A new study flagged by Pacific Standard showed that mindfulness training reduced the prevalence of the stress hormone cortisol in a group of overweight women — the negative thoughts they experienced didn’t go away, but when the subjects were trained to label them, accept them, and move on, their health improved. Like all such mindfulness studies, it raises some obvious questions: How can this possibly be useful in a society like ours where there’s so much pressure to ruminate, to obsess endlessly, to be insecure about a million different things? And isn’t it a copout to simply label and accept a negative thought rather than try to understand its origin and solve it? How practical is this whole mindfulness thing, in other words?
It seemed like an opportune time to email Dan Harris, the Nightline and weekend Good Morning America anchor whose recent book 10% Happier recounts his own winding journey toward embracing mindfulness meditation (yes, I’ve flogged it before, and yes, it’s really good). In his response, Harris explained that while there’s often widespread confusion about exactly what mindfulness is, it can be summed up simply as “The ability to see what’s going on in your head at any given moment, without getting carried away by it.”
I think the idea that mindfulness can short-circuit the habitual, reflexive, and toxic stress response makes intuitive sense. This is a huge reason why practitioners like me put ourselves through the misery of daily meditation (which is the best way to build your mindfulness muscle); it doesn’t solve all of your problems, it just gives you a different relationship to them.
The study does raise an interesting question, though: Don’t we need to ruminate on negative thoughts if we want to be successful?
Absolutely. I’ve been meditating for five years and I still firmly believe in the value of stress and worry. However, we have a tendency to make the suffering inherent in being alive worse than it needs to be. What mindfulness does is help you draw the line between what I call “constructive anguish” and useless rumination. Maximize the former and minimize the latter and it’s likely to give you a real edge. You’ll be happier, less prone to making emotional decisions, and more popular with the people in your orbit.
Whether this study turns out to be legit is almost besides the point. The real issue is this: you should try meditating. Just five minutes a day is enough. Go for it.
There are times when it makes sense to dwell on a particular negative thought: If I’m dealing with a problem with a friend, I’m obviously not going to solve it without thinking it through, evaluating different options, and so on. But when it gets to the point that my mind clings to this problem obsessively even when I’m supposed to be doing or thinking about other stuff, not only is that a problem, but it’s one that, over time, can do actual physical damage to my body.
That, to the extent that I understand this stuff, is the point of mindfulness. Not that I can cease my “useless rumination” — not anytime soon, at least — but that I can put it in its place, that I can label it and train myself not to let it trigger a cycle of anxiety. They are just thoughts, after all; they don’t have any real power over us unless we let them. Harris and other fans of mindfulness meditation claim that once you practice enough and train yourself to view your thoughts in this light, it can greatly improve your ability to handle the ups and downs of daily life.
I wouldn’t know: I’ve been meaning to get more serious about meditation, but I can never seem to fully get in the habit. I’m not going to obsess about it, though.