Saturday, April 28, 2018

Mindfulness is Not “Therapy”: Understanding Healing vs Fixing in the Practice of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is Not “Therapy”

Understanding Healing vs Fixing in the Practice of Mindfulness

The psychological community has whole-heartedly embraced ‘Mindfulness’ in response to the many mental health benefits that are reported by individuals and documented in peer-reviewed literature.  The research continues to develop with more robust design, and the scientific community has just begun to quantify and qualify the effectiveness of this practice that has been proven through the millennia (it is, after all, a 2500 year old practice!) 

As a passionate mindfulness teacher this is encouraging and exciting; however, it comes at a cost. As with the wide-spread adoption of any new technology or idea, critical elements and understandings can become lost or diluted, and as a result so does its impact - sometimes to the extent that its very nature becomes distorted. While I applaud that mindfulness is being adopted so broadly, and that it is being offered for so many to benefit, I also see how misperceptions about what the practice is have impacted what is offered in the name of ‘mindfulness’ in many cases.

Over the past several years mindfulness has become widely utilized as another ‘modality’ in Psychological practice as a result of this embrace. However, when therapeutic practitioners seek to incorporate mindfulness into their work as a modality without appropriate understanding, the practice loses its integrity (‘coherency with itself’,) meaning and efficacy. I’d like to unpack the crux of this misunderstanding in an effort to champion the power that authentic mindfulness practice can offer, as I have been a fortunate witness to many, many individuals’ process and transformation through the learning of a true embodied and integrated mindfulness practice.

Although we may hear this often, or maybe because we do (and it therefore it becomes merely white noise,) the understanding that ‘mindfulness is not a technique’ often goes unheeded in the pursuit of its adoption. The issues this presents are two-fold: one is the very nature of mindfulness and many of the benefits it can provide are no longer being offered when a technique-based teaching is utilized; the other is that a technique-based approach can, in some instances, cause harm.

To understand why this occurs in the context of the therapeutic community there are a few concepts to unpack: how the therapeutic encounter is understood, what the elements of a therapeutic encounter involve, and finally what it looks like to teach mindfulness in this context (or any context.)

Recognizing Healing vs Fixing

Most therapists would acknowledge that the most powerful work they do is in the realm of ‘healing’ rather than ‘fixing’; and that the catalyst for this healing work rests within the relational field, rather than with any techniques or approaches. So, too, does the art of teaching mindfulness exist firmly in the realm of healing in this way. However, in the therapeutic encounter there are also necessary elements that function as intervention, with an intention to ‘fix’ or help.

The movement between these two intentions is where the use of Mindfulness in a therapeutic context can become confused and lose its impact: the therapeutic power of mindfulness lies, at its very heart, with the paradox of letting go of the need to fix in order to heal. This doesn’t mean that we give up trying to help ourselves or others; but the ability to recognize the difference between these intentions informs the understanding of the practice of mindfulness. This can be difficult to understand because it can’t be grasped through conceptual framework and is therefore easily lost in the push to utilize mindfulness as another ‘modality’ in therapy.

While the work a therapist does is relational in nature, it is generally held within some conceptual framework or theory of psychology that informs that relationship (think: psychodynamic, humanistic, cognitive, integrative, etc.) Additionally, there are the many therapeutic ‘modalities’, often informed by these paradigms or theories, which function as intervention, technique, or tool-kit. Modalities might be conceived of as methods to work with a set of symptoms or issues (EMDR, CBT, DBT,) or to work with a particular kind of resource (equine therapy, sand-play, etc.) in the interests of therapeutic ‘work’. However, to treat mindfulness as a one more ‘modality’ involves a fundamental flaw.

Why Mindfulness Doesn’t Work as ‘Modality’

To approach Mindfulness in terms of therapeutic modality is problematic in a number of ways. The problem begins with a fundamental operating principle of mindfulness practice in the context of trying to ‘fix’ something. 

In order for mindfulness to be in integrity with itself – to be truly the practice of mindfulness and not something else – a practitioner has to be willing to set aside all goals other than awareness of what is happening in the present moment. This doesn’t mean that there is anything invalid about learning mindfulness practice because we want to change something in our lives; it’s perfectly legitimate to have a reason or motivation for wanting to learn. In fact, most find the practice because they are suffering in some aspect of their life and looking to find the way out of that suffering.  Those dealing with anxiety, depression, or chronic pain… or any number of physical and emotional difficulties have found relief and healing after coming to mindfulness intentionally for that purpose. 

But it’s also where things can get a bit messy in the utilization of mindfulness as a modality in a therapeutic environment, because this very benefit is only to be found in the subtleties and paradox within the practice - where embracing *what is* allows change and healing to happen. This isn’t something that can be easily translated through the introduction of a few ‘techniques’ to employ when difficulties arise, or by practicing in order to achieve change directly: 

Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness includes the descriptor ‘non-judgmental’; and understanding what this means can be helpful in seeing how this is so.

What is “Non-Judgmental” Awareness?

A critical capacity in teaching mindfulness is guiding others to recognize the various ways we hold ‘lenses’ which obscure our ability to see clearly what is happening in the present moment. 

