I recently stayed at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery at Great Gaddesden in Hertfordshire, enjoying not only the quiet, reflective atmosphere of this sanctuary of calm in the Chiltern Hills but also many interesting conversations with fellow guests and staff. One of the things that came up was the unease that many Buddhists feel about the spread of mindfulness training in recent years from contemplative and clinical settings into business and finance, and even the military. Mindfulness training is now being used not just to help people cope with the stresses, anxieties and pains of everyday life – and perhaps to become a little more enlightened – but to gain a competitive edge in the marketplace and on the battlefield.
Journalists adore research that allows them to write stories along the lines of “scientists have tracked down the brain’s love HQ” or “researchers have located the brain’s god spot”. It is very satisfying to imagine that we can divide the brain into neat components with distinct functions like the parts of a car engine. We dream that one day, neuroscientists will be able to lift the bonnet (or the hood if it’s an American brain), point and say “here’s the valve that causes schizophrenia – we can readjust that with this chemical spanner. Here’s the tank that causes OCD when it overflows – we can drain that by turning this tap here. Over there are the spark plugs that we clean up to cure depression …”
Unfortunately the brain is a lot messier and more wonderful than your average motor engine, which is why we’re still standing over it scratching our heads trying to figure out how on earth it all works. It’s a tangle of connections, with myriad networks of components involved in creating thoughts, consciousness, sensations and emotions.
So it is with a mixture of excitement and wariness that I approach a study by researchers at Beijing Normal University in China that seems to point to a particular part of the brain that switches mindfulness on and off. It’s called the thalamus (shown in red on the animated gif), a pair of bulbous structures that sit at the top of the brainstem (yellow) on the midline of the brain. The thalamus plays a pivotal role as the brain’s switchboard, relaying information from all the senses apart from smell to the cerebral cortex, which is the thinking, conscious part of the brain. Continue reading “Is this the brain’s mindfulness switch?”→
Mindfulness training courses and books will usually recommend everyday activities such as taking a shower or doing the washing-up as opportunities to exercise your powers of concentration. The idea is that by focusing on these simple, routine tasks – paying attention to what your body is doing and what your senses are telling you – you can calm the wayward thoughts that for the rest of the day chase each other through the corridors of your mind like overexcited children.
Humdrum activities that don’t require much brainpower, such as washing the dishes and showering, are perfectly good ways to practise your mind-taming skills, but their very ordinariness can make them a challenge. It’s a struggle to stay focused.
I know, that’s the idea – to be mindful even of the mundane – but for a novice like me, how much easier it would be to apply mindfulness to an everyday task that involves a more stimulating visual scene, loud noises, physical exertion and the ever present threat of injury? Continue reading “Mindful cycling: staying alert, staying alive”→