Our current understanding of mindfulness meditation stems from the work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn who began to apply the practices of meditation and body awareness developed in Buddhism to the problem of chronic pain (1990). Based on the tradition of Vipassana, Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “Paying attention in a particular way, in the present moment, on purpose, non-judgementally” (1990).
Awareness here is meant to include not only focusing attention on sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch that we experience in the interface between ourselves and the environment but to notice bodily sensations occurring within us as well; accepting non-judgementally all experience even if it is painful. This was quite counterintuitive. Many strategies for coping with chronic pain sought to help patients numb, distract or ignore distressing sensations.
Trauma causes a number of changes in the brain that can be tracked using various forms of scanning techniques. Researchers have noted particular changes in the part of the brain associated with memory and learning difficulties, more reactive and weaker neural connections between the hemispheres (Perry and Szalavitz, 2006 and Badenoch, 2008).
When we are being “mindful” we are bringing, focused, non-judgemental awareness to our experience. It is this attention that changes the structure and functions or our physical brain (Siegel, 2007). For example, when we are passengers in a car we may not be able to retrace the route taken from our home to a new destination, but if we have to drive, pay close attention to where we are going; our brain literally builds a pathway of neurons that “remember” how to get from A to B. Such bulking up of spatial memory has been studied in London cab drivers who need to recall thousands of streets and laneways. Their knowledge can be seen as a thickened area on a brain scan (Begley, 2007).
Over time, mindfulness meditation practice builds more connections between the areas of the brain, slows down the reactivity and increases the sense of the body as a whole Siegel, 2007). These changes can lead to greater emotional regulation and the capacity to tolerate the ups and downs of relationships as well as the frustrations and setbacks that are simply a part of life. More body awareness also strengthens the part of the brain that is associated with interpretation of the emotions and bodily sensations of others which strengthens empathy (Siegel, 2010). Yi-Yuan Tang and Michael J. Posner (2012) note that meditation improved the ability of people to read the emotional states of others after an eight week intervention.
Mindfulness practices can be very helpful in relieving the symptoms of toxic stress and PTSD, however, some caution is advised. It is important to choose the practices that fit the learning style and tolerance levels of the person who uses them. Sitting quietly and focusing on the breath for long periods of time may be soothing for some but very unsettling for others. If introducing mindfulness meditation, starting with very short periods of practice is the best approach. People can still benefit from only a few minutes of focusing their attention on their breath or their bodily sensations of sitting in the chair. See www.mindful.org for examples of short meditation or focused attention practices.
For many people with trauma histories, other forms of mindfulness practices may be more helpful. For example, the trauma center headed by Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, has developed a trauma sensitive yoga practice that has been used by adolescents and adults to manage symptoms, go to www.traumacenter.org for studies supporting the application of yoga.
As in many interventions, when suggesting mindfulness strategies it is good to go slowly. It is also important to do the mindfulness practices yourself so that whatever is offered to others is firmly rooted in your personal experience. It may be useful to practice mindfulness even if you never have the desire or opportunity to share it with the people you work with. Service providers who have a mindfulness practice cope better with the demands of the workplace and their ability to be present and attuned makes them more responsive to client needs (Siegel, 2007).
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction
The most recognized way of teaching mindfulness in modern, western countries is the eight week group format known at Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). As mentioned previously, it was developed to help chronic pain patients.
Group members meet each week for two to three hours to learn a standard set of mindfulness practices; mindful eating, awareness of breath, body scans, gentle yoga, mindful walking and open awareness meditation. Participants are also instructed to practice each day for 40 minutes between sessions. Included in the MBSR experience is a full day retreat. For more information about the structure of the groups and the expectations for instructors see the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine Healthcare and Society at www.umassmed.edu/cfm
Many Canadian provinces and territories have people who can facilitate MBSR groups. In remote and rural areas, access to the internet allows on-line courses, talks by researchers and internationally acclaimed teachers as well as materials to be downloaded.