Mindfulness Training Has Positive Health Benefits

Interdisciplinary research shows how powerful the mind really is

Mindfulness Training
Mindfulness training reforms the structure of the brain.

A Buddhist health study conducted at Northern Arizona University (NAU) by a team of interdisciplinary researchers has revealed surprising information about the benefits of mindfulness training on individuals’ physical and mental well-being. Authors of this study were Drs. Heidi Wayment (Psychology), Bill Wiist (Health Sciences), Bruce M. Sullivan (Religious Studies), and Meghan Warren (Health Sciences). 

Wayment and her colleagues were inspired to conduct this study to more closely examine the thoughts and feelings of Buddhist practitioners and how they may relate to their health and health practices. The web-based study (Bill Wiist, Principal Investigator), which surveyed 866 Buddhist practitioners from all over the world, examined the extent to which people are able to have a “positive impact on their health, both physical and psychological, by what they do,” explains Sullivan. “One of the surprising findings of this study and what some others are coming up with is how much of a difference it makes to focus your mind and calm down. It actually makes a large difference in your well-being.”

Five key benefits of mindfulness training

 According to “Doing and Being: Mindfulness, Health, and Quiet Ego Characteristics among Buddhist Practitioners,” the 2011 research article that published the survey results in the Journal of Happiness Studies (12(4): 575-589), there were five key ways that mindfulness training increased physical and mental health:  

 

  1. It strengthened immune system and physiological responses to stress and negative emotions.
  2. It improved social relationships with family and strangers.
  3. It reduced stress, depression, and anxiety and increased well-being and happiness.
  4. It increased openness to experience, conscientiousness, and agreeableness and reduced negative associations with neuroticism.
  5. It led to greater psychological mindfulness, which included an awareness that is clear, nonconceptual, and flexible; a practical stance toward reality; and present attention to the individual’s consciousness and awareness.

"One of the surprising findings of this study and what some others are coming up with is how much of a difference it makes to focus your mind and calm down. It actually makes a large difference in your well-being.”

Meditative mindfulness practices have been shown to positively alter the structure and neural patterns in the brain and strengthen the brain regions associated with heightened sensory processing and empathetic response (ibid,, 576) Therefore, individuals who regularly practices mindfulness training are quite literally reforming the structure of their brains to achieve desired outcomes. “We are finding more and more that the human brain is quite adaptable, as we have learnt that the brain reroutes information through new neuropathways, so in addition to the mind being adaptable, the brain too has this quality,” Sullivan explains. Individuals who said they meditated even once a day reported greater psychological mindfulness. 

Buddhism and other contemplative traditions throughout the world emphasize the development of mindfulness as a main component of traditional practices. The concept of mindfulness has received a great deal of research due to its anecdotal associations with psychological and physical health benefits. Typically, two forms of mindfulness have been studied: trait psychological mindfulness and mindfulness-based meditative practices, and both of these forms were the focus of the NAU study.

Nalina Bamboo
What we practice, we become.

The difference between psychological mindfulness and meditative practices

Psychological mindfulness is a trait-like quality in which the individual maintains an open, accepting, present focus or attention during day-to-day life whereas mindfulness-based meditative practices include a type of mindfulness-based meditation that includes focusing on something specific, such as the individual’s breath or an object to bring awareness and concentration to the present moment (ibid., 567). Living in modern society often leaves people feeling stressed, irritable, and exhausted. The findings from The Buddhist Health Study reveal that people are capable of transforming their everyday lives into empowering realities with a greater sense of physical and psychological well-being. “The Buddhist ideals are that whatever you practice, that is what you are becoming, so if you practice being angry and shouting and so forth, you become very accomplished in doing that,” states Sullivan. “On the other hand, if you practice loving kindness, compassion and so forth, you are making yourself into that type of person.”  Thus achieving better physical well-being or psychological health comes from sharpening the mind to focus and be more successfully aware.

Wayment has included mindfulness in her conceptualization of what she calls a “quiet ego” and sees it as fundamental to a less defensive stance toward the self and others.  In subsequent and future research, Wayment is studying the impact of mindfulness and other “quiet ego” characteristics on people’s well-being, their relationships, and their health.

 As this study demonstrates, the conscious ability to transform an individual’s mind is perhaps the greatest ability humans have at hand to shape the direction of their lives and positively affect the lives of others around them. 

--Kelly Zarcone