What a Mindfulness Practice Adds to Adult Development Theory (and Vice Versa)

By Thomas McConkie, adapted from an episode of the Mindfulness+ podcast

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At Lower Lights, we host a podcast called Mindfulness+.

What's with the plus?

To start, I think it sounds good: Mindfulness+. It's got a ring to it.

But there's also a significant meaning behind the plus. When I say Mindfulness+ I'm talking about bringing mindfulness together with the field of adult development theory, a field I’ve studied for the past ten years.

What I’ve found is that adult development theory has significant implications for how we practice mindfulness and how we derive benefit from a mindfulness practice.

Here’s a crash course on why that is.

For most of human history, we’ve intuitively known that children develop from the moment they're born. They grow physically. They learn to walk, they learn to talk.

The changes that children undergo are dramatic. If you've had a nephew or raised children of your own you'll know that day to day and week to week they're making major breakthroughs developmentally. You don't need a PhD in psychology to see that.

What isn’t as obvious is that development also continues into adulthood. Back around the late 60's and early 70’s, a number of researchers and developmental psychologists started to notice evidence that adults make breakthroughs developmentally well beyond adolescence.

These discoveries also coincided with the development of neuroimaging. For the first time in human history we had the technology to scan the brain, and what we found was that the adult brain physically changes. What we thought was a monolithic stage of adulthood that we all arrive at and then stay at turns out to be nothing of the sort. Adults continue to develop throughout a lifespan.They grow and manifest different kinds of skills and competencies that weren't there before.

This field is revolutionary. It's been a major area of research in psychology for the last fifty years, and we're continuing to learn a lot about what it means that adults continue to develop.

So how does adult development relate to mindfulness?

Mindfulness practice dates back thousands of years, and for those thousands of years people have been practicing mindfulness in a more or less consistent way. What's fascinating now is that through the insights of modern science and western developmental psychology, we know that different kinds of mindfulness will be appropriate for different kinds of adults at different times.

What that amounts to is that if you're interested in starting a mindfulness practice and you want to derive benefit from that practice, we now know a lot about what kinds of mindfulness practice will be most helpful to you as an individual given your unique circumstances and conditions in life.

Let me give you one basic example, just to paint a bit of a picture. There's a lot of talk now amidst the mindfulness revolution about how to get mindfulness into schools. It’s a question I get a lot as a teacher: How do I teach my children mindfulness?

This is a perfect application of our developmental insights. It tends to be much more effective to start children and adolescents with body-based mindfulness techniques as opposed to other kinds of mindfulness approaches. Body-based mindfulness might mean working with the breath, which is a somatic-based mindfulness practice that young children tend to have immediate access to. It's quite intuitive for us to focus on the breath and just feel the pleasure and rhythm of breathing. Body-based mindfulness might also mean mindful movement — something like yoga. Young children and adolescents respond to mindful movement well because, again, it's based in the body, and it's something that's concrete and relatable to them.

An example of an application of mindfulness to an adult would be mindfulness of the thinking mind — bringing mindful awareness to the thought process. Whereas a child can benefit from a body-based mindfulness practice, adults often report to me that one of their biggest frustrations and challenges is that they have a constant inner monologue, an inner commentary going on that’s driving them crazy. So there are techniques that we can bring to the thinking mind that help us clarify the thought process and calm the thinking mind. Those practices would perhaps be less intuitive or accessible or beneficial to young children.

I'm not suggesting that adults can't greatly benefit from a body-based mindfulness practice. All I want to do is to point out that there are many ways to practice mindfulness, and we have different options depending on where we are in our personal development and the circumstances of our lives.

Let’s work with a mindfulness practice that tends to be very beneficial for adults. It involves bringing mindful awareness to the feeling body. We saturate the body with awareness which in turn tends to take a lot of the drivenness out of our thought process. It tends to cool off the activity of the mind and it bring us into a deeper, intuitive feeling sense of wisdom in the body.

I'll invite you to settle in wherever you are and encourage you to come to stillness.

You can start by bringing awareness to the breath. But rather than simply breathing in through the nose, I want you to imagine that every single pore in your body were breathing oxygen in and bringing you vitality and life. Imagine every single square inch of your body breathing in and every single pore in your body breathing out — expelling any waste, letting go of anything you don't need.

And you can already start to taste the stillness. Notice the settled quality in the body, in your awareness. You can allow your awareness to flow with the sensations of the body in this moment, as though the sensations in your body were like a river, flowing, twisting, turning, moment to moment, and you are in the stream of the sensation along for the ride.

Notice where in your body in this moment sensation feels more bright, more obvious. You can just notice.

Likewise you can notice where in your body sensation feels more dim and more quiet. And just as a river is never the same moment to moment as it flows, notice that the sensation flowing through your body is never the same moment to moment.

Where sensation was bright a moment ago, it may be dim now. Where sensation was more dim, it might be coming to life and growing brighter.

Just stay with this another moment.

See if you can do this with even more ease. Have fun with it. Let your awareness flow with the sensations of the body, like a river winding its way back to the sea.

And you can start to let that go, just relaxing your attention, not making any special effort now — just taking a final moment before you leap back in to action.

You can just notice the afterglow. Take in the way you feel in this moment after a few minutes of settling in and bringing awareness to physical sensation, developing feeling awareness just by paying attention to it.

As you do this exercise over time, you'll notice that you feel more awake and more aware through the body. You'll notice that your thought process pesters you less and serves you more. Like anything, it's a matter of practice — of exercise.

If you keep it up it will change your life.

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Transcribed by Seth McConkie, edited by Jon Ogden

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