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.