Interestingly enough, there is no God in Buddhism, which makes it an unusual religion. Buddhism is really based on reverence for a principle, embodied in a historical person known as the Buddha. As the story goes, someone approached the Buddha, who was considered a great sage and teacher, and asked him, “Are you a god?”, or something to that effect, to which he replied, “No, I am awake.” The essence of mindfulness practice is to work at waking up from the self-imposed half sleep of unawareness in which we are so often immersed.
-Kabat-Zinn (1990) Full Catastrophe Living
Today, we find yoga and mindfulness-based programs in public health care, public schools, and workplaces. The 2011 Canadian census poll shows adherence to religion on a steady decline in Canada, and increasingly, Canadians are identifying as spiritual. While mindfulness has roots in Buddhism as well as other contemplative traditions, mindfulness practice popularized in North America is a secular practice of meditation, free from any religious doctrine and more focused on a science of mind. Western scientists have drawn on the expertise of long-term meditation practitioners, Buddhist monks, in order to deepen their understanding of mind and meditation. For example, the Mind and Life Institute has been leading dialogues and research in the area of contemplative neuroscience for over 20 years. These dialogues bring together leading researchers, neuroscientists and contemplatives such as the Dalai Lama, building a scientific understand of mind to help reduce suffering and enhance wellbeing.
Western and Eastern contemplative and psychological traditions have long asked questions about the nature and nurture of self. Stemming from a Greek philosophical perspective is “Know Thyself.” Eastern wisdom such as Buddhist psychology, grounds within ‘know no-self’ (Varela et al., 1991). Puzzling as this dichotomy may seem on the surface, the commonality that exists between them, namely the self, is a foundational element within spirituality, human development and mindfulness.
Farb and colleagues (2007) at the University of Toronto explored the relationship between self and mindfulness by comparing brain activation in a group of participants who went through an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program to a wait-list control. Self-reference across time, referred to as narrative self, was compared to momentary self-reference, referred to as experiential self. The study found that participants who went through the MBSR training increasingly utilized areas of the brain associated with the experiential self. These biological markers are identifying different areas of the brain related to self that are active in processing information when more mindful. That is, when we are more mindful, we are activating our experience of self that is more in the moment as compared to our narrative conception of the self, referring to the common voice we identify within our minds. A past participant in a mindfulness course I taught expressed it this way:
Mindfulness meditation essentially helped me escape the hold of my mind. There is now a comfortable distance between my thoughts (i.e. my ego, or narrative self) and my deeper self. This “deeper” self is more real, and wiser. It can stand back and watch the trivial and often childish preoccupations of my ego. Now, when I start to play familiar records in my head, there is a part of me that honestly cannot take myself seriously. Spontaneously, I will begin to smile as I play the record, and increasingly, the record does not play. Past occurrences in my life that I exaggerated in my head as major “events” no longer have the same hold on me as they once did.
In spiritual terms, this relationship is often distinguished as (ego) self and (higher) Self, whereas the latter refers to a more relational and compassionate notion of self. The secular practice of mindfulness meditation, the mental exercise of returning to focus on the here and now with kindness, inspires insight and actualization of self. As we enter the month with the shortest days and greatest amount of darkness in the year, mindfulness can help us to rekindle our inner flame to shine out into the world.
Formal Mindfulness Practice
I invite you to try this 9 Minute Loving Kindness Practice (opens as audio file). This analytical meditation practice is different from a concentration meditation practice or open-awareness meditation practice. This practice is focused on cultivating loving kindness.
Informal Mindfulness Practice
I invite you to make the intention to open the heart in daily life and cultivate intimacy with the ordinary. Practice bringing this intention to yourself, with friends and at work. Experiment with your experience of this and see what you notice when you approach a situation with an open heart. Here is video to help get you started.
Mindfulness at UBC
Six-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program – MBSR@Work, begins Tuesday March 4, 2014
Sign up for Orientiation & Registration – January 21st, 10:00am-11:00am. Attendance in the orientation is mandatory in order to sign up for the full 6-week program.
Share Your Mindful Moments
Please share your reflections and mindful moments with us below in the comments section!
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Farb, N., Segal, Z. V., Mayberg, H., Bean, J., McKeon, D., Fatima, Z., Anderson, A. K. (2007). Attending to the present: Mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2(4), 313–322.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain and illness. New York: Dell Publishing.
Statistics Canada www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2011/rt-td/index-eng.cfm
Varela, F., Thompson, E., & Rosch, E. (1991). The embodied mind. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.