So back at the monastery I was trying hard to do just this, to just be present, but no matter how hard I tried my mind kept wandering off. And at this point I really started to judge myself: “What is wrong with you? You’re terrible at this. Why are you even here; you’re a fake.” And then not only was I judging myself, I started judging everyone, even the monks – “Why are they just sitting here? Shouldn’t they be doing something?”
Thankfully a monk from London arrived who spoke English, and as I shared with him my struggles, he looked at me and said, “Oh dear, you’re not practicing mindfulness; you’re practicing judgment, impatience, frustration.” And then he said five words that have never left me: “What you practice grows stronger!” What you practice grows stronger. We know this now with neural plasticity.
Our repeated experiences shape our brain. We can actually sculpt and strengthen our synaptic connections based on repeated practice. For example, in the famous study of London taxi drivers, the visual spatial mapping part of the brain is bigger, stronger. They’ve been practicing navigating the 25,000 streets of London all day long. When you look at the brains of meditators, the areas related to attention, learning, compassion, grow bigger and stronger. It’s called cortical thickening — the growth of new neurons in response to repeated practice. What we practice grows stronger.
The monk explained to me that if I was meditating with judgment, I was just growing judgment; meditating with frustration, I’m growing frustration. He helped me understand that mindfulness isn’t just about paying attention; it’s about how we pay attention with kindness. He said it’s like these loving arms that welcome everything, even the messy imperfect parts of ourselves.
He also pointed out that we’re practicing all the time, moment by moment, not just when we’re meditating but in every moment. We’re growing something in every moment.
So the question really becomes: What do you want to grow? What do you want to practice? When I left Thailand, I wanted to keep practicing mindfulness and I wanted to understand it scientifically. So I began a PhD program, eventually became a professor, and I’ve spent the past 20 years investigating the effects of mindfulness across a wide range of populations, including veterans with PTSD, patients with insomnia, women with breast cancer, stressed-out college students, high-level business executives.
And over and over the data showed two key things: First, mindfulness works; it’s good for you. It strengthens our immune functioning; it decreases stress, decreases cortisol, helps us sleep better. When we published our first research back in 1998, there were only a handful of studies. Now there are thousands of studies showing the beneficial effects of mindfulness: it’s good for us.
The second thing we learned was quite unexpected. Almost all the people we were working with regardless of their age, their gender, their background, were talking about the same thing: this underlying sense of I’m not good enough; I’m not okay; I’m not living this life right. This tremendous self-judgment and shame — and we all know what they were talking about, because shame is universal; all of us feel it. And worse we have this mistaken belief that if we shame ourselves, if we beat ourselves up will somehow improve, and yet shame doesn’t work — shame never works; it can’t work. Literally, physiologically it can’t work because when we feel shame, the centers of the brain that have to do with growth and learning shut down.
This fMRI shows the brain on shame. What happens is the amygdala triggers a cascade of norepinephrine (NE) and cortisol to flood our system, shutting down the learning centers and shuttling our resources to survival pathways. Shame literally robs the brain of the energy it needs to do the work of changing. And worse, when we feel shame we want to avoid it. So we hide from those parts of ourselves we’re ashamed of, the parts that most need our attention. It’s just too painful to look at them.
So what’s the alternative? Kind attention. First, kindness gives us the courage to look at those parts of ourselves we don’t want to see. And second, kindness bathes us with dopamine turning on the learning centers of the brain and giving us the resources we need to change. True and lasting transformation requires kind attention.
And the monk’s words echoed in my ears: mindfulness isn’t just about attention; it’s about kind attention. This attitude of kindness wasn’t just a footnote or something nice to have, it was an essential part of the practice, a part of mindfulness that’s so often overlooked.
So my colleagues and I developed a model of mindfulness that explicitly includes our attitude and our intention as well as our attention — all three parts working together synergistically. Put simply, mindfulness is intentionally paying attention with kindness. We use this model while working at the Veterans Hospital for a group of men with PTSD. I was shocked to learn that we lose more veterans to suicide each year than to combat. Our soldiers carry so much pain and shame.