18 Dec

Mindfulness

Over the last 25 years there has been a surprisingly rapid acceptance of “Mindfulness” practices into mainstream culture, including utilization as a therapeutic practice in the arena of psychology.

Mindfulness is now offered to help reduce depression, anxiety, stress, physical pain, relationship conflict, eating disorders, and a wide array of other distressing experiences.

As helpful as this may be, even passing familiarity with the Buddhist teachings identifies that such practices were actually intended for a much larger purpose which can generally be described as helping individuals evolve, emotionally and psychologically.

And perhaps, because mindfulness practices are amazingly easy to misunderstand and immensely difficult to properly implement, it is not surprising that much of what we see today being offered and practiced as “Mindfulness” seems to miss the developmental point of it all.

Mindfulness as a practice is not simply about finding a way to suffer less or to be happy. The natural consequence of proper Mindfulness practice are profound alterations in how we both experience our life, and how we live it.

It is also my contention, that as psychological growth and development occurs, then the quality of our relationships must also transform. Here I am referring to the relationship with my “self”, with the “other”, and with the “world” in which I live. And as this changes, so too does the fundamental basis for my actions and behaviours.

From my perspective, far too many modern Mindfulness orientations seem to be promising peace and happiness as though it were a pill we could take, without clear appreciation of the fact that this practice requires considerable discipline and proper instruction.

My next post, On Mindfulness, will provide greater clarity on the above thoughts and more. I encourage anyone interested to continue reading, and comment if you wish.

20 Nov

On Mindfulness

This article examines what I consider to be one of the primary limits to a richer understanding and utilization of Mindfulness.

Historically rooted in the enlightenment teachings of Buddhism and Taoism, I see the proper practice of Mindfulness as offering a genuine pathway to psychological and spiritual growth.

In terms of its current level of cultural acceptance, Mindfulness has come a long way in the last 25 years. It is also my view however, that today’s mainstream practice of Mindfulness does not yet properly serve as a vehicle for accelerating or encouraging such growth and development.

Let me be clear that after 25 years of clinical practice as a psychologist, I understand that for most people there are much more important and pressing issues than trying to grasp the nature of consciousness,  or to truly appreciate  what it means when we talk about “our self”, or “others”.

Most people do not genuinely seek answers to questions such as “Who am I”? “How do I live my life so it feels meaningful to me”? “Why do I keep doing things that hurt me and don’t stop”? , “Why do I hurt the people I love”? And so on.

So this is precisely why, when individuals do arrive at a place in their life where they are willing to allow someone to help with their concerns, or to find answers to such questions, it seems so unfortunate that the value of Mindfulness in term of teaching them how to nurture their psychological growth is seldom being offered.

There are of course, many issues involved here.  But one of the central challenges I see relates to how  we over-identify our thought processes as being the central quality of our “mind”, and subsequently, our “self”.

This is a widely held attitude most easily exemplified in Descartes dictum “I think, therefore I am”.  Indeed it seems to be a socially accepted assumption that we experience our world through our thoughts ; that we define our self  in terms of such thoughts and those thoughts are the primary drivers of our experiences, and ultimately our actions.

This idea, this working connection between who “I” am and what I do because of what and how I think, seems so ingrained into our culture that it now has the status of an unquestionable truth. The result is that interest in “self” and “mind” is all too often restricted to consideration of thought process,  primarily in terms of how to change them.

Consider this explanation for example,

The core skill of mindfulness is teaching you to recognize your thought patterns. Doing this enables you to break away from the false constructs of your mind; those words which are most troublesome to you. These false constructs are what I call Big Lies that you have come to accept as true in spite of all evidence to the contrary. It is your response to the Big Lies stored in your mind that creates hurtful and painful reactions. When practicing mindfulness you become able to redefine the false constructs present in your mind. To reinterpret how you experience certain psychological events.”

I agree with this notion of “Big Lies”; those false constructs we create in our mind. And I also agree with the description of the manner in which harmful reactions and behaviours effects flow from them.

We certainly do seem to create meaning of our self, our world, and our relationships from our thoughts. And our behaviours certainly do seem to flow from such constructions.  Who would question this?

Indeed, I would support the position that if am depressed and am encouraged to pay attention to the type and quality of thoughts I am having, then my experiences of being depressed will shift. There is enough research evidence to validate this approach that it would seem to be pointless to dispute the evidence. And I am not disputing that evidence.

