The Benefits of Mindfulness Practice

In a previous article we introduced you to what mindfulness is (and is not), and showcased a range of therapeutic interventions that are based on mindfulness training and principles. In this article, we explore the clinical benefits of mindfulness-based approaches.

Mindfulness interventions have been shown to be beneficial for a wide range of psychological and physical conditions such as anxiety, depression, chronic pain, personality disorders, and addictions. Controlled trials of normal populations have also demonstrated positive changes in brain function and immune response, self-awareness, perceived stress, and increase in self-compassion (Shapiro, Astin, Bishop, & Cordova, 2005; Beddoe & Murphy, 2004), and there is more.

Some of the benefits are not directly obvious, but they lead to recognisable clusters of improvement. We look at the evidence and what the experts say.

Developing the Observer Self, or Witness, aids growth and awareness

If all of a person’s consciousness is tied up with experiencing, say, pain, sadness, or anger, it is as if that person is living in a small trailer home: existence is cramped and uncomfortable; there is much suffering. But if that same person is able to disidentify, or do what mindfulness advocates call “decentering” (Segal, Williams & Teasdale, 2002), s/he can gain a much wider perspective: akin to moving to from the trailer to a mansion.

This process happens when people are able, though mindfulness and other practices, to develop what is called the Witness, or Observer Self. It is, metaphorically, as if someone has gone from swimming in a turbulent stream – tossed around by all of its currents and eddies – to a position on the banks of the stream, where all of the relentless activity of the stream can be watched, and thus not experienced as intensely. As we gain in the capacity to observe ourselves, we accrue some of the benefits of mindfulness.

Focus and concentration improve: This seems paradoxical, because in mindfulness practice, there is no intention to focus or concentrate on a single thought. Yet practitioners find that, by allowing all thoughts to come and go but choosing which ones they engage with, they have still practiced the art of directing awareness. Improved focus and concentration are the result.

Self-awareness increases: When someone has, for instance, a “Worrying Self” (referred to more generally as the Thinking Self) and also an Observer Self, the Worrying Self may be caught up in the worries. But the Observer Self is able to say, “I’m having worrying thoughts” or “I see that I am thinking worrying thoughts.”

In that moment of shifting one’s centre of consciousness from the Worrying Self to the Observer Self, a person has gained self-awareness. S/he comes to understand that he or she worries, but is more than the worrier; there is a distinction between the person and his/her thoughts. Moreover, the person becomes aware of how and when the worrying occurs, and what the contents of worrying are.

In some situations, separating from one’s thoughts allows the person to become aware of what s/he has been avoiding. By tuning into the body that is responding to the mind that is worrying, a person becomes more aware of the body, and the environment in which it functions. Moreover, by experiencing the relative calm of the Observer, a person is able to know a more inclusive, expanded sense of him/herself beyond body, feelings, and mind (Harris, 2008; Walsh, 2006).

The head clears, and one is fully present: Reducing worrying (or whatever preoccupation one is engaging in) as an uncontrolled endeavour and standing (metaphorically) to the side of the gushing waters of thought allows a clear head: a cleared space, psychologically speaking, that is not consumed with, say, worry.

One can be fully present in the here and now, more connected to self, others, and the external world. A by-product of this experience is that of having more direct contact with the world, rather than living through one’s thoughts (Harris, 2008).

The impact of stressful thoughts and feelings is reduced

As we alluded to above, the mindful standing beside the stream (of consciousness) watching its waters gush down the riverbed is not as intense or stressful an experience as being washed downstream with it. Self-defeating thought processes are “caught” earlier in the game (further upstream in our metaphor), so the mindful person can let them go, as we noted in referring to the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) developed by Teasdale et al (1995).

When stressful thoughts and feelings are reduced, so, too, are overall stress levels, with all the attendant improvements in health (see below). In some cases, a person’s thoughts may be so stressful that he or she cannot even experience them safely until doing so in the context of mindfulness practices (Harris, 2008).

In a controlled randomised experiment conducted with health professionals in Palo Alto, California, the experimental group underwent eight two-hour sessions of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training. The control group experienced no intervention. Results showed a significant difference in perceived stress after the training compared with pre- and post-perceived stress scores for the control group (Shapiro, Astin, Bishop, & Cordova, 2005).

