Mindfulness: Not Just “Brain Training”

Ed Halliwell on why relying heavily on science won't tell us everything about mindfulness. 

Adobe Stock/Krakenimages

I love that mindfulness practice is being investigated by science, and fascinated that many of the shifts reported by meditators throughout the ages are being corroborated by scientific evidence. The benefits of this are great—objective evaluations of practice can be encouraging, especially to those who might not otherwise be attracted to a “spiritual” discipline such as meditation.

Still, I often wonder if something is lost if we rely too much on scientific method and language as our way of approaching this work. I’ve written before about how scientific findings can bring expectation of future results, and that this can sometimes sabotage our mindfulness, taking us further into the stress of unfulfilled desire and out of the present moment. But I suspect there may be another risk too—that of unconsciously narrowing our experience into a conceptual frame.

Mindfulness is often spoken of these days as “brain training,” especially in business settings. I do it myself sometimes, as a way of making sense of neuroscientific findings that show activity and structure in the brain can shift as a result of practice. This is fine, but traditionally, meditation has been considered more of a heart training than a brain training—a way of helping us to open our hearts to ourselves, others and the world. Indeed, the Sanskrit word sometimes translated as mind (citta) also means heart, and so mindfulness, as Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests, might just as well be called heartfulness.

Because scientific research is a matter of third-person observation, a conscious distancing in order to observe, and also a matter of logical interpretation, which happens at the level of thought and analysis, something of this heart quality can be missed when science is our only mode of engaging with things. The brain is an important organ, of course, but it’s interesting how much weight and attention is given to neuroscientific research as compared to evidence about what’s going on in the body. Brain is king, it seems.

On mindfulness courses, people often experience a realization that our supposedly logical minds, represented by the brain, are not always that logical—our thoughts are riddled with biases and preconceptions. Our thoughts are not as powerful as we make them out to be, and trying to think our way out of stresses or emotional upheavals is not usually very effective. The work of mindfulness for many of us, then, is a letting go of attachment to what’s going on in our heads, and a reacquaintance with what’s happening in our bodies—a willingness to connect with the feeling and tone of experience. This reorientation process makes us feel more balanced and whole, and often, more friendly, compassionate, and open.

Of course, thought is not bad—sometimes we just need to relate to it a little differently, realizing that it is only a part of who we are, and that our ruminations don’t have to dominate. Instead, many of us have swallowed not only “I think, therefore I am,” but “what I think is who I am.” When we come to mindfulness practice, part of what we’re doing is letting go of some of these apparent certainties and coming into a more fluid, more uncertain, but also richer and more rewarding way of being. As we let go of fixating on thoughts, we can feel the textures of our lives more exquisitely—we can get in touch with the heart of things. This is mindfulness as art, and it has rather a different flavor—juicy, vibrant, bubbling—than mindfulness described as “brain training,” which on its own can sound rather flat and dry.

Our challenge, perhaps, is reject neither science nor art but to integrate the richness of experience with the clarity of observation. Indeed, isn’t bringing these two modes together an important aspect of what mindfulness really is?

[Model Photo: colourbox.com]