Part of what I am arguing however, is that strictly speaking, these changes are not occurring because I have changed my negative thoughts.  Rather, it is because through awareness I have altered my relationship with my thoughts such that the fundamental basis and dynamic for the experience of depression in the first place has changed.

Another way to describe this relationship change is to say that in the very act of becoming aware of my negative thoughts, I am now identifying with them, or relating to them, in a fundamentally different manner because  I am no longer struggling with them. Descriptively, I am now interested in them, essentially orienting myself towards rather than away from them.

Likewise, if  I was instructed to pay attention to my breathing rather than paying attention to my depressing thought,  then I would also be altering my relationship to my thinking.

Accordingly, it is  therefore accurate to say that  if  I am absorbed in my thoughts (by definition meaning I have  little awareness) and I am  telling myself how bad things,  then this will affect my experiences.

So in the process of activating my awareness, (regardless of what I am becoming aware of) I am actually shifting my relationship to those experiences.  And in so doing, the fundamental quality of those experience changes. It has to.

Within this  framework of understanding the human process, it is not surprising that cognitive therapy should be effective in helping people  with depression, or anxiety, or almost any other form of human suffering.

Likewise, there would seem to be a real value in a Mindfulness practice in which people are encouraged to identify with their thought processes as a means of effecting changes in their behaviour.

But believing that our thoughts are the primary determinant of my experience, or my behaviour, misses this vital relational connection.

Moreover,  I would argue that over-identification with our thought processes actually creates a form of relationship which disconnects us from our wider experiential self.  The very act of doing so  supports the illusion of an isolated and separate ego,  and potentially reignites and reinforces the very fears and reactive behaviours that cause so much pain and suffering in the first place.

It also creates a relational disconnect between myself and others, as well as a disconnect to the world in which I live.  Since my behaviour towards myself, others, and this world is informed by my experiences,  then my behaviour cannot help but reflect this fundamental disconnect.

With proper mindfulness and awareness practices however, we can do something about this.  With proper instruction in awareness, we can directly see why we need to care about all of these relationships.

When we achieve such understanding through our own direct experiences, we no longer need to be convinced by anyone or anything.  And as this happen, the very basis for our moral code and the actions which flow from it begins to reformulate itself.

It is this theme I intend to explain more fully in the upcoming series of articles. And in so doing, it is my wish that a more useful mode of working with Mindfulness can be achieved.  I also hope that these articles might open a dialogue between others on this notion such that between all of us, we can help bring that horizon of understanding, wisdom and compassion, even closer.

29 Sep

Mindfulness: Freedom From the Known

The answer to the question as to “who, or what am I?”  is a complicated one.  But it is primarily complicated by a confused, though perfectly normal way of perceiving reality that is almost  impossible to see for oneself . This article aims to clarify one source of this confusion.

I think it is easy enough to accept that what we are today, how we experience our self, others, and the world we live in, is very much the product of an amazing and vast number of experiences we could generally refer to as “our life so far”.

Given this inextricable bond to our past, then everything we do “now”, every thought we have, every belief we hold and action we take, is rooted in and flows from our history.  This connection to where we have been before has both advantages and disadvantages.

The advantage is we don’t have to continually relearn how to live in this world. It is absolutely critical to our survival that we possess the ability to learn from and utilize past experiences and apply those lessons to daily living.   Without such learning the world would appear as a chaotic buzz of confusion to which we would have no idea how to respond.  Within a matter of days or at best weeks, without outside support and care, we would die.

But here is the disadvantage.

Most people seem to want to change, get rid of bad habits, improve their relationships.

For many, the search for these answer seems to point in the direction of  thinking long and hard about our life, perhaps making those tough choices we could never follow through on, not allowing ourselves to act like we have before, and so on.

Yet if our intention is to become healthier and create a better life for our self then by definition we have to learn to act differently than we have up to this point.   But how can we make new and different choices to move in healthy directions if we are using the same “mind” that got us into difficulty in the first place?

Think about this for a moment.  If our previous way of being in the world wasn’t working for us before, how can we rely on that to guide us now?

As motivated as we may be to live our life differently, or to end or minimize our suffering, the inescapable truth seems to be that we have to find a way that offers more than our existing methods of looking at our self and our world.

