Many people wonder if those who practice mindfulness are walking around so detached from the world around them that they seem more like extras on “The Walking Dead” than enlightened, aware human beings.
Will you feel detached and numb if you practice mindfulness?
In other words, if you become aware of your thoughts and feelings without actually judging them, will you feel less? Buddhism teaches us detachment from worldly things, detachment from our feelings, thoughts and those of others. Many critics of Buddhism wonder whether this kind of detachment with our inner and outer worlds is something desirable. Do you want to walk through life with no feelings? I think it would be pretty boring. Would you want to just not care about things? If you are aware of your feelings but no longer identify with them, does that make you a dull, heartless person?
A new study sought to answer this question. The study examined whether mindfulness makes people feel less. They based their question on the definition of how they defined feeling, or being attached to your feelings. I’m here to give you the lowdown on this study. Here’s the deal:
What did they test? The researchers tested how many memories participants could conjure after performing a certain task.
There were two groups tested:
(1) Experienced mindfulness meditators, and
(2) People with no experience at all with mindfulness.
Both groups had to watch either a happy film, or a sad film. Those who watched the happy film were asked to come up with a sad memory of their lives immediately after the film stopped. Then they were to write a key word about the memory down on paper, and continue thinking of sad memories for 2 minutes and 40 seconds. Afterwards they were asked to describe those memories in a little bit more detail in order make sure the memories really were sad ones. Those participants who watched a sad film were asked to do the same; only they had to come up with happy memories.
Right about now you might be wondering what the point is.Why did they have to do this?
It’s quite simple: happy movies induce a happy state of mind, and sad movies induce a sad state of mind. If mindfulness is supposed to make you feel less, then the mindful group should not be able to come up with the opposite state of mind (or opposite feeling or memory) very quickly. Just think about it: Let’s say you’re sitting on the couch, bawling your eyes out after the first credits start to roll after Schindler’s List ends. Let’s say you sitting there on the couch, listening to the sad music, still upset about the whole thing, and someone peeks their head into your living room and says, “Quick! What’s your happiest childhood memory?” Would you be able to stop crying and immediately blurt out a happy memory? What if that same person asked you to recall a sad memory? Chances are you’d be a bit quicker to recall a sad memory. Got it?In a nutshell, this experiment was designed to see if the mindfulness experts were quicker or slower than the non-mindful people, in switching feelings or states of mind. If you’re mindful, can you switch quickly from being happy to sad? And if so, what does that make you? Does that make you a sociopath? Unstable? The results are pretty cool, so keep reading!
How did they test it? First I want to briefly explain how the researchers tested their hypothesis.
The test measured two things:
(1) How fast the participant was able to come up with a happy or sad memory right after watching the film,
(2) The number of memories the participant was able to conjure within 2 minutes and 40 seconds after watching the film.
So, what in the world does this mean? First, recall is the time the person needs to switch their state of mind. In other words, if the person watched the sad film (and is, thus, kind of sad), how fast was he or she able to brush off the sad feeling, and think of something happy?
How fast are you able to disengage with how you feel right this minute?
Second, how many happy memories can the person conjure after watching a sad film? This measures how fast the person is able to completely recover from the previous feeling.
In other words, how fast can you get yourself out of the mood you’re in?
What were the results? The study participants watched the films, came up with memories of their lives that involved the opposite feeling induced by the film. Now what? The researchers wanted to find out whether people who practiced mindfulness were: a) able to quickly disconnect with the happy (or sad) feeling the film had induced in them, and b) whether they were able to completely recover quickly from the induced feeling.
Here’s the big question: If they are able to disengage from the feeling, does that mean they feel less?
The results are interesting. The people who were mindful took twice as long as the other group to generate the opposite mood memory, but they were not slower to continue with the memories, and actually caught up to the others quickly.What’s interesting here, is that the mindfulness meditators actually took longer to disengage from the happy or sad feeling the film induced, which indicates that they are not emotionally blunted—feeling less—but rather they felt more strongly, and thus took longer to get out of it.
Now you’re confused, right?
So does this mean they are more attached to feelings? No! In fact, the mindfulness meditators were able to catch up, or recover faster than the non-meditators, which suggests the following:
Mindful people feel more deeply, but can recover faster than non-meditators.
Mindfulness meditators may at first allow themselves to come into contact with these feelings with no attempt to down-regulate them. In other words, they might allow these feelings to happen without judging them or trying to react to them, which really means they have enhanced emotional awareness. But, the emotional response they experience quickly dissolves, which means they don’t hang on to the emotions from the experience. After the sad film is over, there’s no “need” anymore to feel sad. Mindful people let it dissipate after there’s no use for it anymore.
Plain talk! Mindfulness practitioners seem to feel things faster, and are way more aware of their feelings, because they don’t try to deny them or control them. They allow their feelings to happen, because they know they can let them go again when the moment has passed. In other words, mindfulness practitioners live in the present moment. They can feel the appropriate feeling at the right time.
No displaced feelings here, folks.
For example, anxiety is fear resulting in something that has already happened, or in anticipation of something that might happen. Fear itself, is a protective emotion. Real fear will protect you from a snake you see at that present moment. Real fear will protect you from a stranger following you at night. Anxiety is useless. Mindful people can let go of feelings that no longer serve them right.
Mindfulness helps us really feel what we feel in the present moment, and allows us to move on from that emotion without stress or struggle. Mindfulness allows you to truly live each present moment. There is an old saying that claims, “depression is caused by living in the past; anxiety is caused by living in the future.” Mindfulness keeps you engaged with life in the present. Mindfulness doesn’t make you a numb zombie. It makes you feel truly alive!
Greenberg, J., & Meiran, N. (2014). Is Mindfulness Meditation Associated with “Feeling Less?” Mindfulness, 5, 471-476.