The Utility of Mindfulness
The modern iteration of mindfulness that has so permeated Western popular culture and Positive Psychology has its earliest roots in Hindu Theology dating from 4,000 B.C.E. Vedic Meditations as outlined in the Bhagavad Gita may be Humanity’s first codified attempt at impartial observation of the subjective human experience. Buddhism also arose in the Indian subcontinent between 400-500 b.c.e and shares a number of common roots with Hinduism. Buddhism’s initial progenitor, Siddhartha Gautama, was heavily influence by Hindu principles endemic to the region. Both religious traditions revolve around a nebulous concept termed, “dharma,” that might be best defined as a striving towards harmony with the Universe. The Buddhist theological concept of, “Sati,” was historically regarded as the first step towards this peak experience and, “mindfulness,” is the Western word that has been best approximated as it’s translation. Mindfulness as it is understood today in the West may be regarded as a continual striving towards acceptance, observation, and reconciliation with one’s moment to moment experience.
Under the Instruction of Thich Nhat Hanh and other Buddhist teachers, Jon Kabat-Zinn (Center for Mindfulness and Oasis Institute) was introduced to the benefits of mindfulness based practices and formulated a grounding breaking 8-week program of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in 1979 at UMass School of Medicine. Others like Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Joseph Goldstein (Insight Meditation Society) further popularized Mindfulness Meditation in the late 1970’s and the resulting programs and practices were rather quickly and efficaciously adapted to both clinical and non-clinical populations for general stress reduction (Grossman et.al., 2004) and the amelioration of psychopathology. (Schreiner and Malcolm, 2012). Stripped of its traditional metaphysical content the basic utility of mindfulness practices has become recognized in the therapeutic remediation of anxiety disorders (Manchard, 2012), depression (Kuyken et.al., 2008), pain management (Bohlmeijer et.al., 2012), substance use (Bowen et.al. 2009), OCD (Hertenstein et. al. 2012) and PTSD (King et. al., 2013) and is attested to throughout the therapeutic literature. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as an individual modality has helped to link the interplay between cognitive, physiological, and emotional phenomena and clarify the understanding of these conceptual dynamics for both clinicians and clients.
But where is your mind...
If you observe the nature of your mind you will likely find that most of your discontent is actually the product of a discursive mind that is continually wondering to past misfortunes and to potential future calamity. In fact, careful introspection will likely reveal that you spend most of your day and by extension most of you life lost in thought without realizing that there is an alternative to this. You actually do have a choice between allowing you present-moment to be infected by the unpleasant emotional places that you have been (or may go) and simply learning and fostering the ability to sit non-judgmentally and contentedly within the present moment. You can prove this to yourself with some simple experimentation;
- Sit for a moment, if you will, with some past memory that is vaguely distressing. Call to mind some conversation that went horribly or some future situation that you expect might go badly.
- You will immediately begin to feel an uncomfortable change in your physiological and emotional state.
- What does this feel like? What are the sensations you notice? What is the salient emotion?
Note that you actually drove that unpleasant experience simply with the cognitive content that you chose to sit with. Now let's endeavor to bring about a more neutral emotional state.
- Bring into the mind a few things about this present moment. Notice what it feels like to be settled into your chair by gravity. Notice your feet on the ground rooting you to this moment.
- Bring your attention to the inside of the tip of the nose and simply observe the breath as it goes from in to out to in again.
- What does this feel like? What are the sensations you notice in your body? What is the salient emotion?
While you might have found this demonstration trite my contention is that it actually demonstrates something profound but taken entirely for granted by most of us, most of the time. It demonstrates a lever that we can employ in the manipulation of own emotional state. The contents of the mind is really all any of us has and while the mind has an undeniable bent towards the negative (for good evolutionary reasons that we understand having to do with the survival imperative to identify and solve problems) it can be controlled in such a way as to better foster well-being.
In the promotion of mindfulness we will begin to condition the mind to better sit with whatever is present and true in the moment. By so doing you avoid all the negativity that continually comes with being lost within one's own wandering mind and you further learn to better engage with the things and people that are truly in front of you.
The Practice of Building Mindful Awareness
Vipassana (Insight or Mindful) Meditation is truly a struggle to engage. No matter what your gifts for focus and introspection you will find your mind continually wondering away from the breath as you endeavor to focus on it. You will become lost in thought over and over again. Sometimes after only one or two cycles of breath. It is important that you recognize that this is not a failure of the exercise. This is the exercise. The struggle between your discursive mind and your intentional focus on the breath is the necessary resistance that makes this practice useful in driving the development of "trait mindfulness." This is the ability to carry this state of mind with you throughout the course of your day and modulate your ambient level of emotion regulation. The exercise is not done simply for the sake of the exercise (which admittedly can frustrating) but rather as an investment in improving the quality of the 23 hours and 40 minutes of your day that lie outside of the exercise.
At this point people are generally rather incredulous as to the efficacy of this practice. My challenge is simply this; Engage the exercise below for one week on at least a daily (ideally twice daily) basis and see how you feel. Are you less irritable, less anxious, and generally feeling better about the flow of your day and your interactions with others? Most of the people that I work with find that they are (and if you are not then you have lost nothing).
It is believed that mindfulness works through the mechanism of neural-plasticity to alter neural networks in the brain. The propensity to be lost in thought is a habit that has something to do with the physical state of the neural substrates of the brain. Likewise the propensity to be actively engaged in the present moment is a habit that can be fostered with practice and is of great utility in dealing with the vicissitudes of daily life.
On Being Like A Mirror
If you consider the case carefully you will find that all you have is your awareness and the things that occupy it; the objects of awareness. These consist only of thoughts, sensations in the body, emotional presentations, and sensory stimuli.
If you think of your awareness as a mirror and the objects of awareness as things reflected in the mirror you can begin to have some useful insights regarding the nature of consciousness.
Is a mirror ever actually changed by the things that it reflects? It seems to be. It seems to take on the colors and the shapes of the objects placed before it. But a mirror simply reflects without taking the on characteristics or the properties of the things it is reflecting. You can treat the objects of your awareness in a similar manner. You can simply reflect, and reflect upon the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that arise in your awareness without allowing yourself to fall prey to the illusion that that these things define you or that these things are you.
They are simply things that arise to be observed and described in awareness with out becoming entangled with them. They can be engaged or disregarded to whatever degree you find comfortable. But you are ultimately the one who makes the choice. Choose to be like a mirror.