Mindfulness works as a therapy to increase impulse control. While the results of practice are well-researched, the neurological mechanisms are indeterminate. Something about mindfulness practice actually changes the cortical make-up of the brain. Why this happens is not yet known. It could be the focused attention or the release of judgmental thoughts. Or, it could be the discipline.
Of the people I teach, the only ones who become serious meditators are the ones who set aside a regular time each day and commit to the practice. For them, it becomes a part of their lives, and soon the day just seems wrong if they do not meditate. People who don’t establish this discipline quickly fall away from the benefits they found as they began practicing. Just as meditation focuses on the relentless return of attention to the breath as the mind wanders, it requires this discipline of each moment of practice to become a greater part of the meditator’s life.
I espouse meditation as an adjunct therapy for mental illness. Inherent in many serious mental illnesses is a lack of impulse control. We often follow the trappings of our minds into dangerous and defeating places. We often act out without thinking. We are encouraged in this behavior by a society that makes every want immediately available, whether we’re ready for it or not – whether we can pay for it or not. To introduce discipline into the allure of immediate gratification is difficult. We can view it as stunting and boring. Or we can see it as an opportunity to regroup and draw on our greatest strengths to achieve the things we are most capable of.
I began a meditation practice years ago, and while the stress relief and relaxation benefits appeared almost immediately, the true work of changing my mind took years. I had to get up early every day and sit and focus my attention on my breath. This is difficult work, for meditation is an exercise in failure. We stay with the breath and very soon are off lost in thought, only to catch ourselves and once again return to the breath. Over and over again. Always failing to stay focused, always coming back, and always drifting off again. But each moment lost is an opportunity to return to the present and, one day, become a nonjudgmental observer of our own mind. Only then can the idea that we are not our impulses, nor do we have to act on our impulses, be revealed.
This takes great discipline. But then, so do most all accomplishments. I believe the practice of discipline in meditating daily becomes as important, perhaps even more important, than the development of mindfulness. Doing something positive consistently will likely yield positive results. Little will come to the person not willing to do the work required.
As I’ve said before, once we are diagnosed with a mental illness we have an excuse for everything. Failure is expected, and self-discipline becomes an anomaly. But we can reinstitute self-discipline in many ways. A regular meditation practice is one way. And through the practice of self-discipline we can find achievement. I’m not saying be dull and stop expressing yourself. I’m saying be well, and stop defeating yourself.