An Introduction to Vipassana Meditation (1995)by Ralph Steele

I would like to demonstrate how the process of mindfulness can be effective in cognitive development as we move through the adult developmental cycle.

Eastern psychology is becoming more recognized by western psychology. Its concepts go back 2,500 years, originating with a person called Gautama Siddhartha, (563 – 483 B.C.), commonly referred to as the Buddha. This title means the enlightened one, or one who has totally realized human nature, one who is fully awake (Walsh, 1987). The theory supporting the practice of mindfulness originated eastern psychology.

What is “mindfulness”? Mindfulness essentially means seeing and experiencing each moment as it is, and seeing things for what they are. Mindfulness is a tool to manage the doldrums, and a tool that can help us to work with life’s structure (Hudson, 1991).

Cultivating the practice of mindfulness is a step in the direction toward understanding the process of meditation. Meditative practice is the foundation of mindfulness, (Kutz,Borysenko, Benson, 1985).

What is meditation? Meditation is an intentional regulation of attention from moment to moment. Meditation provides the technology for a person to become mindful of their philosophical views which produce negative and positive mental constructs,(Kutz, Borysenko, Benson, 1985). The practice of meditation leads eventually to a compassionate opening of the heart. The practitioner begins to focus more on directing her/his actions toward the common good rather than on satisfying selfish needs. One’s life can become a meditation. There is no limit to the development of compassion. When one realizes that the present moment is all there is every breath becomes very precious. When our lives become chaotic and unmanageable, a simple technique to follow is to accept circumstances as they are and to work at just seeing, feeling, listening, smelling and experiencing.

When one is grasping with attachment, intentionally or unintentionally, we create suffering and pain for ourselves and our environment. Mindfulness meditation can be the means by which one unlearns the tendency to grasp and begins to move toward alleviating suffering. When one lets go of attachment a feeling of spaciousness arises.

The mind, when not mindful, is so entertainingly, cleverly, sophisticatedly deceptive. Meditation is the path of simplicity, unfolding, adjustment and coming face to face with mind compassionately and in a disciplined manner.

Softness of the mind/body is important when one begins a sitting meditation practice. It is most important to be comfortable and allow thoughts and feelings to slow down. There is nothing to attain or achieve, a rather difficult concept for the western mind to understand. One lets go of any solemnity and even of the idea that one is meditating. One lets the body remain as it is and breath as one finds it naturally. As for the mind, the point is not to suppress thoughts or trail them, but just let them be, without being seduced or distracted by them. One does not try to manipulate the thought process. If one doesn’t add fuel, thoughts will just play themselves out. Gradually the body and mind will settle and fall into a place of just being.

If one finds it difficult to simply let go and remain so, or if one wonders about experiencing the present moment, or if one needs something to do, one can always return to being attention to the breath. If one cannot give up activity, then it can be used skillfully as a tool for meditation. Each breath is life: simple, powerful, ordinary and free. If one breathes out and doesn’t breathe in again, the body dies. One should be mindful of everything that is happening in the present moment and attentive to every breath. The breath is more unique than one’s finger print. There are never two breaths which are identical. Every breath is totally unique, encompassing a new experience and sensation in the body. In meditation one should experience the sensation during the in-breath, between the in-and out-breath, during the out-breath, between the out- and in-breath.

One should experience the quality of each breath. For example, is the breath long, short, deep, narrow, strong, light, smooth, choppy, heavy, or weak? When one becomes mindful of breathing, the breath, the breather, and the breathing are perceived as one.

It is important to start meditation with practice, not with perfection. If we were perfect we would not need to practice. For some people, breathing meditation may be too intimate an experience, mind looking at naked mind. This can be embarrassing for the ego. There are alternative practices that are less confrontational and still further the cultivation of mindfulness. Various forms of movement practice like Yoga, walking, Tai Chi, swimming, golf, skiing and many more. But for now, let us remain with sitting meditation. As we begin a meditation we rest the mind lightly on an object or image, preferably one that holds positive associations for us, a flower or anything that stimulates a feeling of warmth. Then one becomes aware of the quality of the object beyond the solid external form. At first, practice may be exciting, then boring, or even painful. One should sit through all these experiences. And even if one finds oneself unable to practice, one should not get angry or judgmental about this event. Persevere with a sense of innocence. After a while one will discover a personal style and rhythm. The practice of meditation furthers the development of the skill of mindfulness. Some of the components of this skill are:

Non-Judgment: is assuming the stance of an impartial witness to one’s own experience. It is gaining an understanding of how often we make healthy and unhealthy judgments. From this skill one will develop insight into how we create stressful situations.

