I’m beginning to write this post as I have yet more questions about Mindfulness echoing around inside my head. It comes up a bit in my coaching, and in the space of a week, I’ve had three lengthy discussions with individuals where it isn’t producing the desired effects, but ‘it should be working’ I’m told.
Once upon a time I sort of thought I had a fairly good idea what it was about, but when I stopped to think about it, I began to wonder..
The wonderings that were coming to mind ranged along the lines of what’s it all about, what do we get from it, all the way to is it really all it’s cracked up to be?
As the answer, I’m really not that sure, emerged from my gut, I was taken back a little bit. I felt the need to explore this a little and thought it might be useful to write about it while I did so.
The aim is therefore to go on a simultaneously contemplative and critical meander around this subject from a learning perspective, without necessarily coming to some definitive answer. The answer would of course depend on who you are, where you’re at and your individual journey. This process has at least helped me to clarify why I will now get off the fence on the subject and hopefully it will for some others.
Before going any further, I have to be upfront about two things:
- I don’t engage much with this current Mindfulness trend, I haven’t done one of these 8 or 10 week Mindfulness training courses and I’ve only read a few books on the topic. I have always felt uncomfortable about the subject. The reasons why will become clear and I do have about 25 years of relevant, albeit alternative experience which I’ll expand upon below.
- I made the mistake of going online to search for some meaning and found that Mindfulness is absolutely everywhere (you probably knew that already). There was some excellent content out there, but I found myself quite bemused by many of the articles I found, some of which were confusing for me, some demonstrating what appeared to be pretty fundamental misconceptions, even by those you’d expect would know better.
Given its uptake and how it is being used psychologically just about anywhere you can imagine, I was perturbed. Let me explain, if I may.
The Mindfulness Movement
As I sought better clarity, I came to a short video clip of Jon Kabat-Zinn. If you haven’t come across the name, he is one of the central figures in the Mindfulness movement where he is regarded as the founder of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR). In his story about Mindfulness the definition he presents is kind of compelling, it brings you onboard and it’s easy to accept it at face value - I felt it strike a certain resonance. You walk away thinking, yeah, that’s really good and it motivates you into thinking that’s the way to go..
The video concludes on a Chinese symbol , 念 which he says is the essence of Mindfulness and means ‘Heart.’ So one could surmise that it’s all about living with heart - and who could argue with that? We’ll get back to this in a minute.
My heart leapt when I saw and heard this association being introduced. It is very interesting to me that Chinese philosophical concepts are being brought into the swathes of Mindfulness.
Originally things like MBSR and Mindfulness based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, arose out of a stripping down and methodisation of Buddhist technique and this probably still forms the backbone of most Mindfulness approaches. But now, many articles, for example by Dan Seigel (www.drdanseigel.com), include Tai Chi and Yoga as part of this stream as broader ‘mindful awareness practice.’ Dr Seigel is also compelling in his explanation of mindfulness (yes, small m this time) being about integration of mind and body in relationship.
However, having done this recent reading, I find myself questioning whether this growing field is not exhibiting some naivity, seasoned with a good dose of reductionism. It appears as if people are doing a practice, but the way it is being employed by many isn’t particularly mindful.
In my view the current movement strips the practices of their deeper utility, meaning and ultimate value. It may appear on the surface that in their application, it’s all beneficial as there don’t appear to be negative side effects (in the wider public domain anyway), so what’s the harm? Yet if you extract something from its cultural (i.e. environmental) and philosophical roots, what do you actually end up with? Isn’t it then just something half baked? (Before you say it, I’m not referring to any religious element here either).
My basis for Opinion
So, who am I to question these eminent people? That’s a great question. My aim is much more about generating thinking around the topic. But here’s a brief overview of my history and experience in this domain.
I have been involved in some form of meditation work since I was about 16 years old (I’m 43 now). I became heavily influenced by my Grandmother’s work with the Sri Aurobindo ashram in Pondicherry in India. It is from here Integral Yoga originated and the centre is considered by many to be one of the leading centres for the study of consciousness in the world. I have also spent some time delving into various Buddhist factions’ meditation following which I moved on to training in Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan) which I’ve been doing for well over a decade now. In traditional Taiji terms, I’m still a novice. My teacher regularly reminds me about (and demonstrates) my continued status as beginner yet I’m studying toward teacher certification in my chosen Taiji style (I now teach classes in my home city of Bath). I had a calling towards Taiji for a long time. From where it came, I have no idea, but it provided me with a sense of fulfilment I could not find elsewhere.
I also studied one of the main philosophical underpinnings of Chinese culture, medicine and Taiji as part of my Master’s Degree in Psychological Coaching where I inquired into its use within coaching.
My motivations in all this were always to satisfy a curiosity about self-cultivation, nothing more complicated than that.
