.
Farb’s research focuses on the underlying mechanisms of emotion regulation and dysregulation. To investigate beyond self-reports of emotion, Farb uses neuroimaging to determine “what’s happening in neural systems [and] what parts of the brain are getting activated when people are put under emotional stress.” Farb is interested in understanding how meditation and mindfulness work at the neurological level. Knowing that different forms of meditation work better for certain people, Farb hopes to apply his team’s findings to better “adapt interventions to the individuals” and curate the optimal techniques.
Before delving into Farb’s insights, it is important to differentiate between meditation and mindfulness. Meditation is a broader umbrella term for the various techniques used to clear one’s mind. On the other hand, mindfulness refers to “intentional reflection on experience” and was adapted by Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American professor emeritus of medicine. Kabat-Zinn modified the practice from the Theravāda School of Buddhism in the late 1970’s to fit within scientific parameters and introduced it in his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program.
As Farb explains, mindfulness views the “body as a substrate for feeling-states and [a substrate for] understanding how we are conditioned to respond” to our surroundings. The practice encourages individuals to be aware of what is going on in the present moment by simply taking in the sensory inputs. By focusing on that awareness, one can gain insights about themselves and their mind.
Some modern mindfulness techniques—which are also based on Buddhist practices—include loving-kindness meditation. Loving-kindness training entails stimulating your mind to focus your thoughts towards a specific person you feel a positive connection towards. In terms of the feeling of connection, we can begin to ask ourselves, “What are the barriers I put up that stops me from having that connection? What would it take or what would I have to give up to let that connection occur?”
Through this type of reflection, “you’re scaffolding people’s ability to let themselves have positive regard for other people, even if a lot of life experiences have taught them [to not] risk it,” explains Farb. “Eventually you might move on to people [who you have] a lot of conflict with [and reflect upon] how [to] change the way [you] see people in yourmind.”
Farb discusses how “we already know that just focusing on your breathing by breathing slowly and listening to someone talk in a calm voice for a while is going to help you physiologically relax. [However, that] does not mean you are going to adapt better to social stressors.” This is where adding loving-kindness elements to meditation might be beneficial beyond the individual level. Loving-kindness meditation can be used to “teach people how to renegotiate that basic affordance of compassion or kindness or connection with another person” and apply that to broader pro-social attitudes.
For the modern generation, meditation can be of additional benefit since social media and technology have resulted in people constantly attending to something and leaving little time to attend to themselves. Farb explains how “nowadays, everyone is fighting for our attention—it’s an attention economy—so we almost need new compensatory or regulatory skills to successfully navigate and stay sane in the face of people always trying to distract us.”
If you have never tried meditation or mindfulness, Farb suggests starting with brief, scheduled moments of intentional reflection. Even taking thirty seconds to check in with how you feel can be highly impactful in the long-term. Focusing on breathing can be important as well; however, breathing is more of a tool to help you calm down and quieten your mind so you can have the mental space to reflect.
Farb describes how when you reflect each day, you will begin to see patterns emerge. For instance, you might have similar thoughts about overwhelming days or have a specific event which consistently triggers the same attitudes in your mind. These patterns can help indicate what you might need to think more deeply about and where changes can help you. “It’s not that meditation fixes you, but it really shows you where [your] suffering is coming from and if it is getting worse, [then you] should do something about it…that is the heart of meditation.”
Farb does mention that “meditation can seem like a very lonely act in a way because you’re off on your own. If you’re finding that things are getting worse, the right thing to do is to talk to other people about it.”