Recognizing the presence of these lenses is rolled-in with the definition of mindfulness offered by Kabat-Zinn when he includes the ‘non-judgmental’ attitude/element in mindfulness practice. The judgement which he is referring to goes beyond (but includes) what we generally think of as making a judgement or being judgmental, and points to the ability to recognize any bias or perception beyond direct sensory experience (direct sensory experience as the bare phenomena at the sense-doors: seeing, hearing, sensations, etc.)  These biases and perceptions function as lenses through which we evaluate (judge) our experience. 

One hard to recognize lens is the one I like to call ‘in-order-to mind.’ This arises even with experienced practitioners, and a mindfulness practitioner must always be on the lookout for this lens because it can be a little sneaky! 

For example, when a practitioner has the experience of bringing mindful awareness to painful sensation and notices that this often times shifts the experience of pain, sometimes to the degree of no longer feeling pain at all, the practitioner can easily slip into the habit of bringing awareness to painful experience in order to get rid of it, rather than to simply observe. Sadly, the possibility that mindfulness would have this impact is pretty much lost when that lens is present! As soon as we begin chasing a particular outcome, it becomes elusive.

Poetry is often used in the teaching of mindfulness through its similar non-conceptual nature. I like this poem by the 15th century mystic poet, Kabir, (translated by Robert Bly) which points to this nature of our minds to want to grab on to one lens or another, he says:

Friend, please tell me what I can do about this world
I hold to, and keep spinning out!

I gave up sewn clothes, and wore a robe,
but I noticed one day that the cloth was well woven.

So I bought some burlap, but I still
throw it elegantly over my left shoulder

I pulled back my sexual longings,
and now I discover that I'm angry a lot.

I gave up rage, and now I notice
that I am greedy all day.

I worked hard at dissolving the greed,
and now I am proud of myself.

When the mind wants to break its link with the world
it still holds on to one thing.

Kabir says: Listen my friend,
there are very few that find the path!

Seeing beyond ‘lenses’ (and techniques)

In mindfulness practice we are cultivating the ability to recognize these various lenses when they are present – to see them for what they are - so that we are less likely to be unconsciously influenced and pushed around by them. This is the ‘path’ that Kabir is pointing towards.  So, when mindfulness is approached as a ‘modality’, which by very nature is a means to an end – a lens of ‘fixing’ – it undermines the fundamental nature of the practice itself.

As a result, the usage of a few basic mindfulness techniques, in the absence of a greater framework of practice, in the interests of offering one more ‘approach’ or tool for handling difficulties will have limited value and impact. 

That isn’t to say those techniques by themselves can’t be beneficial in some ways – they can be useful in moderating behavior when they are used intentionally. It’s just that, like any other similar intervention, one needs to be able to access it in that moment of difficulty, which is when it’s most difficult to call on. In order to have a capacity to drop in in the midst of day to day living more spontaneously and fluidly – particularly at times of great stress - the practices must be cultivated and developed. This is something that just doesn’t happen in offering up a set of techniques:  Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of mindfulness in healthcare, speaks of the difficulty of trying to apply mindfulness in our daily experience:

“It’s a conceit, and probably delusional to think that; oh since mindfulness is just about being in wise relationship with the present moment, well, I can just do that in any moment throughout my day.. It sounds good but it’s the hardest work for us human beings, to even string two moments of mindful presence together…”
(From "Mindfulness as a Love Affair with Life: An Interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn

The techniques themselves are just not going to provide the same experience that learning mindfulness as a robust practice offers. It’s not going to work at the transformative level which embodied practice does; it won’t fundamentally shift the relationship with experience, which is where all of the power of mindfulness lies. 

Most of the research to-date has utilized outcomes from programs offering a robust practice taught by highly qualified instructors who are able to impart not only techniques, but how to work with them skillfully in the full range of experience, along with the spirit of the practice rather than a collection of procedures to employ. 

Learning mindfulness in the way it was intended cultivates deep insight into our experience which leads to change and healing at a very different level that, over time, becomes self-perpetuating.


On a regular basis articles appear in the news media criticizing and casting doubt on mindfulness as a valid or useful approach, or suggesting that its impacts are overstated. While it’s true that mindfulness isn’t a cure-all the way it is sometimes discussed, these articles are generally a response to the fact that what is often offered in the name of mindfulness are significantly watered-down techniques, or even something completely different. 

For example, among the many usages I’ve encountered, the word ‘mindfulness’ is regularly misappropriated to describe meditation in general (rather than the very specific form which is mindfulness meditation,) other spiritual and ‘new-age’ practices, positive-psychology, or as a catch-all for wellness in general. This can cause confusion for those therapeutic counselors or organizations seeking to offer programs that are ‘mindfulness-based.’ This confusion has resulted in the proliferation of what is becoming known as ‘pop’- mindfulness or 'McMindfulness'; which tries to appropriate the results of the authentic practice of mindfulness with band-aides and feel-good instant fixes - where mindfulness is merely relegated to a buzz-word.

