Today we peek into the world of Mindfulness as a tool to mitigate against stress, anxiety and the illnesses that stem from them.
Once an old woman came to Buddha and asked him how to meditate. He told her to remain aware of every movement of her hands as she drew the water from the well, knowing that if she did, she would soon find herself in the state of alert and spacious calm.
When something startles you in your car, what is your response? Do you get angry and swear at the other driver? Do you spend the next few minutes worrying what might've happened if you had been in an accident? Or do you sit quietly noticing what is going on inside your body?
If you woke up one morning feeling not too good, do you spend time thinking what it was that you had for dinner the previous night that might have upset your system or how much alcohol you might have consumed or whether you might be getting ill? Or, do you just bring your attention to your mood and stay with it for the day?
When you're sitting quietly in a patch of sunlight sipping away at something nice to drink, is your mind caught up with all the events of the past? Do you spend the time scenario planning what you have on your agenda in coming days? Or, are you aware of the sensations you are experiencing in the moment, like the taste of the beverage you are sipping, the warmth of the sun or the sensation of the gentle breeze on your cheek?
After some strenuous exercise do your thoughts wander or do you notice changes inside your body, like your heart beating faster, the tiredness in your muscles and the changes in your breathing?
When you talk with other people, are you aware of their facial and body expressions? Or are you only entirely caught up in the storyline of what it is you are talking about?
Mindfulness has been around in Buddhist tradition for the last 2½ thousand years. The recent popularity of mindfulness in the West is generally considered to have been initiated by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Clinical psychology and psychiatry since the 1970s have developed a number of therapeutic applications based on mindfulness for helping people who are experiencing a variety of psychological conditions because studies have shown that rumination and worry contribute to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety which in turn may lead to physical illness. We used to refer to these kinds of illnesses as psychosomatic (which literally meant mind over body). It is however, now politer to say that the illnesses are what we might call "functional." Around 70 to 80% of all of our illnesses are functional diseases, ones that result from our mental and emotional state of mind.
But what is this thing called mindfulness? One definition of mindfulness is, "the psychological process of bringing one's attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment, which can be developed through the practice of meditation and other training." Here is a definition from Happify's YouTube animation, "Why Mindfulness Is a Superpower":
That's really cool, "Mindfulness is the ability to know what's happening in your head at any given moment without being carried away by it."
The practice of mindfulness, is one of bringing the scattered mind home, and so of bringing the different aspects of our being into focus. It is also called "peacefully remaining" or "calm abiding."
The Buddhist Eightfold Path consists of these practices: developing the right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right "samadhi" (or meditative absorption or union with all else). Mindfulness accomplishes several things. First, all the fragmented aspects of ourselves, which have been at war, settle and dissolve and become friends. In that settling we begin to understand ourselves more, and sometimes even have glimpses of the radiance of our fundamental nature. Next, the practice of mindfulness diffuses our negativity, aggression, pain, suffering, and frustration, which may have been gathering power. Rather than suppressing emotions or indulging in them, here it is important to view them, and your thoughts, and whatever arises with an acceptance and a generosity that are as open and spacious as possible.
But ever since Clinical psychology and psychiatry adopted Mindfulness practice as a mainstream therapy, it is being used to alleviate a variety of mental and physical conditions, such as bringing about reductions in depression symptoms, reducing stress, anxiety, and in the treatment of drug addiction. It is also good for your body as it boosts your immune system's ability to fight off illness. Mindfulness is good for your mind as it may be as good as antidepressants in fighting depression and preventing relapse. It increases density of grey matter in your brain regions linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation, and empathy. Mindfulness helps you tune out distractions and improves your memory and attention skills. It fosters compassion and altruism by increasing the activity in neural networks involved in understanding the suffering of others, regulating emotions and boosting self-compassion too. Mindfulness enhances relationships, making couples more satisfied with their relationship by making each partner feel more optimistic and relaxed, and more accepting of and closer to one another. It is good for parents and parents-to-be as it may reduce pregnancy-related anxiety, stress, and depression in expectant parents. Parents who practice mindfulness report being happier with their parenting skills and their relationship with their kids, and their kids were found to have better social skills. Mindfulness in the classroom reduces behaviour problems and aggression among students, and improves their happiness levels and ability to pay attention. Practitioners of mindfulness show lower blood pressure, less negative emotion and symptoms of depression, and greater compassion and empathy. It helps health care professionals cope with stress, connect with their patients, and improve their general quality of life. It also helps mental health professionals by reducing negative emotions and anxiety, and increasing their positive emotions and feelings of self-compassion. Mindfulness helps prisoners by reducing anger, hostility, and mood disturbances by increasing their awareness of their thoughts and emotions, helping with their rehabilitation and reintegration. It is known to reduce the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of war and it fights obesity by encouraging healthier eating habits.