Patience: is understanding and accepting the fact that things must unfold in their own time. The practice of patience can reduce agitation and anxiety. To be patient is to be aware of each moment, and to act with understanding. Patience is not a passive but an active skill.

Beginner’s Mind: is experiencing each moment or every event for the first time. For example, in the process of splitting a hundred pieces of wood with an axe, the process may be the same but each piece of wood will be different and new.

Trust: is learning to trust oneself even if we make mistakes. Learning from these mistakes can create positive growth. Trusting oneself builds self esteem.

Non-Striving: is an analytical attempt of non-interference in one’s thoughts and feelings. This mindful way of viewing the inner process will give one insight into the creation of and the cessation of unhealthy behavior (Kabat-Zinn, 1990).

Mindfulness also means understanding how one’s values can cause disharmony in the mind/body system and lead to habitual behaviors that promote suffering. Mindfulness leads us to understand that our health depends on how we live our lives.

Why is it important for one’s developmental process to gain an understanding of mindfulness ?

A large part of the American population cares about the status of their health, they are beginning to request information on how to live a healthier life. For the first time in the history of this country, the present administration is considering a national health plan. This development mirrors the changing attitude toward health maintenance within the general population.

I believe that the theory and practice of mindfulness meditation is important to adult development, because we need tools to appropriately deal with the inevitable traumas, (divorce, death, terminal illness, losses, single parent, accidents, etc.), that accompany us through our life-cycle. When we don’t have healthy skills to cope with these life transitions, the developmental process can be compounded by unnecessary suffering. And a person may fall into “lifetraps” which are based on one’s values more easily.

“Lifetraps determine how we think, feel, act, and relate to others. They trigger strong feelings such as anger, sadness, and anxiety. When we appear to have everything–social status, an ideal marriage, the respect of people close to us, career, success–we are often unable to savor life or believe in our accomplishments”, (Young; Klosko, 1993, p. 2).

As one enters one’s seventies, there should be a sense of purpose, of integrity, affirmation, celebration, and completion, (Hudson, 1991). The process of managing the mind/body depends on our learned schematic values. These schematic values can be influenced by the abuse of chemicals, physical abuse, and other forms of abuse. The developmental process is often seen as a continual self destructive cycle. In recent years health has become an important issue in our society as we gain greater understanding of proper care for the individual’s and the planet’s health.

A lack of understanding the process of mindfulness in our culture has created a tremendous amount of suffering. As we are confronted with staggering and ever increasing numbers of life-threatening diseases like AIDS, breast cancer, hypertension and other forms of cancer and mysterious viral diseases, we need tools to live with these changed and demanding circumstances. Understanding the process of mindfulness increases the quality of being, of living a meaningful life even with life-threatening disease.

In addition, all major cities are having problems with youth violence, an arena where mindfulness could help save lives. This situation has escalated to a point where the federal government had to step in. Youth and Young Adults don’t have many healthy mentors.( parents, guardians, adult friends). Practicing mindfulness is important for setting standards for the next generation.

What have other’s said about the practice of mindfulness meditation?

Research was done with people meditating intensively in a single location for three months. The Rorschach test was used with each person to measure any differences in self- perception Mindfulness meditation techniques were introduced to this group, with the primary focus on breath awareness. The Rorschach illustrated that the classical subjective reports of meditation stages are more than a religious belief system. This test gave a valid account of the perceptual changes that occur during intensive meditation. This validated the hypothesis that meditation is much more than stress reduction and psychotherapy. It is a means of understanding one’s perception of the world and how ignorance of the perceptual process contributes to human suffering, (Brown, Engler, 1980).

A study was conducted with the participants of a Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program. A program that instructs people in stress/pain management skills. The sample consisted of seven hundred and eighty-four patients enrolled over a two year period, for eight weeks at a time. Five hundred and ninety eight patients completed the program. The mindfulness approach emphasized the detached observation from one moment to the next of a constantly changing field of objects, rather than restricting attention to one object(breath). Detached observation means that the objects of observation are intentionally regarded with an effort to avoid judgment , interpretation or categorization. Mindfulness requires focusing on unpleasant and painful sensations when they are present. For example, the interpretation of the sensation “it’s killing me” is often accompanied by thinking “that it will last for a long time,” an extrapolation into the future. The movement meditation used in this research setting was Yoga. (Kabat-Zinn, 1982).