Additionally, the offering of basic techniques and instructions that are not informed by a depth of understanding and experience can bring a potential for causing harm. Without experience with the subtleties of practice, an instructor would not know how to effectively and safely guide a practitioner confronted with obstacles of varying nature

Most often this would only result in providing instruction that is misguided; however, it is also possible –particularly when working with individuals who are dealing with varying degrees of psychological distress -  that pushing a particular technique without fully understanding it could exacerbate mental health problems, including trauma

It’s not hard to understand when some who work in the therapeutic community find fault with ‘mindfulness’ in light of this. However it’s not the practices themselves which are problematic; rather the use of something else in the name of mindfulness, or a lack of understanding of the practices that are being taught which has created this confusion.

Mindfulness as Service: Where Mindfulness Works in a Therapeutic Environment

There are, however, many therapists and counselors who have spent time with their own mindfulness practices and who are adept at offering mindfulness as an element within a therapeutic context, or even trained to provide instruction. 

These therapists recognize that the practice of mindfulness is the practice of being present ‘in service’ to our own experience, and that the most impactful benefit to the client is this service to themselves in their role and relationship with the client.  A therapeutic practitioner with such a practice is able to stay more present and open to the healing that takes place within the relationship. This is incredibly powerful; far more impactful than the offering of a few techniques. This simple act of being fully present with another human being can in itself provide a profound catalyst for change and healing.  

The following, a Zen Koan, points to this:

One day Chao-chou fell down in the snow, and called out, ‘Help me up! Help me up!’
A monk came and lay down beside him.
Chao-chou got up and went away.

Mindfulness can only ever be held as an offering and taught in a context of ‘service’ and relationship; it can’t be taught as a commodity or used as a modality without losing its integrity with itself. It can’t be provided as another technique to add to a bag of tricks without losing its essence.  

Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, clinical professor at UCSF School of Medicine, is considered a pioneer in relationship-centered and integrative medicine; she describes the differences between, and the nature of, healing versus fixing in the role of a medical health professional and within a therapeutic environment:

“Service…  is an experience of mystery, surrender and awe. A fixer has the illusion of being causal. A server knows that he or she is being used and has a willingness to be used in the service of something greater, something essentially unknown… fixing and helping are the basis of curing, but not of healing… Only service heals.” (link)

Mindfulness practice is ultimately a way of holding ourselves in service to – and as a witness to - our experience. Mindfulness can be profoundly healing when related to from this perspective.  To teach from the idea of ‘in order to’ is to teach as a way of trying to fix or change something which is not mindfulness at all.  While therapy necessarily includes elements of both, mindfulness is fundamentally based in healing.

Identifying Therapeutic Programs that are Truly Mindfulness-Based

So, with the profusion of ‘mindful’ choices available, how does one determine whether a program or therapist is truly mindfulness-based? How can you identify authentic mindfulness when it is offered?

The first thing one would want to ask is the qualifications of the instructor:  do they have their own dedicated mindfulness practice, and for how long?  Working with mindfulness is cumulative in nature and developing a momentum of practice strengthens and deepens it; so experience level and background will say a lot about what might be offered by any individual teacher. In what ways are they continuing to work with and develop their own practice?

Does their experience include formal practices along with working with mindfulness in daily life? While daily life ‘dropping in’ is an important aspect in cultivating an embodied practice; the formal practices are what inform that capacity.

Can they describe the differences between mindfulness and other meditation or spiritual practices? Many other practices and traditions (yoga, centering prayer, hiking in nature, etc) hold components of mindfulness, and may be done with mindfulness, but in and of themselves are not necessarily actively and intentionally cultivating the practice.  Can a teacher articulate the components of mindful awareness and how that is cultivated?

Have they spent any time in intensive silent retreat – specifically mindfulness (aka Vipassana) retreats? Dedicated, intensive retreat time is critical in deepening the practice and learning the subtleties of practice and the way the mind works in general and in relation to the practice. MBSR trained teachers must have done a minimum of two, week-long silent mindfulness retreats (in additional to other trainings,) which might be a helpful criteria to apply to any teacher offering mindfulness instruction.

Additionally, do they have training to be a teacher of mindfulness by a recognized organization, or by an authorized teacher?  While taking a few workshops or a class in school may provide a baseline for someone to offer a little guided meditation, or even to discuss the benefits of mindfulness, it isn’t likely to be sufficient preparation for teaching mindfulness as a practice. 

Learning mindfulness and working with the practice is an interactive and engaged process, and finding the right teacher will make a significant difference in how that process unfolds and ultimately how it may impact one’s life. Further, although mindfulness practices can serve us in many ways that are therapeutic and can support the therapeutic process; its essence is in service to our experience, not a way to fix it.

Monday, May 30, 2016

What's So Great about Mindfulness of the Breath?

In mindfulness practice we most often start with the breath. The breath is pretty powerful, think about it… we can live for days without food or water, but without the breath, we only last a few minutes. The breath is our bridge between the ‘outside’ and the ‘inside’; we breathe in air from outside, bring it inside our body and it is absorbed into every single cell, our whole body is bathed in it. The word ‘breath’ in Latin is ‘spiritus’ which also means inspire (or inspiration= to take in energy from the world), expire, and also sprightly (to be animated and full of life); in the Hebrew Bible one word for breath is ‘nefesh’ from a root which also means blood, life, soul, person; and another is ‘ruach’ which describes breathing from the mouth or nose, and also means courage, disposition or spirit

Isn’t it Boring?

