Mindfulness, A Short Series: Concentration & Insight

Author: Bennett Nott

Mindfulness, A Short Series: Concentration and Insight

Mindfulness is the practice of observing the activity of your mind nonjudgmentally.  This includes thoughts, feelings, sensory perceptions (sights, sounds, smells, touch) and the bodily sensations you experience in the moment.

Two wings of this practice are concentration and insight.  Concentration practice is familiar through its focus on a single point, a phrase, saying or mantra, a visual object, or the breath.  Insight practice is the focus on a salient thought, feeling or sensation with the intention of deepening your understanding of the phenomenon.  Recognizing the thought or feeling, accepting it and investigating it. 

A key feature of the practice is its orientation in the present.  Another key is the emphasis on its nonjudgmental nature.  Awareness of the chosen mental object is in the present and the removal of judgements loosens our attachment to any particular thought, feeling or sensation.

Concentration practice strengthens that region of the brain which directs our attention and increases the capacity to hold our focus of attention on a particular object.  Insight practice strengthens our capacity to tolerate even uncomfortable content and create the mental time and space for us to more thoroughly understand the nature of the content we are attending to.

Together concentration and insight are qualities that strengthen our ability to make rational fully considered choices in our daily life.  Over time the practice of mindfulness makes it easier to align our thoughts, speech and actions with what we value. 

Starting with an intentional daily practice one begins to reshape how they think, feel and act over time.  The practices of concentration and insight strengthen and put us in charge of how we think speak and act. 

Next: Establishing a Concentration Practice.

Mindfulness, A Short Series: Establishing a Concentration Practice

Establishing a concentration practice requires four simple ingredients.  First, a quiet place.  A place that is free of distractions and out of the way enough to ensure no interruptions.  Free of traffic, phones or other sources of distraction.  This should be a place you feel safe in and provide you with a sense of peace and quiet.

Second and of great importance is nonjudgmental attitude.  There is no finish line in concentration practice.  You are not trying to win a race and there is nothing wrong with you if your mind keeps wandering when you’re trying to focus on one point.  In fact, when your mind wanders off it presents you with the opportunity to redirect your attention to the one point.  Similar to repetitions an any exercise regimen. 

Third, a mental object, the single object which becomes the anchor for your attention.  The object to which you return your attention to each time you notice it has wandered off to any other thoughts, feelings, sensations or perceptions.  Your mental object might be a word or phrase, a visual object like a candle or it may be the flow of your own breath.  The breath is a powerful anchor for staying in the present.  If you choose a word or phrase to repeat mentally to yourself it should have some meaning of significance for you that connotes safety or compassion.

Finally, correct posture.  A posture that promotes alertness and relaxation.  Sitting either on a cushion or in a chair with the spine aligned straight up and down.  This can be done by pushing the lower spine forward which causes the upper spine to draw back.  This facilitates the expansion of the lung field and enables the muscles of the upper back, shoulders and neck to relax.  Breath can be through the nose or mouth.  Breaths should be even cadence with the outbreath extending slightly longer than the in breath.

Next: Some Thoughts about Breathing   

Mindfulness, A Short Series: Introduction

Beginning in the 1980’s research into the efficacy of mindfulness practices as beneficial to health and as a formal treatment practice for a variety of clinical conditions began with studies done through UMass Amherst and at the Mass General Hospital in Boston.  In the course of these studies Jon Kabat-Zinn MD was able to document several positive outcomes through teaching patients a basic concentration practice augmenting their traditional medical care.

Kabat-Zinn realized that this practice promoted a relaxation response counter to the stress response and producing several positive outcomes.  Among these were a lowering of BP and heart rate.  Also lowering of blood cortisol, adrenalin and glucose levels, all markers of stress when elevated.  He discovered the practice had beneficial effects in treating chronic pain, improving cardiac function and in treating depressive symptoms. 

These results have been replicated repeatedly over the years and with the increases in knowledge of the nervous system and in medical technology have been even more convincingly and specifically demonstrated.

Mindfulness meditation practice provides a virtually cost-free source of health and wellness benefits but the keyword is practice.  It is best undertaken with clear intention and as a daily practice.  As Kabat-Zinn notes even five minutes of practice is better than no minutes.

 Some Sources:

Books by Jon Kabat-Zinn MD: Full Catastrophe Living (1990), Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994), Mindfulness for Beginners (2006), The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness (2007)

Next: Concentration and Insight  

Mindfulness: A Short Series: Some Thoughts About Breathing

Breathing is elemental. Everything else in our life is subsequent to our taking in and expelling of oxygen.  From the moment we’re born to our last breath, life and consciousness are built on this process. Yet breathing is something we are normally barely conscious of until we can’t breathe.

When we are born, we breathe correctly, that is into our belly.  Drawing our breath all the way in down to the point our belly protrudes.  This is diaphragmatic breathing using the expanded lung field creating more efficient gas exchange in the lungs.  As we age our exposure to stressors and demands shortens the breath. 

It seems natural that awareness of breath can be a powerful anchor for our attention if we want to cultivate our ability to attend to our interior experience.  In concentration practice the breath, or breath counting for example, provides the one point to which you can reliably return each time your attention wanders to something else.  

The breath becomes the reliable marker for attending to your state of relaxation or activation as the in breath is a sympathetic nerve trunk response while the out breath is a parasympathetic response.  The sympathetic (activating) inbreath energizes the body, the parasympathetic (relaxing) outbreath allows a rest.  With practice it becomes easier to notice the state of relaxation in the body as well as in the mind.        

Another intuitive benefit from attending to the breath is that breathing is always in the present making it a respite from the frequently noisy thoughts we have about the past or the future, the “what if” and the “if only” thoughts and their accompanying feelings of anxiety and regret. 

Taking the time to build a solid concentration practice makes examining thoughts and feelings at a later time more tolerable and fruitful.