There are three primary outcomes resulting from this study. First, the experimenter concluded that “intensive training in mindfulness meditation and yoga, (a movement exercise applying mindfulness) is acceptable to large numbers of patients with different medical problems in the context of a physician referral for stress reduction training. Secondly, the outcome and long term follow-up results suggest that the intervention was highly effective, since the majority of patients referred to it demonstrated positive behavior changes. Deep personal insights, greater patience, a new ability to relax in daily situations, a willingness to live more in the present moment, increased awareness of stressful situations and improved ability to cope successfully were commonly reported. Thirdly, the program met at least some of their major health needs and expectations,(Kabat-Zinn, 1988).

A stress management training program including dietary changes was used with people who had a diagnosis of ischemic heart disease (Ornish, et al., 1983). Transient ischemic attack is an occlusion of the internal carotid artery leading to an attack of paresis in one or both limbs on the opposite side of the body, weakness of that side of the face, visual defects such as blurring or blindness and vertigo. Characteristics of this condition are complete recovery following each episode, repeated attacks of short duration, rarely longer than 18 hours (Campbell, 1989).

The approach used was a mindfulness meditation format that included meditation exercises of slow and deep breathing; attention to the breath and visualization. Also included was light aerobic exercise and stretching. The stress management training and a diet low in cholesterol produced short-term improvement in patients with I.H.D. when compared with the control group. In this group the patients were selected and the sample size was small, therefore a scientific generalization can not be made. But mindfulness meditation did have an effect on the traumatic transition of the heart patients, (Ornish, et al., 1983).

More recent research shows long-term improvements, life extension and improved quality of life for many illnesses through the use of mindfulness meditation, (Chopra, 1993).

Mindfulness meditation was also included in a treatment approach for anxiety and panic attacks. However, some subjects were found to experience panic attacks when they were in a state of relaxation. This might have been due to the fact that the body and mind were not accustomed to being in a relaxed state. This study emphasized that relaxation decreases sympathetic activation. The study concluded that exposure to relaxation produces internal cues that may be sufficient to bring about a reduction in sympathetic activation, (Cohen, 1985).

Another study emphasized the use of mindfulness meditation in the reduction of mental and emotional stress. The exercises used were Tai Chi, Brisk Walking, Sitting Meditation, and Reading, (Jin, 1992). The study included 56 volunteer subjects divided up equally by gender. Their ethic backgrounds included European, Asian , African, and South Pacific; their social economic make-up consisted of white and blue collar workers. The approximate age was 30-50. Subjects were randomly assigned to the four independent variables. They were exposed to a stressor to increase cardiovascular responses. The data concluded that all four variables were equally effective in reducing mood disturbances caused by mental and emotional stressors. The experimenter reported “when clients of stress management report that one technique is superior to another, this may simply reflect their strong belief in the efficacy of the particular technique”, (Jin, 1992, p 369). The experimenter didn’t use the word “mindfulness” but it is inherent in the four modalities.

I believe that the theory of mindfulness meditation will be a worthy addition to the field of developmental psychology. The practice of mindfulness will add to a person’s ability to traverse the human life-cycle in a healthier way. It will help by giving a format for coping with traumatic experiences and it will give a sense of confidence to working through one’s emotional process. Our society has conditioned us to depend on the system for healthcare and it has instilled in us a false sense of omnipotence based on our technological achievements. A mindfulness approach supports our conscious engagement in self-maintenance and with that the reduction of the overwhelming burden of healthcare cost to our society.

With the Zeitgeist of the sixties there emerged at least two new subgroups in our population. Besides the obvious changes we all remember, the single parent family and the homeless population grew. A third group that moved more to the forefront was the teenage population and the young adults. They largely share the night now with the adults and it is therefore most important to set standards for adult behavior. Fourth and finally, women have contributed to changing attitudes and sensitivities, mostly in the arena of male/female communication. Mindfulness serves us well in all of these areas of interaction, with the homeless as much as in our families.

The concept of mindfulness also supports Hudson’s model. For example, by exercising the techniques of mindfulness one is able to continuously monitor one’s core values. By observing one’s core values, (sense of self, achievement, intimacy, creativity and play, search for meaning, compassion and contribution), one will know how and when to make adjustments. Making adjustments or managing the doldrums is a constant necessity as one moves through the adult life cycle. Also by exercising mindfulness one will be able to work more effectively with the life structures. This means remaining in a healthy state of mind even if one has to go through all ten stages of the life structure. Being mindful also helps with staying creative as one experiences each stage of the life structure.