If we are going to find a way that actually promotes our psychological growth and development, we have to find a fundamentally new means of  understanding our self, our relationships, and our world.

To do this we have to free our self from the normal approaches we take to finding answers to our life: we have to “free ourselves from the known”.

The article entitled “What Is Mindfulness (Part I)”  begins the exploration of the approach I have developed and utilized over the last 25 years utilize in my practice.

31 Mar

Being Here: Depression, Stress, Anxiety and All (Part III)

In previous articles on Mindfulness,  I have suggested that most people  have only a limited awareness of their own experiences.  Rather than utilizing our capacity to be aware of and learn from those experiences we are effectively blind to most of them, and don’t even know we are doing this.  This article examines one of the implications of how this limited approach to our own experiences effects our lives.

My “world” as I know it and respond to it comes from my experiences of  that world.   Similarly, who “I  am for you”  is the sum total of  the many complex and varied experiences you are having of me when we are together and how you act towards (or against me) flows inexorably out of those experiences.    While those momentary experiences and actions arise as a result of a vast number of  historical, social, biological  and intrapersonal factors, I am concerned here with the degree to which we are more or less conscious of  those experiences.

If I am not conscious of who you are for me, then what do I really know about you?  What can I say about you? If I am not conscious of my experiences of you in the moment of our being together and of my reactions to being in your presence, then what  sense can I make of those reactions and how could I possibly explain them to you if you asked.

From a larger perspective, if I am out of touch with how I am experiencing you and how I am experiencing my world,  then who am I?  And if my life is not working for me, or I want to improve it, how can I even begin to start making informed and wise choices about this.

Generally, when our world or relationships are not progressing smoothly we try to “think” our way through this.  We sit down with our self and try to rationally assess what is going on, how we have behaved or reacted to a situation, what others have done to us and so on.  While this effort is better than simply blaming someone or something else, or not even worrying about what has happened, it is unlikely to be of  much help in actually addressing the situation.

Trying to recollect and think about such complex and complicated processes after they have happened is a notoriously problematic way of making sense of events . If you have not been paying close and careful attention to your experiences as they were occurring, you will have to reconstruct them from memory.  Trying to recall what happened some time ago and then converting that limited and selective information into a certain form of rational-logic we call thinking has to result in a distorted if not inappropriate assessment of the situation.

There is a very high probability that the choices and actions flowing from this process will lead to further complications and/or conflict and then it becomes even more difficult if not impossible to resolve. Such is the situation most of us face on a daily basis.

If  I am confused about who I am, who you are and what I am doing, and you are equally confused then what kind of relationship can we have?   How can I possibly relax with myself  in a world that fundamentally doesn’t make sense.  No wonder people feel anxious and can eventually get depressed about their life and their relationships.

Surely there has to be a better way.

I think there is a better way, a more useful and productive path to follow and hope that the articles on Mindfulness will begin to present that way.  I encourage feedback and responses to what I am writing and  look forward to some dialogue on this issue.

01 Apr

Mindfulness In Our Relationships

Imagine someone picking up a book, perhaps one of the great classics, but they cannot read. All they see is black squiggly lines on white pages. This book is meaningless for this person. Because it is meaningless it has no value and can easily be discarded.

Now imagine a highly skilled reader picking up that book. That same book now has a wide range of qualities that it didn’t have for the first person.

There are characters and events that generate a complex and fascinating world of images and meaning and will probably generate a wide range of emotional responses that did not and could not exist for the first person.

In this way it has become something much more, something very different, and something of much greater value. If we think of our experiences of our self, of others, and of the world we live in as a book, people generally seem to be very poor readers.

The information they are able to access is very limited, and therefore has little meaning and value. Let me be clear about what I am saying. Most people, if asked, would of course be able to identify what they are thinking about, how they are feeling, what they are looking at, etc.

But oddly enough, it is only when someone actually asks us what is going on in our mind that we tend to really notice.

Herein lies the problem.

Only rarely do we actually become aware of where our mind is at. So this otherwise reasonably accessible level of understanding is typically restricted from our awareness.

And it is restricted primarily only because we generally don’t pay attention to it. As a result, a great deal of potential learning opportunities go unrecognized by us.

This potentially valuable information, as a source of knowing about our self, is generally not accessed and thus not utilized by the average person.

As I have discussed in previous articles relationships, there are two fundamental and critical relationships we need to pay attention to: The relationship we have with our self, and the relationship we have with others and the outside world.

