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  • Writer's pictureAllison Abrams, LCSW-R

Mindfulness, Not Mindlessness: Why Meditation Isn’t Selfish

Meditation and other mindfulness strategies are quickly gaining momentum and becoming part of the mainstream culture, even winning over some skeptics. At the same time, misunderstandings about the nature and potential benefits of mindfulness meditation persist. Upon hearing the words “meditation” or “mindfulness,” some think of the practice as self-absorbed or narcissistic, an escape into a “meditative bubble” in which one is dissociated from and oblivious to the outside world.

When practiced poorly or for the wrong reasons, meditation does run the risk of leading people in this unfortunate direction. Some people may use meditation as an escape from the responsibilities of life or work, a way to bypass important challenges. Others may cling to meditation as a way of avoiding uncomfortable emotions.


But when practiced skillfully, meditation can be an effective strategy in the workplace, in one’s personal life, and in the community more broadly. Mindfulness is a state of nonjudgmental, calm attunement to one’s experience in the present moment. Conversely, we might define mindlessness in this context as a state of being in which one is self-absorbed in personal dramas and neglectful or ignorant of others. Deadlines, to-do lists, and constant attention to phones and tablets leave people disconnected from one another, wreaking havoc on relationships and adversely affecting professional lives. A common complaint in many couples counseling sessions is one partner’s lack of presence: always on that phone or that iPad, lost in thought or in work, anywhere but here. One of the key elements of mindfulness is nonjudgmental, compassionate awareness of all that arises in the present moment. What better gift to offer your partner than your presence?


Several years ago, a young woman came to therapy because of struggles with panic attacks and debilitating social anxiety. She was referred to therapy by her primary physician after ruling out possible medical causes. At 26 years old, she had never been in a serious relationship and had few friends. Desperate to form more meaningful relationships, she was determined not to allow her anxiety, a learned behavior within her family, to interfere with her ability to live a more satisfying life.

For many months, she and her therapist worked on identifying specific triggers and explored the origins of these feelings, which helped her to develop deeper insight into herself. When it was suggested that she begin to explore meditation as an adjunct to therapy, she was hesitant at first, claiming she didn’t have time. She learned she could start with 5 minutes per day of formal meditation practice as well as incorporating informal mindfulness practices, such as being aware of her breath and bodily sensations in social situations. By implementing these techniques, her anxiety was greatly reduced, enabling her to participate more in social events where she began meeting people, including the person who years later would become her partner.


Mindfulness is a state of nonjudgmental, calm attunement to one’s experience in the present moment. Conversely, we might define mindlessness in this context as a state of being in which one is self-absorbed in personal dramas and neglectful or ignorant of others.


The above scenario is not uncommon. Empirical research has demonstrated the benefits of mindfulness practices, such as meditation and controlled breathing, in people’s personal and professional lives. In a 2015 meta-analysis done by a group of scientists from British Columbia, data were pooled from more than 20 studies on meditation and its effects on the brain. At least eight regions of the brain were identified as having been changed through meditation, including the areas responsible for self-regulation, emotion regulation, and introspection. By strengthening these areas, we may be more likely to keep our impulses in check, our aggression at bay, and be more aware of our actions, which greatly benefits us and those around us.


Below are four distinct reasons mindfulness meditation, when practiced carefully and rigorously (perhaps with the assistance of a professional) can be so helpful—and anything but selfish.


1. IT IMPROVES RELATIONSHIPS/COMMUNICATION SKILLS

In their book Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy, Susan Pollack, Thomas Pedulla, and Ronald Siegel describe how mindfulness practices, such as meditation, help us navigate the complex nuances of interpersonal relationships. Developing what they refer to as intra-personal attunement, or awareness of our own thoughts and reactions, allows us to develop interpersonal attunement.


We each interpret reality through our own personal filters based on past wounds and carefully built defenses. When not conscious or mindful, this may lead to incorrect assumptions, the catalyst to many interpersonal conflicts. Mindfulness helps us avoid these traps. Working on ourselves is not only helpful to us, it is a gift to those around us. After all, we bring ourselves to relationships. Being mindful of how we perceive and treat others will only serve to strengthen relationships and mitigate conflict. By improving our communication skills through active listening, awareness of the other, etc., improvement in interpersonal relationships will be a natural byproduct.


2. IT BOLSTERS EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE (EQ)

The first to coin the term, Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer (1989) define emotional intelligence, or EQ, as “a set of skills hypothesized to contribute to the accurate appraisal and expression of emotion in oneself and in others, the effective regulation of emotion in self and others, and the use of feelings to motivate, plan, and achieve in one’s life.” Being mindful teaches us to stop and breathe before we react, and to maintain perspective in all situations. It also puts our impulses in check.


Have you ever known someone who seemed to be chronically angry or always in a bad mood, be it a boss or a friend? Someone around whom you felt you were constantly walking on eggshells, lest you say the wrong thing that could potentially set them off? If that person gave themselves the gift of practicing self-awareness and awareness of the other, through meditation, just imagine how much more pleasant they would be to be around. Fortunately, as it is believed that both nature and nurture feed emotional intelligence, almost anyone can increase their EQ so long as they are willing to do the work.


3. IT CULTIVATES COMPASSION AND EMPATHY

Carl Rogers defined empathy as the ability to sense another’s private world as if it were one’s own. Compassion is equally essential in forming and maintaining healthy relationships. Through skillfully practiced mindfulness, we learn to care for ourselves, thus developing self-compassion, a sine qua non to the ability to care for others.


Within the Buddhist tradition, from which mindfulness was born, compassion and loving-kindness, both integral to the practice, are described as the wish for all sentient beings to be happy and free from suffering. Our awareness of the consequences of our actions on others will inevitably serve to deepen our sense of common humanity, and that is anything but selfish.


4. IT PROMOTES A HIGHER QUALITY OF LIFE

One who is able to manage the chaos within may naturally be better equipped to manage the chaos encountered throughout life. Meditation is one way to strengthen our ability to face both internal and external chaos with grace and ease.


Reduced agitation and anxiety, improved relationships, better physical and emotional health, enhanced work performance, and the countless other benefits that research has only begun to scratch the surface in uncovering, easily add up to a better quality of life—not only for the self, but for the greater community. And all it takes to start is 5 minutes a day.


CONCLUSION

The list above is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the many benefits of mindfulness meditation. Anyone can learn and practice these techniques in order to reap the benefits and achieve a higher quality of life by working with a professional who specializes in mindfulness. When struggling with more severe challenges that interfere with functioning, working with an experienced mental health professional who specializes in mindfulness is a great way to ensure you are getting the most out of the practices and using them skillfully.


References:

  1. Congleton, C., Holzel, B. K., & Lazar, S. W. (2015). Mindfulness can literally change your brain. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2015/01/mindfulness-can-literally-change-your-brain

  2. Pollak, S., Pedulla, T., & Siegel, R. D. (2014). Sitting together: Essential skills for mindfulness-based psychotherapy. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

  3. Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1989). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9(3), 185-211.

This article was originally published on GoodTherapy.

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