But how does Mindfulness work? For you to understand Mindfulness's purpose a bit better, you need to first have a little bit of knowledge about the way your mind and brain works. We use these two terms quite distinctively: the brain is like your smartphone, tablet or computer. It provides all the right circuitry to make things possible. However, without some clever apps, your device is a bit useless. The better the apps that run on your device, the more useful it becomes. Your mind is like the software that runs in your brain and the better the clearer and calmer your mental state, the more useful it is in providing you with a meaningful life. Your mind is an app for survival. It constantly analyses the past, looking for patterns of pleasure and pain. It then creates a mental database of maps, strategies and directions to maximise your experiences of pleasure and reduce your encounters with pain. This part of your brain is like Velcro for bad experiences and Teflon for good ones. This mental app is designed to remember everything that threatened in order to protect you from similar occurrences in the future. Scientists have studied this by experimenting with rats in a maze. They required the rats to learn to navigate the maze in search of food but occasionally they threw in some booby-trapped passageways that delivered an electric shock to rats venturing the wrong way. It takes rats a little while to learn which passages lead to food but it takes only one traumatic experience having taken a wrong turn and a rat will remember it forever. You see, it's an imperative evolutionary design that we have a strong, built-in negativity-bias as it is designed to protect us from harm and perhaps even death. So, when someone breaks your trust, it sticks.
From babyhood we constantly seek familiar situations and surroundings. Early on in your childhood you felt safer being with your mom and perhaps became quite upset when a stranger tried to pick you up. Most kids cry when they have to go to school and there are many people who live in the same house and do the same job for decades. We are creatures of habit, reluctant to take adventures too far into unknown territory. It is also fair to say that most of us are neophobes — hating anything new.
Your mind is also programmed to always make comparisons. In a basic way, it has to decide whether something or someone is friend or foe but this ability to compare often runs away and gets out of control. Then we start comparing at a very different level: Why did she get the bigger piece of cake and not me? Oh damn, his car is better than mine. Drat, he's got the bigger house.
You spend your entire life focused on succeeding and then you die. It seems a bit pointless doesn't it?
Most of us are permanently trapped in some form of anxiety. There are three distinct parts to the way anxiety develops: physical, cognitive and psychological. Before you can experience anxiety, your physical being must be activated. This activation process starts in your five senses. Let's say that you spot a juicy, hairy spider tucked away in a fold of your curtain as you tug on the curtain to close it. A picture of the spider travels from the retinas in your eyes to the visual processing part of your brain at the back of your skull, while the feeling of the spider in your hand travels along a different route to your brain. Receiving these signals in your brain is not yet enough to provoke anxiety. A part of your brain needs to process these signals before the pattern of the spider is recognised and only then is the threat perceived. As soon as this part of your brain realises that this is a big hairy spider, it sends a signal to your adrenal glands that lie just above your kidneys, telling them to release adrenaline to prepare your body to get itself away from danger. Your circulatory and respiratory systems are immediately reconfigured to give your muscles the maximum advantage to escape. This is the first phase of anxiety — from recognition to escape, and it happens in fractions of a second. The second phase of anxiety is the cognitive part of it. Having flung your way out of the spider's space, your mind begins to mull over the consequences of what has just occurred. What might have happened if the spider dislodged itself and jumped onto you? It could have bitten you? You could have developed a large ulcerating sore which might have needed amputation of a limb to prevent the spread of gangrene. What if you never noticed the spider? It could have crawled out of the fabric fold in the middle of the night and walked across to your bed? This phase of anxiety is obsessed with wild, imagined, worst-case scenarios of what could have occurred. We're seldom satisfied to let the event pass by just in the simple way it unfolded. In the late 80s, a lone gunman by the name of Patrick Purdy, walked into an American school in Stockton, California and shot dead 5 children and wounding 32 more. To the horror of the parents of the surviving children, they noticed that their kids began playing games wherein they'd re-enact the shooting, in a way that kids play games of cops and robbers. Psychologists were called in to assess the children's macabre behaviour and they recommended that the children be left to play their games because, by so doing, they were subconsciously making sense of, and rehearsing future strategies for survival. This explains why your minds drifts towards the awful sequence of thoughts about the spider because it is trying to formulate strategies for future survival under the same conditions. The last of the three phases of anxiety is one of behavioural response to what happened. It is completely natural to try to avoid a future encounter with spider by finding ways of making sure one acts more responsibly in the future and how to take preventative measures to minimise further spider contact. But it would become a mental disorder if you began to obsess over ways to avoid the feelings of anxiety you felt when you had your sider encounter. It is now no longer the spider you are anxious about but the anxiety has spread across to being fearful of the fear itself. Such avoidance anxiety could lead to full-blown arachnophobia and complete disruption to your lifestyle. Full-blown phobias mean that you might never be able to enter into a room where there is even the slightest possibility of a spider lurking somewhere in it. Pathology arises when you try to avoid feeling anxious when you think about the actual moment of anxiety. It sounds a bit complicated but it is an ever-tightening noose of worry about something that is, of itself, quite abstract. We've spoken here only of the fear of spiders but there are many other scenarios that hold one captive, like: the fear of flying, the fear of certain animals and insects, the fear of being hurt during an act of crime, the fear of small dark spaces, the fear of water, and the list goes on. Notice though, that all anxiety lies in the future — it is all anticipatory. In general, you are worried about the future impact something might have on you or your life. This third phase of anxiety is called emotional or experiential avoidance. Bring that thought to the present moment however, and it collapses. Whenever we bring a worrying thought to the present moment, it's only impact now is what what's happening in your body right now. Stay with the thoughts and feelings in the moment, ride it out and it soon passes. Most of the things we worry about never actually happen.