Most people don’t pay attention to either, and, I would argue, don’t even know how to pay attention. In many ways, we have as much understanding of our self and the world out there, as does someone who has a book in their hands but doesn’t know how to read.

If we really want to know about either of these relationships, we have to learn to be mindful. Learning how to pay attention properly is crucial to understanding our self and others.

This idea will be discussed and expanded in other articles released around the subject of mindfulness.

09 Mar

What is Mindfulness? (Part I)

To be clear from the start, whatever the process is that anyone is pointing to when they talk about mindfulness, it is  not that.

The actual experience that one is referring to in discussing mindfulness or awareness cannot be described.  Such is the conundrum posed in trying to present such a topic.

No matter what I might say or how I might describe mindfulness, it is not that.

And yet, mindfulness as a practice, or as an orientation, or as a quality of experience is as real (if not more real) than even the material world.  Indeed, to me it is perplexingly odd how little most people know about mindfulness or the immense value it can offer.

Let me therefore try to offer a brief glimpse of mindfulness as I see it, with the understanding that I am using these words to point you towards something beyond the words.  Somewhat like a recipe for a cake, if you follow the instructions you may get a taste of something that can never come from the paper the instructions are written on.

In order to begin, I would ask that you understand that the first few steps I am going to ask you to do, in and of themselves, will have little relevance or meaning  for you.  But if you bear with me, I hope we can move past the “so what” part and begin to talk about mindfulness in a more meaningful way.

Concentration Practice.  Learning to stay connected to the present moment.

Step 1:  

Okay, let’s begin.  What I would ask you to do for about 5 seconds is look at the symbol at the end of this sentence; so when you are ready:  +

If you did what I asked, then you have briefly entered into a state of mindfulness.

And as I said, it will have very little meaning for you.  (As a rough analogy consider giving someone a key to something but they don’t yet know what it is for).

So let me make an important observation here.  Entering a state of mindfulness is simple; staying there is the difficult part.  Put another way, it is not hard for someone to wake up, it is nearly impossible for them not to fall back asleep.  If you want evidence of this particular difficulty then let’s move on to step two.

Before we begin, let me clarify that in order for the rest of what I want to show you to have any value it has to be experientially true for you.  That is to say, I don’t want you to believe what I am telling you, I want you to see it for yourself.  If you do the practice you will have the experiences for yourself, and the truth of what I am saying will be self evident; it will come from your own experiential reality.   So please, try the next exercise before you continue reading.

Step 2:

Go back to the symbol and try to maintain your awareness of it for 30 seconds.  Don’t read any further, go back.

What you probably noticed, if you were paying attention, was that within a matter of seconds you began to have various types of “intrusions” into the previously clear state of awareness.  Perhaps you found yourself counting the seconds out loud, or wondering why you were even doing this exercise.  If this, or some other type of intrusion didn’t happen (thoughts, images, memories etc.) there are a few possibilities to consider.

Perhaps you are already skilled at maintaining a sufficient level of awareness to complete the task.  Or, perhaps your existing awareness of your own experiences is so limited that you didn’t even notice the intrusions.

If you didn’t notice these intrusions and are not already skilled at doing this, then this presents a roadblock which must be overcome before we can move further down the road.  Try the exercise again, and see if that helps.

If you completed the exercise and noticed the intrusions then there are a few observations which we should be able to agree upon because they were actually part of your experience.

Firstly, you didn’t ask for these intrusions to occur, they just happened.  Watch this carefully until you can verify for yourself  if what I am saying is true or not.

Secondly, there is no way of predicting how such intrusions will present themselves.  Mainly they tend to be thought level experiences but can take a variety of forms which shift and blend seamlessly into one another.

Importantly, these phenomenon that I am calling intrusions are occurring all the time during your waking (and dreaming states).  In fact they are actually the products of your own mind which are constantly overlaying themselves on top of your sensory experiences.

Given that the intention of the exercise was to maintain concentration on the symbol, if you were distracted by these intrusions, you were probably beginning to fall asleep (see What is Mindfulness? – Part 2  for clarification)

If this all makes sense to you so far, then we have the basis for beginning to discuss the meaning and interplay between topics such as “mind”, “reality”,  “truth”, “self”, “legitimate suffering”, “depression”, “surrender”, and a whole host of other descriptors of human experience.