When people hear about meditation that solely involves ‘paying attention to the breath’ they often feel kind of disappointed; like they are receiving remedial instructions… they want the ‘real’ stuff, not the elementary school version. We tend to think that the breath is pretty boring, mundane, and that’s why most of us don’t pay any attention to it at all. We take it for granted, this totally miraculous process of breathing. We just do it automatically, without thinking about it, although we also have the power to direct our breath if we wish. We like to forget that someday all of us, every single one, will take a final breath. Have you ever sat with someone as they were dying? Those who have speak of a profound experience. Imagine, when you focus on your breath for a few minutes sometime, what it would be to take your last few breaths?  Or go in the other direction and try to bring to mind what it feels like for a newborn baby to take his very first breath. Now maybe the idea of paying attention is a bit more interesting! 

(This cool animated gif was created by Eleanor Lutz)

In mindfulness of breathing, the breath becomes a focal point in order to train the mind. There are other focal points that can be used as well in mindfulness practice – sensations in the body, sound, and thoughts, for example -  however the breath is the most commonly used starting point. According to the teachings that these practices emerged from, it isn’t actually necessary to move beyond the breath in order for profound understanding to emerge.

Physical, Emotional, Mental: The Breath Knows it All! 

One way this works is because the breath is tied so closely to both our emotions and physical states; our breath can tell us so much about our experience when we begin to really pay attention. We often breathe faster under stress, or more shallowly because we are holding some of the muscles involved in breathing more rigidly, for example. When we feel good and are at ease, the breath becomes more relaxed and we take longer breaths. Certain moods may bring with them particular patterns of breathing for each of us.  When I am really stressed I’ll often find myself holding my breath without realizing it! So when we start to tune into the breath, and its various subtleties, we can start to learn a lot about ourselves, just on that level.  We start to notice these patterns… the interesting thing is that when we notice what’s happening, and we can alter our breath and have more of a conscious impact on not only our physical experience, but also potentially on our mind-states (like when I notice I’m holding my breath in stressful situations, I can stop and take a long, deep breath and it can have the effect of centering and grounding me.) Often times, when we become tuned-in to ourselves in this way we start to recognize patterns of reactivity that we hadn’t noticed before – at least not until long after they’d arisen and had their way with us! We recognize things sooner because we’re paying attention to a more subtle layer of experience.

Taking Up Residence

When we begin training with the breath we start with an intention to stay close to the sensations of breathing in one location in the body – without trying to manipulate or control it -  usually at the abdomen in the secular MBSR curriculum. (Using this location can help us to become more focused within the body.)  We stay with the direct experience, take up residence with it – the natural sensations of rising, falling... expanding, contracting -  all in that one location. We don’t follow the breath throughout its whole course through the body;  this way we have a smaller area to focus on and anchor to. When we stay put like this we start to notice the sensations that are involved with each momentary experience of breathing in and breathing out. This idea of an anchor is important. We are training the mind to stay present and we want to give ourselves a safe place to settle back on whenever we get lost! Our ability to stay ‘with’ the breath can seem discouraging at first; we find our minds don’t like to stay present so they jump around all over the place. Most people starting out find they can’t stay fully present with the breath for more than one and a half breaths! … and what we tend to begin to notice in this initial experience is what our unruly mind is busy doing so much of the time: 
“Somewhere in this process you will come face-to-face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way and you just never noticed.” (Bhante Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English)

This process of returning back to the breath over and over again is an important part of the practice. We begin to see a whole microcosm of experience in what we might’ve previously imagined to be boring and monotonous and paid no attention. Not only does it train the mind to return to the present, but also often results (eventually!) in a mind that is able to come to a center; to be calm.  

We learn so much about ourselves, physically, emotionally and mentally, when we allow ourselves to settle in with the breath. The very simple breath, as it turns out, can be a key to the whole universe! Carl Rogers, the renowned psychologist, once said, “What is most personal is most general.” The breath is immanently personal; and yet it is also our connection with everything else.

So, go ahead and give the breath another look! Try some mindfulness of breathing. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Mindfulness and Perception: How we see or don't see affects our lives

Mindfulness has many reported, and evidence-based, benefits; enhancing aspects of the physical, emotional and social. How does 'paying attention' create such a significant result in our lives? In looking at how perception impacts our lives, and at how mindfulness impacts our ability to perceive, we can begin to see some ways in which this practice can affect our relationship with the world. 

How we ‘see’ things – how we interpret our experience, is dependent upon many factors such as emotional state, past experiences, and beliefs, for example. A coiled rope on your path may appear as a snake or a backfiring vehicle may sound like a gun shot. More commonly, for most of us, it can be quite easy to misinterpret the meaning of another's words, such that a benign comment may be experienced as an insult when we are feeling vulnerable or in a bad mood. Our perception isn't so straightforward, and what we think we 'see' isn't always accurate. 