Performance and coping skills are enhanced through improved mental function

The health professionals of the Palo Alto study also reported much greater decrease of job burnout than their control group cohorts: 10 percent vs. 4 percent (Shapiro et al, 2005). Other experts insist that mindfulness improves people’s memory, helps them to learn more easily (perhaps through increased capacity for focus and concentration?), and enhances problem-solving ability (, 2013). Moreover, better life decisions – those emanating from attunement with one’s life purpose, discerned through stillness – are claimed to be a gift of mindfulness meditation (Meditation Society of Australia, 2013).

A study of nursing students doing an eight-week MBSR course showed improved coping skills in those who completed the program. The students’ decrease in anxiety was significant, and there were favourable downward trends in their attitude toward work, perception of time pressure, and total stress levels (Beddoe & Murphy, 2004).

Long-term psychodynamic therapy patients with diagnoses ranging from anxiety and obsessive neuroses to narcissistic and borderline personality disorders were studied by Kutz et al (1985). They completed a 10-week MBSR program while continuing with their individual psychotherapy and showed statistically significant improvements in a variety of self- and therapist-rated symptoms.

Creativity, life appreciation, and happiness accelerate

Creativity is liberated: It is useful in life to be able to react to some situations with an “automatic pilot” function. If we had to figure out from scratch how to respond to every stimulus, we would have little energy or time for anything else. Thus, we generally get dressed, catch the train to work, and wash dishes with little conscious thought. The challenge for exercising our creativity comes when we want to break out of the rut and think more originally about a situation or issue.

Mindfulness practice can help to ease the automatic pilot’s grip on the mind, and in a relaxed, aware state, we are more open to possibilities arising from lateral and divergent thinking. We are more able to set aside our assumptions about how the world is and go receptive to novel insights emerging. Our unconscious mind is then freed to process information differently, and resultant – often original and effective – solutions arrive via what the Christians call “grace” and the Buddhists call “spontaneously arising wisdom” (Walsh, 2006).

Some have noted that “the essence of real creativity is the same revelatory experience encountered in meditation” (Meditation Society of Australia, 2013). The advantages of mindful stillness are seen in enhanced capacity to access that repository of infinite creativity within.

Life becomes fulfilling, vibrant: Not only do moments of insight and creative perception astonish and delight us, but when we are starting from a higher baseline level of mindfulness, we find that life in general becomes more fulfilling. Experiences that are intrinsically pleasant, such as eating, having sex, and listening to music, become even more so when we are fully “in the moment”, and ordinary experiences (such as the above-mentioned going to work or washing dishes) become infused with vibrancy and interest. And boredom? It becomes a thing of the past.

Happiness capacity goes up: Understandably, experiencing moments of grace, wisdom, and creativity and perceiving all of life more positively make for a substantially improved “happiness quotient”. Mindfulness practitioners are led back to the claim – arising in all of the world’s major religions – that “The kingdom of heaven is within” (Jesus Christ, in Meditation Society of Australia, 2013). That is, lasting happiness is an experience which flows from within, and exists independently of our external circumstances. As our mindfulness evolves, we become increasingly happier.

Relationships improve: Totally apart from the obvious advantages to relationships of participants in them being relaxed and aware, mindfulness imparts several benefits which begin as intrapersonal enhancements, but are claimed by many mindfulness advocates to extend to interpersonal relationships.

Self-compassion is shown to increase: The MBSR-trained health professionals discussed above were significantly higher than their control group counterparts on measures of self-compassion. The researchers also found that the MBSR-trained professionals reported greater satisfaction with life than the control group (Shapiro et al, 2005).

Such findings would not surprise Harris, a proponent of mindfulness and also Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, who claims that mindfulness facilitates better relationships (Harris, 2008). Other mental health experts claim that mindfulness practice results in decreased anxiety and depression, less moodiness and anger, and greater emotional stability (, 2013). Additionally, mindfulness appears to thicken the areas of the brain in charge of decision-making, emotional flexibility and empathy (UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center [MARC], n.d.). All of the above must surely also benefit others in relationship with mindfulness practitioners.

Mindfulness decreases emotional contagion: Research over the last several decades has identified what most people recognise intuitively on an unconscious level: there is a tendency for human beings (and also non-human mammals) to subtly synchronise their facial expressions, voices, and postures with others in their immediate environment (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1993). This is undeniably pleasant when positive emotions are being shared, but it is called emotional contagion because it also can mean that we feed off each other’s fear, anger, shame, and low moods.

A neurological process has been identified that supports this notion of mutual imitation. Mammals (including human beings) have a system of “mirror neurons” which fire both when we perform a particular action and also when we perceive someone else perform that same action (Rizzolatti, Fogassi, & Gallese, 2001).