Mindfulness can help the field developmentalist in establishing a more effective theory and methodology especially for the field of psychotherapy. The refusal to include psychotherapy and meditation within a theoretical framework highlights the reluctance to look at the similarities between consciousness disciplines and behavioral sciences. (Kutz, Borysenko, Benson, 1985). This has always been difficult from a scientific perspective. It has been an area of the unknown. Freud described the meditative state as an “Oceanic Feeling”, “Originally introduced to Freud by Romain Rolland to describe an alleged mystical source of rich beneficent energy, the term has come to refer to ineffable experiences including a sense of extending beyond one’s customary boundaries in space and time”, (Moore, Fine, 1990, p. 133). Freud did not know the process of meditation first hand. He related to the oceanic feeling as a meditative experience, a reaction formation of omnipotence to infantile helplessness, (Kutz, Borysenko, Benson, 1985).

As the field of psychology evolves it is becoming more open to theoretical perspectives from other cultures and disciplines. As eastern and western psychology acknowledge each other’s ideas, mindfulness will become an important part of the field of developmental psychology.

At last, the application of mindfulness will be an important theory for the developmentalist because it may help them understand the element of interconnectedness in human nature. The stage theories have established how we become individualized, how our values derive from our inner and outer environment. Our inner environment stands for our cognitive ability to perceive, manipulate, and create a stimulus. Our outer environment includes everything from parents, education, economics, spirituality to employers, etc. From exercising the various methods of mindfulness, especially meditation, the developmentalist may be able to be more cohesive, true, and realist with a developmental theory. “When reality is perceived in its nature of ultimate perfection, the practitioner has reached a level of wisdom called non-discrimination mind, a wondrous communion in which there is no longer any distinction made between subject and object”, (Hanh, 1987, p.57).

I believe that by realizing the interconnectedness of things, the developmentalist might begin to understand the power of values and become more balanced in their nature/nurture theories. Hudson pointed out, “life structures are powered by value commitments embedded in a dream/plan, a story of how you want your life to proceed, at its best”, (Hudson, 1991, p.115). His example for this was the chart of “Historical Values”, (Hudson, 1991).

In this century the individual has moved toward greater independence and responsibility for his/her actions. Having mindfulness techniques available in daily living will only enhance responsible behavior, compassion and insight. This understanding can clearly promote human evolution.

What do I conclude from this? Implications? The cycle of human development has been an important issue since Plato’s (427-347 B.C. ) and Aristotle’s (384-322 B.C.) writings on human development. Aristotle emphasized that there is a non-empirical entity present in any living organism that imparts life to that organism and directs its functioning. It was mentioned that Aristotle’s students brought greater clarity to his theories, (Learner, 1986). It is interesting in this context that Plato lived roughly in the same time period as Gautama Siddhartha (2,500 years ago), and that the Buddha’s teachings were known to the Greek culture.

I believe that eastern psychology has an important role to play in the field of psychology in general. The theory of mindfulness may support the field of developmental psychology in an indirect way. For example, developmental psychology has already been attracted to the approach of mindfulness. Jeffery Young, Ph.D., a cognitive behavioral therapist, recently published a book in support of the field of human development, titled, “Reinventing Your Life: How to Break Free From Negative Life Patterns,” 1993. His first acknowledgment was to Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., a long time researcher in the field of mindfulness meditation. His book doesn’t talk about meditation or use the word mindfulness but it gives clear, concise, and effective techniques to work with negative values and develop healthy behaviors based on a mindful. approach to life.

I would like to conclude that the use of mindfulness in developmental psychology will further the understanding of the emotional self and add a diverse array of coping skills.

Understanding emotional functioning with regards to stress and stress management is an important issue of adult development. Furthermore, the use of mindfulness techniques may offer greater insight into the development and thus the prevention of abnormal behavior. Abnormal behavior is often caused by the repetitive applications of the same set of dysfunctional values and inappropriate coping behaviors which creates a cycle of destruction.

Most importantly, the process of mindfulness will aid the individual in an in depth understanding of human suffering. Applying mindfulness in everyday life, one learns to exercise an attitude of taking action with total presence instead of acting from just one value. Mindfulness provides us with the insight necessary to make effective adjustments within our core values.

In summary, the practice of Mindfulness can be effective during cognitive development in the adult life cycle. Mindfulness stands for a set of skills that help us to monitor and manage the mind/body system in daily life. It is a method that has been used for over 2,500 years predominantly in Asiatic cultures. Mindfulness is developed through the various methods of meditation. Meditation stands for intentionally regulating one’s attention from moment to moment. Mindfulness incorporates all forms of meditation, (sitting, movement, secular and non- secular activities.).

The past thirty years provide us with research data pertaining to the effective use of this set of methods in the west. These data have shown that this method can be effectively used with a population that has received a medical diagnosis as well as a healthy population. The theory and practice of mindfulness meditation will be an insightful addition to the field of developmental psychology . It will offer insights into the interconnectedness that permeates all of existence.


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(Revised 28th November 1999)