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Mindfulness interventions have been shown to be beneficial for a wide range of psychological and physical conditions such as anxiety, depression, chronic pain, personality disorders, and addictions. Controlled trials of normal populations have also demonstrated positive changes in brain function and immune response, self-awareness, perceived stress, and increase in self-compassion (Shapiro, Astin, Bishop, & Cordova, 2005; Beddoe & Murphy, 2004), and there is more.
Some of the benefits are not directly obvious, but they lead to recognisable clusters of improvement. We look at the evidence and what the experts say.
Developing the Observer Self, or Witness, aids growth and awareness
If all of a person’s consciousness is tied up with experiencing, say, pain, sadness, or anger, it is as if that person is living in a small trailer home: existence is cramped and uncomfortable; there is much suffering. But if that same person is able to disidentify, or do what mindfulness advocates call “decentering” (Segal, Williams & Teasdale, 2002), s/he can gain a much wider perspective: akin to moving to from the trailer to a mansion.
This process happens when people are able, though mindfulness and other practices, to develop what is called the Witness, or Observer Self. It is, metaphorically, as if someone has gone from swimming in a turbulent stream – tossed around by all of its currents and eddies – to a position on the banks of the stream, where all of the relentless activity of the stream can be watched, and thus not experienced as intensely. As we gain in the capacity to observe ourselves, we accrue some of the benefits of mindfulness.
Focus and concentration improve: This seems paradoxical, because in mindfulness practice, there is no intention to focus or concentrate on a single thought. Yet practitioners find that, by allowing all thoughts to come and go but choosing which ones they engage with, they have still practiced the art of directing awareness. Improved focus and concentration are the result.
Self-awareness increases: When someone has, for instance, a “Worrying Self” (referred to more generally as the Thinking Self) and also an Observer Self, the Worrying Self may be caught up in the worries. But the Observer Self is able to say, “I’m having worrying thoughts” or “I see that I am thinking worrying thoughts.”
In that moment of shifting one’s centre of consciousness from the Worrying Self to the Observer Self, a person has gained self-awareness. S/he comes to understand that he or she worries, but is more than the worrier; there is a distinction between the person and his/her thoughts. Moreover, the person becomes aware of how and when the worrying occurs, and what the contents of worrying are.
In some situations, separating from one’s thoughts allows the person to become aware of what s/he has been avoiding. By tuning into the body that is responding to the mind that is worrying, a person becomes more aware of the body, and the environment in which it functions. Moreover, by experiencing the relative calm of the Observer, a person is able to know a more inclusive, expanded sense of him/herself beyond body, feelings, and mind (Harris, 2008; Walsh, 2006).
The head clears, and one is fully present: Reducing worrying (or whatever preoccupation one is engaging in) as an uncontrolled endeavour and standing (metaphorically) to the side of the gushing waters of thought allows a clear head: a cleared space, psychologically speaking, that is not consumed with, say, worry.