Mindfulness allows people to stay present to the other person without firing the neurons that bind up their emotional responses to that of the other. Having thus greater immunity from the “contagion”, mindfulness practitioners are freed to respond in a wiser, less reactive manner. Just staying present to a situation and to our own breath without getting drawn into the other person’s dramas can mean that, instead of unskilful (habitual) response, we can interrupt escalation of destructive emotions, creating a positive outcome for all concerned (Walsh, 2006).

The nursing students study also found that the MBSR-trained group had decreased tendencies to take on others’ negative emotions (Beddoe & Murphy, 2004).

Physical functioning is enhanced

General health: On a physical level, mindfulness is said to slow down a person’s nervous system, inducing – through the relaxation — the alpha brainwaves that give the body greater opportunity to heal (, 2013; Walsh, 2006). Some research has suggested that mindfulness also lowers blood pressure, improves circulation, and assists those with conditions such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) (MARC, n.d.).

The metabolism of a practitioner becomes more efficient, and such a person becomes more responsive to his or her body through being more in contact with it. The capacity for heightened attentiveness that is part and parcel of mindfulness also greatly increases such phenomena as the “runner’s high”, making exercise even more appealing to engage.

With so many benefits for the physical body, it is not surprising that studies have also found improved functioning of the immune system in regular practitioners. Those engaging mindfulness for just eight weeks showed an increased response of antibodies to flu vaccination (Davidson & Kabat-Zinn, 2003). The same study also showed mindfulness practitioners to have increased blood flow to the left frontal cortex of the brain, an area associated with increased optimism and a sense of wellbeing; this was similar to the increased satisfaction with life noted by subjects in the Shapiro, et al, study (2005) above.

In studies with other medical disorders, patients with fibromyalgia who underwent MBSR training reported improvement in a variety of symptoms, and a study of psoriasis patients showed that patients listening to mindfulness audiotapes during light-therapy sessions were able to clear up their skin more quickly than a control group (65 versus 97 days) (Baer, 2003).

Those engaging mindfulness are said to be able to breathe better. They also gain an improved quality of sleep, because when the mind is calm, a person can fall asleep more easily and sleep more soundly (Meditation Society of Australia, 2013).

Reduced suffering (physical pain): Most people deal with major pain from illness or injury at some stage in their lives, and some people deal with it chronically. Where painkillers and the medical team can do no more, mindfulness can step into the breach. It has been clinically demonstrated that, in a very high state of concentration, a person’s pain, even very acute pain, can be transformed into a sort of moving energy, which tends to greatly diminish the suffering in the moment.

Mindfulness practitioners have noted that, upon experiencing pain in such a way, they were able to empower themselves and even feel nurtured by the pain. Thus mindfulness skills provide not only pain management, but also a sense of the meaningfulness of pain as it contributes to personal growth (Walsh, 2006).

Four studies examined the effects of MBSR on patients with chronic pain. In general, findings showed statistically significant improvements in ratings of pain, other medical symptoms, and general psychological symptoms; many of the findings were maintained at follow-up evaluations (Baer, 2003).

Reduced suffering (emotional pain, compulsions and addictions): Mindfulness skills can also be used to deal with emotional pain. By accurately discerning the mental images, words, and bodily sensations that constellate a dense emotion such as anger, jealousy, fear, or shame, a mindful person can deconstruct it, disidentifying from it while still allowing it to flow without suppression.

Similarly, compulsive behaviours and addictions can be overcome by “staying with” unwholesome urges until they weaken and pass. Moreover, many mindfulness proponents can attest to the natural “high” they get from practicing mindfulness skills: a worthy replacement, they claim, for the unhealthy high of alcohol and substance addiction.

Looking at specific psychological disorders, we can note that patients with anxiety and depression disorders found significant improvements in measures of anxiety and depression. In another study, female patients with binge-eating disorders showed statistically significant improvements in several measures of eating and mood after training in MBSR (Kristeller & Hallett, 1999). The effects of MBCT on rates of depressive relapse were similarly positive.

Teasdale, Williams, Soulsby, Segal, Ridgeway, & Lau (2000) found that, among participants who had discontinued their medications before undergoing the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, the rate of relapse into a depressive episode was only 37% for MBCT patients (with three or more prior depressive episodes) as opposed to 66% of the control group during a one-year follow-up period.

This article was adapted from the upcoming “Mindfulness in Therapeutic Practice” Mental Health Academy CPD course. The purpose of this course is to acquaint you with mindfulness as it is conceptualised and practiced in Western contexts, and to identify the chief therapeutic uses that it has so far been put to. For more information, visit


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