Vol 9 #5
Caroline Giroux, MD, FRCPC
Associate Clinical Professor, Psychiatrist, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, UC Davis Health System, Sacramento, CA, USA
Mindfulness is defined by being present (the mind is aware), in the now, with total attention (full), curiosity, devoid of judgment (for instance, we observe an emotion without giving it a label, such as “good” or “bad”). In other words, it’s about appreciating the wholeness of each moment, especially being in touch with our whole being . It is intentional and not passive; it can and should be part of every action or non-active participation to life. It is therefore the antithesis of distraction as it helps the mind focusing on the fullness of the now. Being able to notice and observe one’s own distractibility is one step in the right direction: towards mindfulness. Meditation is a form of mindfulness, and through silence, it is a way to still the mind by observing its storms from a mental distance. It may be more ritualized, formal, prolonged, often equated with long periods of time sitting or lying down in a comfortable, relaxing position.
There is no question that the regular practice of mindfulness and meditation can reap various benefits ranging from mood regulation (less intense or frequent anxiety, depression or anger), improved sleep and enhanced cognition. This activity can boost resilience, is usually cost-free and highly portable (it can take place anywhere, anytime). Most people characterize such a practice as solitary. Even when meditation occurs in group settings, each person goes through the process in his or her own way. But is there actually a benefit of group meditation versus solo meditation? With the increased isolation we are forced into due to the pandemic, do we have an advantage in trying to join a zoom meditation group, being co-mindful, as opposed to engage in a private meditation?
For me personally, I always found that performing a certain task along with others increased my motivation (such as studying for an exam with roommates who were in my program). Going on a jog with my boyfriend was more tempting than going alone. It is also less dreadful and more exciting to cook for guests when you invite friends over than when you dine alone. Plus, there are known health and social benefits to eating together: healthier food, slower time eating (mindful eating), therefore less excess etc. Overall, the social aspect makes the ritual of nourishment more pleasurable, and during this communal experience the expression of gratitude (a mindfulness quality also) can take place.
We could hypothesize that the mirror-neurons would play a role. Through their activation while observing others engaging in an activity as if we were performing it ourselves, the benefits could be accentuated. When my children were young and very active toddlers, seeing them drifting slowly into their nap always generated a relaxing and calming effect on me, as if I were also falling asleep with them, even though I had to stay fully awake (to do other parental tasks I had no time to do when I was interacting with them). And once awake and running, their spiritedness and high energy led them to explore intensely, with a gradual depletion of energy on my end just from observing their fast-paced endeavors!
Mirror-neurons as a form of theory of attunement of the brains and behaviors is a useful framework when it comes to explain why sitting down and eating a meal is more relaxing and better for digestion when others sit down too, as opposed to watching certain people (like often is the case in my family) stand up and immediately wash the dishes. How anti-climactic! Here, being co-mindful is not only desired, but almost necessary to ensure that opposite interests (parasympathetic nervous system, or restorative function of our bodies on the one hand, and sympathetic nervous system, or active, goal-directed mode, on the other hand) are not competing against each other, hence interfering with a meditative experience.
The moment-to-moment awareness is also essential to harmonious conversations, and to be nourishing instead of depleting, both protagonists engaging in a discussion should have self-awareness, paying attention to what they say and what they hear (which means listening to hear rather than to reply). Otherwise, having one being mindful about the process is not sufficient to promote health if the other is oscillating between past (by feeling defensive, using past wounding circumstances to attribute a contaminated meaning to the words from the other) and future (by using projection, or by making premature generalizations, thinking a step or two ahead, looking for “the meaning behind the question” or the “hidden agenda”, extrapolating in an almost paranoid way the outcome of the conversation). Being co-mindful equals mutual trust, receptivity without judgment, and looking at and hearing the other person with fresh eyes and ears.
Regarding meditation in particular, it seems likely that not only knowing that someone else is also being mindful at the same time, but also sitting in a common virtual space, knowing that others have their eyes closed and follow a guided meditation could boost if not the effects, at least the ability to overcome barriers to access the vastness of mindful awareness. Doing this on more than one occasion allows for some significant cue (the presence of others) to procure a form of conditioning, or an element which, when associated with instructions towards meditating, can enhance the ability to shift the mental state to one of increased receptivity.
Another, more metaphysical dimension can also be taken into consideration. Tim Desmond wrote that Thich Nhat Hanh apparently warned his students trying to practice mindfulness without the support of a community:
“It’s like raindrop landing on the top of a mountain and hoping to make it all the way to the ocean by itself. There’s no way. However, if it can go as part of a river, reaching its destination becomes possible. If we can find people who share our aspirations, our collective energy becomes a river carrying us in the direction we want to go” .
The more I practice, the more I agree with that metaphor. Meditation (or mindfulness) is a little bit like studying, except that there is no exam. It is the study of the soul, which process is endless, and the benefits for our world will be the greatest when we can effectively meet in such a vast space, the continent of moment-to-moment awareness and compassion. For the time being, if no one can join you, visualize other people trying to meditate at the same time as you, such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, Tara Brach, Pema Chödrön, Thich Nhat Hanh, Deepak Chopra, Frédéric Lenoir, Christophe André. There is something quite powerful about imagining this communal, peaceful work.
- Kabat-Zinn J, Où Tu Vas, Tu Es (French version of: Wherever You Go, There you Are, Hyperion, New York, 1994). French translation: Editions Jean-Claude Lattès (J’ai Lu), 1996.
- Desmond T. How to Stay Human in a F*cked-Up World: Mindfulness Practices for Real Life. Harper One. 2019.