Perception: Patterns and Symbols

In order to make sense out of –and function in- our environment, we must be able to organize, identify and interpret our experience. As new babies we are subject to an onslaught of colors, sounds and sensations, and in order to interact in the world we begin to learn to categorize and prioritize these experiences. We end up with a very sophisticated system of symbols and labels.  

Language being one of these very important systems, along with the ability to discern meaning from patterns of experience; to recognize what is safe and what is a threat, for instance (‘Mom’ is safe; someone we’re not familiar with, a threat.) This process of learning to perceive our environment is necessary to our survival and functioning. However, this can begin to work against us when our interpretations and systems become rigid and inflexible. It’s not hard to lose sight of the fact that these tools for navigating our world are just that, tools, and we can begin to believe that these symbol systems and interpretations are actually objective facts or 'reality'.

What are we really seeing? 

Betty Edwards, an art teacher and the author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, recognizes how this tendency gets in the way of artistic skill for many people. 
“Visual information from the real world is rich, complicated, and unique to each thing we see. [However]... adult students beginning in art generally do not really see what is in front of their eyes … They take note of what’s there, and quickly translate the perception into words and symbols mainly based on the symbol system developed throughout childhood and on what they know about the perceived object.” -Edwards

Before and After Five Days of Instruction - Illustration from Betty Edwards "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain"

She has developed a five-day workshop which teaches almost anyone how to draw well, and her book presents the information covered in the workshop. What she teaches people is not artistic ‘skills’ per se, but rather how to ‘see’ the way an artist ‘sees.’  She does this by directing attention toward -and exercises working with - the elements that make up an image such as edges, spaces and shadow, among others. (with miraculous results - see the image above for before and after drawings!) 

We might also consider this tendency of not recognizing our symbol systems for what they are as a significant stumbling block in ‘thinking outside the box’.  We quite easily confuse our perceptual interpretations for what’s objectively true and are then unable to shift our thinking to any alternative possibilities. We get stuck in our same-old pattern. 

Another way to recognize how our particular interpretation of sense data isn’t necessarily reliable ‘fact’ is to consider optical illusions such as the young woman-old woman. Both images are present, but whether you initially see one or the other is dependent upon which perceptual cues you pick up. Whether you can eventually see both has a lot to do with how fixed your perception is after your first impression – are you unable to let go of the concept that was formed when you noticed the image initially? 

The ability to recognize the bare data being processed (color, shapes, negative and positive space, etc.)  while noticing the perceptual information derived from it (nose, hat, chin..)  facilitates more flexibility with that process – enabling us to let go of the idea that a particular arrangement of lines means “nose”, for example, so that we are once again open to ‘seeing’ what other interpretation might be available.

In mindfulness meditation we are training the mind to be more readily able to ‘think outside the box,’ and we are doing this not by trying to see 'outside' vs 'inside', but rather by becoming more intimate with it, that is, its components – letting go of the concept of 'box' and seeing what is really there. In general, it's through connecting with direct experience (seeing, hearing, felt sensations, etc.,) that we are able to engage at that level. We can still see at the conceptual level, of course, but we also begin to have more flexibility in recognizing the range of conceptual interpretations that are available to us based on the underlying data. We never lose the ability to see a ‘box’, but we also enable a greater cognitive flexibility

Seeing how we are seeing

In order to perceive in this way we are not only seeing what’s really there - or becoming aware of “the bare data of cognition” – as Bhikkhu Bodhi refers to it - but also of how we are perceiving; becoming aware of 'bare' experience, and also aware of the awareness of experience.  This is what Jon Kabat-Zinn is referring to when he says, “paying attention in a particular way”… it’s an attention that is present with direct experience and also recognizing how we are relating to present moment experience. This is a greater understanding of what it means to be mindful than merely ‘being present.’

Our ability to recognize how we are perceiving our experience can have a significant impact on us, this is evident in a very real way if you watch the powerful 15 minute TED talk by health psychologist, Stanford professor and best-selling author, Kelly McGonigal, PhD. Her TED talk on ‘How to make stress your friend’ is one of the most popular TED talks of all time.  In it, she discusses research that shows how you perceive stress has more of an impact on our health and well-being than the stress itself, and that the awareness of this effect can serve to change that relationship.

She asked the question, “Does the perception that stress affects health matter?”

Beware: Watching this video might just have a transformational effect!

“It turns out that thinking that stress is bad for you is.. really bad for you.”  - McGonigal  (Research indicates that believing stress is bad for you comes in at the 15th largest cause of death in the US!)

The good news is that once we start to realize how our perceptual process and systems can trick us into believing our own conditioned minds in such limiting -and sometimes harmful- ways, we can also begin to understand how to moderate this effect. Mindfulness practices can help to establish a higher degree of proficiency with this very powerful 'tool' of the mind; our perception.  

