This post describes four main components through which mindfulness meditation works. If you ever wondered why mindfulness is so effective in improving personal well-being, you might want to continue your reading.
“… a way of orienting one’s self to the present moment … it involves maintaining awareness on one’s immediate experience, as opposed to being distracted by past or future oriented thoughts, or engaged in avoidance of one’s experience. It also involves maintaining an attitude of “nonjudgment” (Thompson & Waltz, 2010, p. 1).
So why does focusing on the present help us improve our personal well-being? Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation has beneficial effects on a number of psychiatric, somatic, and stress-related symptoms. Mindfulness may even produce permanent changes to certain brain regions (see for a review Hölzel et al., 2011).
Hölzel and colleagues (2011) have examined the mechanisms behind mindfulness considering the most recent empirical research. The authors suggest that there are at least four components through which mindfulness meditation exerts its effects.
These components probably work synergistically so that each component influences other components which reinforces its effects.
1. Attentional control
Attentional control is basically your capacity to choose what you pay attention to and what you ignore. It is your ability to sustain your attention on a chosen object.
Attentional control is necessary in order to meditate. Attentional control helps you regain focus when your mind drifts off into mind wandering. Here is an example: Whenever you are distracted by harmful thought, you are able to return your attention to your breathing or your bodily sensations – you choose what you pay attention to.
The human mind likes to wander. Luckily, regular meditation practice can help you focus your attention. Here is a typical mindfulness instruction to gain a focused attention:
“Focus your entire attention on your incoming and outgoing breath. Try to sustain your attention there without distraction. If you get distracted, calmly return your attention to the breath and start again” (p. 539).
2. Emotional control
Emotional control is about approaching ongoing emotional reactions in a new, more mindfulness, way. This means you approach your emotions non-judgmentally and with acceptance.
You let yourself be affected by your emotions, but you stop yourself from reacting to them internally. If you have a high degree of emotional control, you are able to regulate (calm) yourself when you are stressed or sad etc.
3. Body awareness
Mindfulness meditation helps you focus your attention on internal experiences and be more aware of subtle experiences. Internal experiences involve sensory experiences of breathing, emotions and bodily sensations.
When you are more aware of your bodily sensations, you begin to understand how different situations or thoughts provoke different emotional experiences in you. So body awareness, combined with a new perspective on the self, may help you deal with the sensations more effectively.
4. New perspective on the self
Mindfulness meditation decreases your feeling of a static sense of self. It helps you “detach” yourself from the idea you have of yourself. The essence of Buddhism is that there is no such thing as an unchanging self. However, mental processes lead us to expect that the self is a constant entity.
Mindfulness meditation fosters meta-awareness which is, in Buddhist philosophy, a key element in happiness, and it: “… results in less afflictive experience and the freedom to experience a more genuine way of being” (p. 547).
Regular mediators report that they have a greater meta-awareness which allows them to detach themselves from their experiencing self.