Mindfulness of Arousal and Challenge

Photo by Sharon Wright

It might be tempting for us to reduce the practice of mindfulness to a “unitasker” for eliminating stress, or simply a method for achieving relaxation, but that would be a myth. The beauty of mindfulness is that it can help us open to all kinds of life experiences under any circumstances, so that we might see things more clearly and respond more skillfully. But in order to realize the more transformative fruits of practice, we have to be willing and able to explore even the challenging aspects of our experience. Fortunately, we can start where we are and find our way safely and sustainably with patience, curiosity and compassion.

Researchers have learned from attempts to grow organs under laboratory conditions that cells have understandable requirements for thriving, such as optimal temperature, humidity, nutrients, and oxygen to allow them to develop properly. But it was a surprise for many to discover they also need to be subjected to an optimal level of stress. Depending on the intended ultimate function of the organ, growing cells may require the application of forces such as compression, shear strain, or pulsation.

It follows that whole organisms also benefit from a moderate amount of challenge. In neuroscience, arousal is a state of wakefulness, sensory alertness and readiness to respond. It’s important for regulating consciousness, attention and information processing. The Yerkes–Dodson law hypothesizes a relationship between level of arousal and performance; too little arousal results in drowsiness, apathy or boredom, while too much leads to anxiety and a stress response that prioritizes instinct over critical thinking. According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Finding Flow, optimal arousal is “a response to a difficult challenge for which the subject has moderate skills”.

The peace that we are looking for is not peace that crumbles as soon as there is difficulty or chaos. Whether we’re seeking inner peace or global peace or a combination of the two, the way to experience it is to build on the foundation of unconditional openness to all that arises. Peace isn’t an experience free of challenges, free of rough and smooth, it’s an experience that’s expansive enough to include all that arises without feeling threatened. – Pema Chodron

File:Challenge vs skill.svgOne theory of learning posits that an appropriate degree of task difficulty related to current skill level optimizes learning (Guadagnoli & Lee, 2004). The more aroused we are, the more our attention narrows to cues that support our emotional valence, such that seemingly unrelated or neutral details fail to be encoded into memory. So if we are overly challenged, we may not be able to encode all the information needed to skillfully meet our experience. However, if we’re not challenged enough, we may have very hard time sustaining our attention or responding to needs.

The ancient wisdom underlying modern mindfulness tells us that “sloth and torpor”, or a lack of alertness, can become an obstacle to practice. Like much of this ancient philosophy, this idea is supported by research. Late positive potential (LPP) is a type of neural activity related to emotional arousal that has been studied in its relationship to the emotion regulatory properties of mindfulness. A number of studies have shown that experienced meditators and people with higher dispositional mindfulness exhibit smaller LPPs elicited by stimuli with strong emotional valence, concluding that mindfulness meditation may reduce emotional reactivity through this mechanism. One study found that “the emotion regulatory effect of open monitoring meditation appears contingent on whether participants were sufficiently awake and alert to participate in the guided meditation” (Lin et. al, 2020).

The difficulty is discovering the optimal amount of challenge for each unique individual. Everyone is different in terms of the tuning of the “equipment” we were born with and its current condition, our lifetime of experiences and capacity to learn from them, and whether we had wise and beneficent teachers to augment our understanding of how to meet challenges. This means that each individual must be the expert in their own experience. While teachers can offer suggestions and share observations, each of us must ultimately be responsible for the form and trajectory our mindfulness practice takes.

If we’re only open to cultivating a practice to the extent that it helps us feel relaxed and momentarily avoid stress, we may never experience it’s full potential. However, if we’re too harsh or intense in our practice, or push past warning signals that we’re moving into a state of overwhelm, we may cause ourselves some harm. If we’re open to, and develop the capacity for exploring even the unpleasant and unwanted aspects of our experience within our optimal zone of arousal, we may find that we are better able to meet challenges in our daily lives in ways that are in alignment with our highest intentions and deepest values.

We can start with a sense of curiosity about our inner experience and a willingness to explore habitual reactions. Then we need to develop skills that resource us for taking repeated and increasingly in-depth looks at ourselves, behind the veil of distraction and self-deception. Only we can discern whether our reactions are universally helpful/useful/skillful, contextually helpful/useful/skillful, or not at all helpful/useful/skillful through unbiased investigation and experimentation. Through trial and error, and perhaps with the guidance of an experienced teacher, we may begin to let go of habits that are not serving us individually or collectively and strengthen new responses that nourish and sustain us.


Brown, K. W., Goodman, R. J. & Inzlicht, M. Dispositional mindfulness and the attenuation of neural responses to emotional stimuli. Soc. Cogn. Affect. Neurosci. 8, 93–99 (2013).

Davidson, R. J. Affective style and affective disorders: perspectives from affective neuroscience. Cogn. Emot. 12, 307–330 (1998).

Davidson, R. J. Affective style, psychopathology, and resilience: brain mechanisms and plasticity. Am. Psychol. 55, 1196–1214 (2000).

Guadagnoli, M. & Lee, T. (2004). Challenge Point: A Framework for Conceptualizing the Effects of Various Practice Conditions in Motor Learning. Journal of motor behavior. 36. 212-24.

Moreno-Borchart A. (2004). Building organs piece by piece. Accomplishments and future perspectives in tissue engineeringEMBO reports5(11), 1025–1028.

Lin, Y., Fisher, M. E., Roberts, S. M. M. & Moser, J. S. Deconstructing the emotion regulatory properties of mindfulness: an electrophysiological investigation. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 10, 451 (2016).

Lin, Y., Gloe, L.M., Louis, C.C. et al. An electrophysiological investigation on the emotion regulatory mechanisms of brief open monitoring meditation in novice non-meditators. Sci Rep 10, 14252 (2020).

Sobolewski, A., Holt,E., Kublik, E. & Wróbel, A. (2011). Impact of meditation on emotional processing—a visual ERP study. Neurosci. Res. 71, 44–48.

Safety in Meditation:

  • The Meditation Safety Training Toolbox contains documents, protocols and best practice guidelines from the UMASS Center for Mindfulness, Bangor and Oxford Mindfulness Centers, and other mindfulness researchers.
  • Adverse Experiences Guide – Cheetah House is a non-profit organization that provides information and resources about meditation-related difficulties to meditators-in-distress and providers or teachers of meditation-based modalities.
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