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Mindfulness, meditation, and breath awareness. Is this all a big fad or can you actually gain a cognitive edge from sitting for 15-20 minutes each day focusing on the breath? A recent study published in Science Daily states even after 4 days of 20 minute breath awareness exercises, cognitive improvement can be measured. Furthermore, Daniel Seigel and others have linked mindful practices to the building the middle prefrontal cortex area of the brain, the area that integrates cortical, limbic, brainstem, somatic and social input. In short, the middle prefrontal region of the brain, when developed and strengthened like a muscle, can create a state of self-awareness that allows one to navigate the river of thought and experience without getting stuck in the banks of either rigidity (too much judgment) or chaos (too much perception). This notion of modulated balance between perception and judgment has significant implications for MBTI practitioners who use the awareness of the 4 functions (dominant, auxiliary, tertiary and inferior) to coach clients using the MBTI model.
In breath awareness exercises, one is instructed to find on the breath first at the level of the nostrils, moving to the chest and finally deep within the abdomen. After fully identifying all components of the breath, finding the place where the breath is felt most naturally is the next step. Breath awareness exercises are not relaxation exercises, they train the mind to be focused. When the mind starts to wander as it invariably will do, it is important to take note of that and gently refocus without judgment. From my own personal experience as an ENFP doing these exercises, I am amazed at how many thoughts dart through my head as I attempt to focus on the breath. Anyone who shares intuition as the dominant function can probably relate to how difficult it can be to maintain focus and follow through on a given task or maintain a topic of conversation when connections, patterns, and new ideas are emerging, competing for cognitive primacy. The key is to be aware of what the mind is doing then gently redirect thought within the cognitive system. In my own experience with meditation, I have improved my focus as well as developed an awareness of when I need to to stop generating options and perspectives and use my auxiliary function, feeling, to craft a course of action. In addition, as my ability to self-monitor my thoughts and judgments has improved, so has my ability to successfully access my tertiary and inferior functions. This self-awareness assists in creating an elegant shift among the 4 functions all brought about by the strengthening the prefrontal cortex area of the brain, the area that directs energy and thought throughout the rest of the human brain.
What if someone has a judging function as the dominant function? Can an ESTJ use meditation to navigate the river of thought and experience? The answer is yes because meditation is strengthening the fibers of the brain where self-monitoring and behavior modulation take place, not the functions of either judgment or perception. To use an analogy, it is like tuning up the transmission of a car allowing for improved shifting among the 4 functions. Whereas excessive perceptive can create chaos in the mind, rigidity is the result of too much judgment. So, taking the example of an ESTJ, who may be quick to render a judgment, balance can be achieved by consciously shifting into the fact gathering mode. In fact, one can go to any area of brain more easily if self-awareness and the ability to redirect cognitive activity is present through a well-developed prefrontal cortex.
Meditation can be tricky. Many people are turned off by it because it feels like a waste of time. Others are frustrated because they don’t think they are “doing it right.” My first round with mindfulness and meditation was rigorous. It involved 45-minute body scans, sitting meditations, and yoga. With all that needs to be done in a day, it may be difficult to fit in all of the components of a comprehensive program. However, for a less time consuming, day to day application of meditation, I highly recommend a 20 minute simple breath awareness meditation. With this increase in awareness, it may be possible to shift more easily among the functions of perception and judgment.
*For more information on a good place to start this meditation practice, please see my article entitled “Breath Awareness Meditation” at annholm.net