What They Don’t Tell You About Mindfulness

The lyra spun above me, its supporting steel beam strong and brown above it. The breeze from the fan muted my sweaty forehead as my heart sang out to the tune of endorphins. I felt like I was both far away from my body and inextricably tied to it. I thought of nothing except my own breathing, felt nothing except the beating of my heart, slowing to a rest in the wake of the flowing air, idly listening to the whirr of the fan, the subtle movement of air as the lyra happily turned on its axis.

One intrusive thought finally came to the surface: My mind is still. I acknowledged it and let it go, reclaiming the stillness.

Meditation is the preponderance of gamma waves in neural activity. It begins by the practitioner allowing the ever-talkative frontal lobe to shut off explicit thought, often by focusing on an object or mantra. After the frontal lobe slows down, other key parts of the brain follow suit: The thalamus shutters sensory signals, allowing a blissful numbness, and the parietal lobe lengthens one’s perception of time. Eventually, the meditator achieves deep focus and heightened self-monitoring. The different styles, stemming from different Buddhist traditions, emphasize object-focused concentration, attention to one’s inner state, feelings of compassion, or a combination thereof.Meditation has been much touted for its health benefits, many of which derive from the initial alpha waves’ ability to curb stress and lower blood pressure. In addition, as meditation elicits gamma wave activity in the brain, focus and concentration are improved.

Like most things that are quite healthy for you, meditation is hard to practice in the modern world. Its insistence (at least in the Western form) upon emptying the mind and turning off the frontal lobe is anathema to contemporary society’s beta wave-loving emphasis on knowledge and achievement. Often, meditation’s work-friendly cousin, mindfulness, steps to the forefront as people attempt to garner the benefits of meditation without having to sit in a quiet space for hours. Mindfulness includes movement forms such as yoga, workplace behaviors such as single-task productivity and open doors, and relaxation exercises such as, yes, meditation. It could be said that mindfulness culture is a larger set of practices and artifacts that incorporates the basic principle of meditation, while meditation itself is historically linked to spiritual traditions.

When I was watching the lyra spin, I was practicing a type of meditation called Focused Attention. I allowed passive perception of an object to overtake my consciousness, thus quieting other mental noise. This approach to meditation is the basis of workplace-oriented mindfulness, in which practitioners are encouraged to “focus on the task at hand” rather than multi-task.

It’s akin to certain types of ritual meditation or prayer in some religious traditions, in which an object — a mandala or a rosary, perhaps — becomes the source of devotional attention. However, both these approaches to meditation are neurologically different from the more secular alpha wave-oriented mind-emptying that’s typically sold to Western consumers. Buddhist monks, for example, are actually not emptying their mind: they’re engaging in high-attention activity on their own experience — an approach called Open Monitoring. Their gamma waves, rather than alpha waves, actually peak during their meditation.

The proliferation of mindfulness tapes, aromatherapies, books, and apps belies the necessary simplicity of mindfulness. It implies that it’s something to be cultivated rather than already present. Ironically, you can keep yourself from being mindful by your very pursuit of mindfulness. Here’s what they don’t tell you about mindfulness: Mindfulness is an effortless act. If you’re trying to be mindful, you’re doing it wrong. Mindful is your natural state.

The human brain regularly oscillates among the different “states.” When Internet articles suggest that you strive for a “gamma state” for studying, they’re essentially telling you to try to breathe: your brain waves are going to do it anyway. Ironically, trying to be mindful can distract you from the task at hand and undermine the health benefits of mindfulness by introducing stress.

Mindfulness is an effortless act. If you’re trying to be mindful, you’re doing it wrong. Mindful is your natural state.

I was never able to be mindful when I tried to do so. Meditation apps were a source of stress as I fretted about what I needed to be doing rather than letting go. Sitting in a quiet place with only my thoughts was a great way to open the floodgates to anxiety. It was only through aerial arts training that I discovered true mindfulness.

When I rested on the floor beneath the lyra, a circular aerial apparatus, I’d just finished practicing a routine. My adrenaline was pumping; I was anything but relaxed. And yet as I rested beneath it, my mind emptied quickly, without any conscious effort to do it. My brain waves had been in beta mode, with a frequency of 12 to 30 Hz; as I rested after intense focus, they transitioned into gamma mode, gaining frequency up to 100 Hz. In this state, I achieved both greater focus and a higher state of consciousness — and that was due to the natural trajectory of my brain wave activity, not something I tried to attain.

The push for mindfulness — to inject mindful behavior into the workplace, to use it as a basis for medical treatment, to make it the bread-and-butter of productivity — has impeded access to it. By flatly encouraging the cultivation of alpha and gamma states without providing the tools with which to do so, we’re ignoring those with attention-deficit disorders, anxiety, or depression. By failing to study mindfulness with any scientific consistency, we’re setting up mindfulness-based intervention programs for failure. By dressing the mindfulness movement up in scientific clothing, we’re ignoring its limited scope — most research has been done on expert meditators, i.e. monks. Not only is it mildly appropriative to take a sacred practice and sell tapes off it, but it’s also self-defeating for the general public to strive for the deep meditation that it takes monks incredible amounts of practice to achieve.

Moreover, there is a tendency to talk about meditation as a state of relaxation (with alpha waves dominating), when it is actually a state of deep focus (with gamma waves dominating). Alpha waves can pave the way for meditation, but too often, the relaxation is the selling point: the apps, tapes, and books recommend lying down, shutting off distractions, taking some deep breaths… while all that is healthy, it’s not mindfulness. Which begs the question: why are we pretending it is? To capitalize on something that we all can achieve naturally.

I stayed under the lyra for a long time, acknowledging the occasional thought and letting it go. It was perhaps the first time in my life that my butterfly brain finally landed on a flower, the first time that I felt a deep sense of connection to the world, yet not in a sense of awe or power, but rather a simple stillness. A deep focus on the world at hand, not the world beyond.

Being mindful in your life isn’t about lofty thinking, deep breathing, or emptying the mind. And there’s no need to set aside meditation time in your busy routine. Rather, focus on the task at hand. Acknowledge intrusive thoughts or negative self-talk, then let them go. Be aware of your surroundings. In our ultra-distracted world, we’ve lost touch with our mindful nature. Reclaiming it doesn’t cost a dime.

Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.

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Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list: http://eepurl.com/gD53QP

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