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.