Learning mindfulness not only helps us to become more present and connected in our lives as is so often reported, but also provides us with the skills to utilize our human tool-kit far more creatively and effectively. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The difficulty and importance in defining ‘Mindfulness’

You are driving in traffic, someone cuts you off, barely missing hitting your car. Your young child is sitting in the seat next to you. A rush of adrenaline shoots through your body, your heart rate spikes, and you feel a flush of heat. Automatically you reach across your child’s body and your foot moves to cover the breaks. Your mind starts reeling… quickly calculating the many possible scenarios that ‘might’ve’ happened due to this thoughtless driver… your child, your car, yourself…  

The effects of this momentary experience could go in a couple of different directions; one from unconscious, habitual reactivity, and the other through the lens of mindfulness. Without having cultivated an ability to shift into mindful awareness, the most common result is an unchecked proliferation of angry and fearful thoughts, affecting how you interact with your young child for the next few minutes or hours, your attitude (aggressiveness?) from behind the wheel, and the natural, momentary stress reaction snowballing into a full-fledged, uncontrolled stress response affecting your mental and physical health. However, training in the practices of mindfulness, the intentional act of bringing non-judgmental awareness into the physical experiences happening in your body and the arising of thoughts and emotions, enables you to short-circuit the reactivity and restore a balanced mind to move through the rest of your day. 

An Unclear Definition as an Obstacle to Learning

Having training and practice in mindfulness can be deeply transformational, not only enabling us to intentionally respond better to stressful situations like with traffic, but also in shifting our relationship with others, ourselves, and our experience. However, one obstacle in endeavoring to learn mindfulness practices can be in the understanding of what “Mindfulness” actually means. Mindfulness has great cache these days based on significant outcomes in medical and health research, as well as in education and the corporate sector, among others.  Having thus entered into the popular culture the word “mindful” or “mindfulness” has come to be bandied about quite loosely, and the word is often used as an attribution for programs or classes that aren’t actually teaching the practice. Sometimes the word is merely added on as an adjective for an activity, such as ‘mindful drumming’, something I’ve recently seen advertised, for instance. And in other instances there may be an intention offer meaningful instruction in mindfulness, however what is actually being offered is only a few techniques, rather than guidance in the practice. (and, while there are many benefits to be had in some of the techniques offered in the name of mindfulness, there is a big difference; something I will address at a later date!)  

So, what's the definition? 

Mindfulness is a non-conceptual practice, so any attempt at providing a definitive meaning can be slippery. Although the word mindful has a particular meaning in English, the word mindful used in the context of a specific ‘practice’, (the practice which has been studied so widely) has much more nuance. The dictionary definition of ‘Mindful’ is, “bearing in mind; inclined to be aware” (Mirriam-Webster). Mindfulness practice is a practice of awareness, and as such, can seem deceptively simple when plainly interpreted, but it’s really not so easily pointed-to or defined. The English ‘Mindful’ was taken as a translation of the word, 'Sati' from the Pali language. Sati is an aspect of contemplative practice originally described in the Buddhist suttas some 2600 years ago. And even amongst Buddhist scholars this originating word, Sati, has been subject to much debate regarding its meaning. 

To work from a simple English definition of ‘mindful’, then, is misleading and overly simplifying; while practicing mindfulness is a practice of awareness, it is a more subtle level of awareness than what is generally accessed by most of us in day-to-day life.  

In looking at a few of the definitions offered by the experts, however, we may begin to have an understanding of what mindfulness practice entails:

Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, the creator of the original Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, from which, all that we see today of this phenomenon has emerged, has one of the most widely quoted definitions of mindfulness, “…paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally…” 

Gil Fronsdal, PhD, another preeminent teacher of mindfulness, in reviewing the meaning of Sati within the Buddhist literature came to a holistic description in trying to incorporate multiple sources by describing it as “being in a state of lucid awareness.”

An oft cited popular definition for mindfulness practice is ‘present moment awareness,’ however, this too is somewhat misleading in pointing toward what the practice is about. Joseph Goldstein, one of the ‘fathers’ of mindfulness practice in the West, and author of one of the definitive books on mindfulness practice, endeavored to clarify the meaning as, “not only ‘being present’, but also an awareness of how we are relating to the present. It’s a special kind of awareness, that incorporates other components – it has a range of meanings.” (and here's a video with a lengthy talk by Joseph about mindfulness for anyone wishing to get a more in-depth understanding)

Goldstein’s definition points to two identifiable aspects to learning mindfulness: One is learning what mindful awareness ‘feels like’, and being able to recognize some of the subtle differences between mundane awareness and the attention referred to as ‘present moment awareness’ or ‘bare attention’. The other is being able to recognize, when accessing this kind of awareness of experience, how we are relating to that experience. Both of these together create what is understood as mindful, or ‘lucid’ awareness. Cultivating these abilities is what constitutes a mindfulness practice. 

Bhante Gunaratana, another luminary in the field, discusses the importance of training and practice in the cultivation of mindfulness in his book, Mindfulness in Plain English (which he offers freely online): “This state of perception has to be learned, however, and it takes regular practice.”