Let's play some games with your mind for a while. I'm going to play some sound effects and I'd like you to monitor what happens in your brain as each occurs. Does your mind randomly think of something else? Does it perhaps try to create a story around the sound clip? Upon hearing the sound, does your mind slip into thinking about the past, does it flick into the future or does it just stay present with the sound itself? As I play each sound, notice how each is like a pebble dropped into a pond. Depending upon your own history and upbringing, your reaction to each sound may be very different from the way someone else may react to it but notice how these sounds scatter your thoughts and send your mind out on some interesting trajectories.
Listen to the podcast to hear it.
Mmm… for me this one gives me goose bumps and send shivers down my spine. Here's another…
Listen to the podcast to hear it.
Awkward? Embarrassing? Arousing? What happens to you when you hear this one?
Listen to the podcast to hear it.
Menacing? Then what about this one?
Listen to the podcast to hear it.
I'm now going to ask you to stay completely neutral and unaffected when listening to this one?
Listen to the podcast to hear it.
You can't? We're hardwired to react to a baby's distress calls. And here's one last one which I'm certain you will not be able to remain neutral to.
So what kind of strategy do you use to suppress feelings of anxiety that play havoc with your mind and body? Alcohol can change your state of mind (from one of tension) into another state of mind (namely, one of relaxation). A drink will make things go smoothly for a while and occasionally it's okay but to do this but using alcohol to regularly avoid feeling anxious is a form of substance abuse and a mental disorder. Alcohol and other forms of narcotics are used to suppress feeling anything. They are done so that you can try not to feel because, by not feeling anything, you can avoid feeling anxious. In all the sound clips I played a moment ago, each one had its own intensity and challenge. As you listened to each sound, your mind and body worked hard to find capacity to deal with it. When life is stressful, like listening to the sounds I played, it's far better to increase your capacity to deal with it rather than trying to minimise the intensity of the challenge. When it comes to dealing with stress, an instinctive coping reaction is to fixate on the challenge, looping it through our own issues of the past, old beliefs, previous vulnerabilities and then we lower our capacity to deal with it. This leads to a sense of hopelessness, despair and even depression. By stepping out of the thought-stream by bringing your mind to the present moment, what are you doing? You allow yourself to feel it. Then, having found capacity to deal with it, you can become aware of the challenge and the intensity of the even, only as you are experiencing it in this very moment. This is what Mindfulness is about. By becoming mindful of the challenge and it's intensity, you cease being hypervigilant — scanning your environment for danger. You will feel the sensations of pleasure end pain more vividly but you will no longer attached to them.
The big question then is, "How do I increase my capacity to stay with the intensity of the challenge in the moment?"
I formulated a strategy to instantly still my mind. It's based on the fact that the mind operates in mutually exclusive states. What does this mean? A solitary chess piece on a chessboard is a good example. The piece cannot be on a black and white square at the same time. It can transit from black to white but it can't be in both places at the same time. Your mind is a bit like that too. There are certain things it cannot do together. A general rule of the mind is that the mind cannot hold onto opposing ideas at one and the same time. You can't be the life-and-soul of the party during your deepest moment of despair. So here's the technique I devised: Ask yourself this question and then notice what happens to your thinking, "What is my next though going to be?" Now wait for it to arise… Stillness… no thoughts at all. If another thought arises, then repeat the question again, waiting once more for that thought. Continue doing this each time a new thought arises. You can quickly train your mind to be very still this way.
Do this now while you continue listening to the sound of my voice.
While in this mental stillness (what we might call presence or awareness) pay close attention to something like your breathing, especially if you're feeling intense emotions. Notice — really notice — what you're sensing at this given moment, the sights, sounds, and smells that ordinarily slip by without reaching your conscious awareness. Recognise that your thoughts and emotions are fleeting and do not define you, an insight that can free you from negative thought patterns. Tune into your body's physical sensations, from the way your body feels in its present position, to the rhythm of your breath and the pace of your own heartbeat. Stay with it and ride it out.
Remember to be aware and pay attention in a framework of non-judgement and acceptance. Your mind is quite unruly so treat it lovingly so that you can coach it, like a new puppy that needs to be taught not to pee and poo at the wrong time and place. Stay focussed on the sensations of your breath. Can you follow it through all its facets, from inhalation through exhalation and back again? Thoughts become friends that you shan't be chasing away. Simply become aware of the changing waves of thoughts, sensations and awareness.
As I ring my special meditation bell, listen to its ringing from the beginning to the end as it trails off into silence. Train your brain to come out of your thought stream into the sensory awareness around you.