I want to repeat however, that in order to truly understand these discussions you must first have the actual experiences, have your own truth.  If you are with me so far then we can move forward, which we will do in my next post.

15 Oct

What is Mindfulness? (Part II)

In my previous post, “What is Mindfulness? (Part I)”, I offered an exercise in paying attention to the symbol  + , in order to introduce the idea of Mindfulness. In this article I would like to consider this Mindfulness process further to hopefully provide further clarification as to what it is, and what it is not.

All animals. even newborn infants, can “pay attention”.  In addition to constant scanning of their environment, sudden noises or certain movements will reactively generate curiosity or alert responses such that the animal’s or infant’s attention is immediately drawn to such events.  Typically the animal or infant only “notices” such events for a very brief period of time before their attention re-directs somewhere else.  This type of response is automatic and essentially “hard wired”  into the organism.

A more complex process than briefly noticing occurs when attention is sustained for an extended period of time, perhaps for many minutes rather than seconds, and typically happens in us humans only as our brains mature and develop.

The capacity to engage in intentional focussing or concentration is an even more complex attentional task.  I am not talking here about the more limited type of attentional demand required to watch television or read a book. Rather I am referring specifically to the type of sustained attentional activity required, for example, in maintaining awareness on the symbol  +.

Such a task is more complex because in order to accomplish it successfully, one has to be able to do two very unique things.  First, in order to actually maintain  focus on the symbol, one has to also be able to “notice” other experiences described as “intrusions”,  so as to exclude them. These “intrusions” refer not only to external events such as sounds for example, but also to those types of experiences we would describe as internally generated states such as one’s heartbeat, or perhaps physical discomforts.

But internal experiences would also includes those events we would normally describe as being created by one’s own mind, such as thoughts, memories, and even emotional states. In other words, in order to focus on the symbol as an “object” of awareness, one also has to have a well developed capacity to be aware of one’s subjective experiences.

The second attentional complexity involved in this task is that one has to not only notice these various types of  “intrusions”, but then, in order to refocus back onto the symbol, one has to override the almost unconscious tendency to get distracted by these intrusions.

For those who can easily notice these various “distractions”, and then not get carried away by them, these complexities may seem rather simple. But many people struggle with such a task, for a variety of reasons, making it almost impossible for them to complete the focussing exercise properly.

But, you may ask quite sensibly, since this all sounds like fairly standard requirements for the practice of meditation, what does it have to do with Mindfulness?  And why is any of this important anyway?

My answer to the first question first requires an unfairly brief description of meditation.  Clearly there are many different kinds of meditation practices: some are designed to help us relax while others are meant to produce altered states of consciousness. But one feature common to many meditation techniques is that just as with the symbol exercise, you are explicitly requested to maintain awareness on a particular “object” of attention (often your breathing), notice the arrival of the “intrusions”, and then “let them go” and return to your breathing.

But this direction to notice and then exclude or “let go” of  those experiences identified as “distractions”, or “hindrances” completely bypasses the one critical step, which in my opinion, one absolutely must take in order to properly utilize the practice of Mindfulness.  And I would describe that step by saying that one of the core and defining features of Mindfulness is that it serves as a vehicle by which we come to learn about and more deeply understand the nature of our subjective experiences, typically the very experiences being excluded in meditation.

Mindfulness, as I describe it, offers a way of learning about “mind”; a vehicle by which we use all of our experiences to learn about the nature of our self,  and about our relationships with others and the world in which we live.

By my definition, if you learned nothing about yourself in the process of focussing on the symbol, (or in your practice of meditation) it means you were unable to profit from the process of being Mindful.  This distinction may seem confusing or perhaps trivial. But in my experience it is precisely this failure to see or understand this difference that explains why it is that most people cannot see this doorway in order to to go through it.

So in the symbol exercise, or in a meditation practice where you were able to notice the “intrusions”, and were able to return your focus to the symbol, then good for you.  But you weren’t being Mindful, at least not yet.

As for the second question,  “why is this important”,  it is because Mindfulness, as I practice and teach it, offers a particular way of “knowing” that is completely different from our traditional way of knowing and learning things.  It is because it is so different, that it is also so hard to grasp without practice.  I will discuss this particular way of Knowing in an upcoming article called, “Mindfulness, A Way Of Knowing”.