Experiencing mindful states vs. cultivating mindfulness practice

Mindful awareness is something that we may naturally and spontaneously experience in many situations, for instance; mindfulness correlates with the experience of ‘flow’ reported by athletes, it can be accessed through practices like yoga and qi gong, and may be experienced in relation to prayer. Mindful awareness can also accompany instances of extreme physical and/or emotional stress, as well as in states of deep relaxation. Those engaging in highly focused activities may experience periods of mindful awareness. However, none of these represent the practice of mindfulness in and of themselves; which also includes the aspects of cultivation, as well as learning to recognize the many subtle ways attention can fall off of the ‘razors edge’ of this kind of awareness (something that cannot come from conceptual understanding or techniques, but can be understood through guidance from an experienced practitioner); and none provide an understanding of how to intentionally bring mindfulness into other areas of our experience and into our daily life. 

These other usages of the word are only problematic in the sense that they create confusion about what mindfulness is, sometimes even with those who may have been 'turned on' to the practice, but still may not understand the difference between teaching techniques and teaching mindfulness practice. 

Understanding what mindfulness is informs how to best learn the practice, and as such, can help navigate the deluge of mindfulness programs that are likely offered in your local community.  Because, while mindful drumming might be an enriching experience, can be stress-relieving and even transcendent, it won’t teach you the mindfulness you’ll need to engage your experience in a new way when some mindless idiot (please see my previous post on forgiveness as a quality of mindfulness!cuts you off in traffic. And, although learning some mindful techniques can be helpful in stressful situations such as these, remembering to apply a set of techniques can often be a challenge when we most need them. Indeed, approaching mindfulness as if it were merely a set of boilerplate instructions doesn’t lend itself to the fullness and power of what mindfulness truly is.  

However, when mindfulness is understood and approached as something more akin to an Art, something to be cultivated and developed; engaging experience mindfully comes to be a dynamic, natural internal resource. Cultivating mindfulness is a cumulative process, becoming progressively more integrated with our conscious experience, with less and less need to remember one more ‘technique’.  This is the way mindfulness practice becomes not only a resource for stressful times, but also a way to more fully enjoy and engage the full range of our experience. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Unpacking Mindful Communication

How we communicate with one another, especially our speech, is the glue that enables relationship. One could say that communication IS relationship. So this is an important area, and a powerful one, to apply mindfulness. It would seem when considering a practice anchored in meditation, however,  that communication wouldn’t factor in at all.. after all, aren’t we just sitting by ourselves and watching the sensations of the breath for the most part? How does this translate to mindfulness in daily life, and mindfulness in communication in particular?

The answer to that becomes clear fairly quickly to practitioners of mindfulness… it tends to be an exciting revelation early on in practice; suddenly people notice that not only do they feel a little more centered themselves, but it seems to also have an effect on their relationships. They find others tend to respond differently to them – and that’s without ever learning any mindful communication techniques or giving it any thought at all! The key to mindful communication lies in first cultivating an ability to drop into 'mindful awareness', and then in recognizing our intentions when engaged with others. 

As Gandhi has stated, all change starts with the individual; 
"Be the change
you wish to see in the world"
... so it makes sense that the more we know ourselves, the better we function in the world. As I’ve mentioned before, in spite of the seemingly ‘selfish’ nature of mindfulness practice, it is, in fact, a generous act; transforming not only ourselves, but the relationships around us and our relationship with the world. However, as we make our way through the MBSR program we do move from the solitary practices of awareness of breathing, etc., into directly examining our communication from a mindful perspective. What does mindful communication look like, then, and what are some of the priniciples of mindful speech? 

Cultivating Mindful Attention

First, it’s important to mention that utilizing mindfulness techniques in daily life can be difficult to do without having a foundation in mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention, there is a quality of attention that is different from what is generally meant by ‘paying attention’, and it’s this that is developed and cultivated when we take time out for meditation practice each day. Once this is learned, however, it becomes easier and easier to ‘drop in’ to a mindful awareness in our daily life activities– and eventually even shifts into a default mode of operation. So, when we talk about the techniques for mindful communication, it’s helpful to understand that the quality of attention is different from just being aware of what’s going on the way we usually think of it.  A description of how mindfulness is engaged in communication may be helpful to understanding what that kind of awareness involves. 

How to Practice Mindful Communication

Mindful awareness in relation to communication involves being able to feel the sensations of the body; in our culture most of us aren’t in touch with our physical bodies at all unless some very strong experience demands it such as pain or very uncomfortable sensations. Learning to shift our awareness into the body is an extremely important aspect of bringing mindfulness to communication.  When we can notice what kinds of reactions are happening in the body in real-time we can become more responsive to stressful situations; after all, the stress response is a whole body-mind dynamic, only being aware of the content of our thoughts, for example, is not a full awareness of what is happening. Mindful awareness includes it all: Thoughts, sensations, emotions.  We can also use this kind of feedback to help us cultivate positive and nurturing patterns of communicating. 

Noticing Unpleasant Communication

Noticing tension or heat arising can be a cue that we are having a strong response, and having a mindful awareness of this allows us not to get pulled along by that into old patterns of reactivity that don’t tend to serve us well. It gives us a chance to become aware of whatever stories are present about the situation, and to check in with our intentions and desired results, and short-circuit the stress-response instead of reacting in the moment. 

