Count Your Breaths – the rise of mindfulness

5 min read

“The fact is that 15 years ago attitudes towards practices like meditation and ideas of mindfulness were still right out on the fringe,” admits Dr. Michael Gervais, a psychologist and co-founder of Compete to Create, a digital platform business that teaches what he calls mind-set training – learning to better control the mind, with a view to better performance.

“It’s only within the last six months to a year that the use of these techniques by high performers has almost come to be expected,” he adds. “We’ve gone from a place in which it was considered something a guru would teach you – something essentially spiritual in nature – to a place in which there’s been this hockey stick upwards curve in scientific study. That’s given us a wider view now. And, of course, the link between mental and physical performance is now accepted.”

But while meditation is a fashionable activity – the new yoga, if you like – for most people it remains poorly understood and is widely still considered esoteric. “Meditation still comes with baggage, says Gervais. “But that’s changing dramatically”.


Certainly there remains widespread misunderstanding of the subject. Some think the practice is new – actually it is mentioned in Hindu texts dating back to 3,000BC, long before Buddha found enlightenment through meditation in 588BC. Others that it is an Eastern Art, though western traditions of Judaism and Christianity both have incorporated meditation. Others that it is strictly religious. It’s not.

An understanding of what it is at a practical level helps. Mindfulness is not, as many think, learning to clear the mind of all thought – a practical impossibility. Nor, though, it is a power nap. Rather, at its most basic, it is sitting still, stable and alert – with spine and head upright, hands in lap, eyes closed or lowered – breathing steadily in and out of the nose and focusing your attention on one of the many sensations that regular breathing causes in the body.

Yes, a tsunami of other thoughts – from the TV programme you watched last night, to what’s for dinner this evening to that report that needs finishing to the birthday card you forgot or the argument you had – will come crashing in unbidden to disturb this focus, because that is what brains do: generate thought. The trick is to let each thought arise as it will and each time – indeed, time and time again – gently push it aside and return the focus to the sensations of the breath: and, in later in the session, to simply monitor those thoughts, passing like clouds, rather than zero in on them. Just 15 minutes a day can be beneficial: after all, as practitioners say, the opposite of a wandering mind is a mindful one, and a mind in the present.

“Like all things that are invisible, mindfulness is hard to grasp,” concedes Gervais, who has trained the Seattle Seahawks, as well CEOs and corporations from Microsoft to Boeing, artists, musicians and Olympians. “Our brains work in pictures, and we take comfort in the things we can see and touch, and conversely find those we can’t harder to comprehend. But then we can’t see oxygen or gravity either, and we need those.”


“The new currency is attention – everybody wants ours,” he adds. “But if we don’t work on retaining our attention, then we fall prey to the parts of our brain just dedicated to our survival, that’s always busy just looking for danger, for stress points. If we have our attention, we have calm and control and awareness.”

That’s why the infamous San Quentin prison started running meditation courses for its inmates – which has been tracked against decreased recidivism; while West Point, the elite US military academy, has taught recruits the techniques too, an idea that is spreading in the training for combat readiness of soldiers in many forces; why it’s being taught to the upper echelons of business – from General Motors to Deutsche Bank, McKinsey, Rio Tinto and Ford – but also in schools, notably those across South America.

Sitting down and breathing deeply might well calm anyone down. But does, specifically, the practice of mindfulness, meditation or focused breathing – call it what you will – actually work? The research suggests most definitely yes. The earliest studies, conducted during the late 60s in the US, found that meditators’ heart rates lowered by three beats a minute, that they used some 17% less oxygen and their brains produced more theta waves. These are produced during deep relaxation, typically shortly before falling asleep, and deactivate the sensory processing part of the brain. They are also produced during the most intense times of lucid creativity.

Later MRI scan-based studies have shown that meditation shifts activity in the pre-frontal cortex – the brain’s most developed part, responsible for reasoning and self-awareness – from the right to the left hemispheres. Why is this relevant? People who are left-hemisphere oriented have been found to be typically more positive and emotionally-balanced than those who are right-sided. Increased attention span and improved memory may also be benefits of meditation, according to a 2006 Massachusetts General Hospital study.

Further studies have also suggested that mindfulness may not only reduce psychological stress – alleviating depression, anxiety, loneliness, panic disorders – but can improve physical health too, as in, for example, the management of chronic pain or in the relieving of symptoms that stress can exacerbate, the likes of dermatitis and irritable bowel syndrome. Other studies have even linked mindfulness with longevity: a 2012 University of California study found that people with a greater propensity to mind wandering have shorter caps, called telomeres, at the end of their chromosomes compared with those more anchored in the present; shorter telomeres are associated with a shorter lifespan for an organism.

“We know attention is compromised by stress and training that made us more resistant to that would clearly be useful – we found that, among the many practices out there now, only mindfulness protected one’s attention,” says Amishi Jha, University of Miami associate professor and director of the Contemplative Neuroscience for the Mindfulness Research and Practice.


She says that at the moment we’re scratching the surface of mindfulness. And that the coming decades may bring an understanding of how to train the human mind akin to recent decades’ understanding of how to train the body – through targeted exercises and advanced nutrition. The medium to long-term consequences could be revolutionary – in terms of public health, in terms perhaps of national, even global well-being.

“Given that people’s minds wander 50 percent of the time, integrating mindfulness into our lives could have a huge impact – on decision-making, on general happiness,” says Jha. “We do need to think of it in the same way we think about physical training. People spend hours in gyms. It’s dominant in our culture. But then there’s a 40 year lead in scientific evidence that physical exercise is good for you. When we catch up with our understanding of how mindfulness is good for you too, that situation will change.”

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