Noticing Pleasant Communication

Bringing mindful awareness to pleasant communication can also be extremely beneficial; in his book Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson, a Neuropsychologist describes how we can re-wire our brains to default toward a more positive outlook.. something that scientists had believed was impossible for adults until recent research in neuroplasticity proved them wrong. By becoming more aware while engaging in happy, pro-active and nurturing communications, we begin to notice those pleasant experiences more, and the intentions and behaviors that enable those experiences. We also notice the kinds of responses we get when we are able to be more present with another. When we become conscious of this we become more able to intentionally apply that to communication when it’s not present; giving us the tools needed, through personal insight (not some list of techniques someone gave us that we’ll never be able to access in the heat of the moment!) to negotiate and change in mid-course.  As a teacher of mindfulness, I’ve heard some beautiful stories of this kind of insight arising in the midst of difficult conversations as we work with the mindful communication homework. 

In in the 4th and 5th week of the MBSR program we provide a ‘communication calendar’ where students can track communications over the course of each week: one week tracking ‘pleasant’ communications and in the next, ‘unpleasant’ communications. The following questions are what we are directing our awareness to in tracking our interactions: 

  1. Describe the communication. With Whom? Subject?
  2. How did the situation come about?
  3. What did you really want from the person or situation? What did you actually get? 
  4. What did the other person seem to want? What did they actually get?
  5. How did you feel (physically & emotionally) during and after?

When looking at this list, one can notice the other major aspect involved in mindful communication: what motivations or intentions are present. When we notice what our intentions are and, for instance, recognizing when we have an intention to connect, as is often the intention present in a pleasant communication, we can see the results both in our internal experience and in the interaction. When we start to experience, consciously, how this dynamic feels often what arises is an interest in listening more and a natural manifestation of compassion – as well as an interest in cultivating this more intentionally in other interactions. We then can begin to apply this in what we’d normally consider unpleasant discussions; where can we find common ground, where can we find an intention to connect where we’d previously focused on what we’re trying to get out of the interaction?  In our awareness in difficult or unpleasant communication, we start to recognize how certain patterns of reactivity toward a challenge don’t serve our purposes. Noticing both pleasant and unpleasant communication, mindfully, we begin to be able to negotiate our relationships more skillfully and intentionally. 

In class, after we’ve spent a couple of weeks noticing our communication patterns, we engage in some fun exercises acting out common patterns of interaction based on Aikido, a martial art focusing on the resolution of conflict and coming into harmony.  The first exercises focus on what it feels like to take on the role of the victim, the passive-aggressive or avoidant participant, and the aggressor – roles we’ve each taken at some point - and the way in which they interact with one-another. Our last exercise focuses on working proactively with a perceived threat, by ‘entering and blending’: holding our own center and boundaries while moving toward a threat or ‘attacker’ in a way that engages and redirects energy without becoming confrontational. In the experiential acting out of these patterns, and the recognition of the physical sensations and emotional responses that accompany them, we internalize the sense of how each feels, something we can reference when we notice these patterns emerging in our daily life.  For instance, most recognize that when we get to engage in a mutual  “I’m right, you’re wrong”  stand-off there is a bit of a pleasant charge to it initially, but that it's eventually just frustrating- there isn’t a ‘winner’.  Having a more pro-active way of engaging up our sleeves can help inform the way we might respond to something that triggers us in the future. 

Principles of Wise Communication

Some further guiding principles in mindfully engaging skillful speech come from a Buddhist perspective. These are questions we can keep in mind that help frame our intentions to enable mindful communication. The Buddha stated that in order to qualify as skillful speech, it must include all of the following: 

Is it necessary? 

Is it helpful?

Is it timely? 

Is it kind? 

When we hold these higher intentions with our speech, and become mindful of the intentions that are guiding us in the moment, we can see the direct experience when we do and don’t end up following them. What happens in the body and mind when we end up making unkind comments? What is the result of an interaction when these guidelines aren’t held? Often we’re not so aware of these when we are focused on what we want to get or are triggered by someone else’s behavior. Bringing mindful awareness to our speech can drive more harmonious interactions, not because we ‘know we should..’ but because we see the way it affects us, others, and drives outcomes. 

All of this, though, boils down to a couple of ‘techniques’ to remember in mindful communication:

1) Cultivate the ability to ‘drop into’ the body when engaging with others. To orient to the body’s sensations you can connect with the felt-sense of the feet against the ground (i.e.; pressure, warmth), as well as to the sensations of breathing in the belly or the chest. Once this connection is established, notice whatever other sensations in the body are arising; tension, heat, tingling or vibration, etc.) This is something that becomes second nature in the course of a meditation practice.

2) Noticing the intentions involved in any communications; what are you wanting to get from the interaction? Is it information, a particular response, or simply to connect?

You’ll be surprised how very powerful it is to simply connect with the body’s responses in real-time and to notice your motivations and intentions as you are engaging with another. Mindfulness in our interactions doesn’t take anything more than an intention to notice what’s happening in the moment when paired with an ability to access mindful awareness.