As it appears that related Chinese philosophical concepts are being brought into the mix, it puts it more in my domain of work and practice so I’m going to take a slightly more Tai Chi philosophical slant (to the extent I can as a Westerner and perpetual novice, that is!). I’m also going to look at it from a wider personal learning perspective too - one of whole person learning.
The Cultural and Philosophical Foundations
When we decide to embark on learning one of these ‘mindful awareness practices,’ whether or not it is Mindfulness, Tai Chi or Yoga, I think it is important to be aware that they originate from entirely different world views compared to what we’re used to in Western culture.
The first, and probably most important difference is in how they view the human being. Very broadly, the Eastern cultural perspective does not distinguish between mind and body in the way we do in the West, so any talk of integration of the two is a misnomer. The mind/body question that we get so hung up about is just a philosophical construct that has stuck within our culture. This difference can rarely be grasped through entirely intellectual means however, it is something that must be lived and breathed, and practised to really make sense.
With the above Chinese symbol, 念 , which Kabat-Zinn translates as Heart, the story is even more complex and it opens up a whole can of worms. The symbol used is actually a combination of two symbols. Heart, Xin in Chinese, is the lower symbol 心 and it means so much more than just heart. It is more appropriate to view it as heart-mind and it is the root of physical and mental life. It governs everything from consciousness, to virtue, to all our emotions to the physical function of our body and organs. It also has social connotations in terms of behaving correctly etc. So in this sense, Kabat-Zinn is absolutely correct, Mindfulness is about proceeding with the heart-mind but I wonder whether he meant (or imagined) it to this extent in his definition, or did he just pick it up because it sounds good? And, more importantly, would his audience know any of this?
To put it into some context, the meaning of heart-mind (Xin) has been around for more than 2000 years and its function in life (including self-cultivation) probably crystalised during the time of the first real unification of China and it reflects a new way of looking at the world as integrated complex systems. During this period phenomenon became seen in a way where all parts of any system relied on each other for healthy function, whether it was the new government or distribution networks for example. This theory/philosophy also has roots in agriculture but then extended to helping people function most effectively within any system - politics, business or medicine etc.
From a cultural and philosophical perspective, Xin plays a central role in helping people to follow a path to become the best they can be; to proceed correctly in life, to express their ultimate nature, in relation to their environment. For some, there may be an associated spiritual element and for those who want to pursue that direction, that is fine. The cultivation of awareness (or shall we say a quality of mindfulness) is an integral part of this process but only a part of it. In our Western context, it applies to both mind and body.
The role played by Xin in the process of ‘becoming’ is given in one of the ancient Chinese texts, the Neijing Lingshu:
What responds to the environment is called xin (heart-mind).
What xin brings out is called yi (imagery).
What yi stores is called zhi (memory; memorization).
Because of zhi, knowledge is reorganized.
This is called si (thinking; reflection).
Because of si, one thinks for the future.
This is called lu (strategy; plan).
Because of lu, one makes decisions and takes actions.
This is called zhi (wise; wisdom).
(The translation I have used here is by Zhang Yanhua in Transforming Emotions with Chinese Medicine, 2007)
As you can see, if we take a more complete view of heart-mind as an integral part of a complex system relating to both function and consciousness, the landscape begins to change somewhat. There is far more to the process; processes of thinking; rumination and planning; knowledge cultivation; action and wisdom; not to mention imagery which is often a central process in creativity. The other quality that I find so compelling about this process is the relationship between our environment and heart-mind. We don’t change our relationship with the world inside our heads but in active connection with it. We impose ourselves upon it and it upon us!
This is why I became so perturbed when I heard Kabat-Zinn use Heart as the definition of Mindfulness. Mindfulness as it stands and as it is taught doesn’t reflect heart-mind. And frankly, I’m not sure if it even grasps a fraction of its rich meaning. This is a shame and I think a loss.
Cultivating awareness (or mindfulness)
The usual, standard fare, techniques learned in Mindfulness typically centre upon simple attentional exercises, some of which are derived from mediations, but the principles remain the same. For example, sitting down comfortably and focussing on a particular quality of the breathing process. It is commonly, but not exclusively, taught as an effortful focus of concentration as opposed cultivating to a soft, gentle encompassing awareness.
Intruding thoughts are to be let go whilst maintaining the focus and if you digress, you come back to it without giving yourself a hard time about it. Other techniques involve concentration on particular body parts, or the sensations of rolling a raisin between your fingers and then sensing into the experiential qualities of eating it. There are also movement methods, for example while walking.
These exercises are supposed to help us be present; don’t judge anything; stay focussed or concentrated on what you’re doing; be aware of the process of thinking or wondering of the mind but not getting caught in the thoughts themselves. Some will mention there being a process of managing negative emotions etc.
Inferred (and sometimes implied) benefits of being present moment to moment are in learning to manage our thinking so that instead of being hooked by negative thoughts which are turned into feelings and emotions, we can just lovingly or kindly observe them floating by. We detach ourselves from them. We also avoid more of these negative intrusions because we are supposed to learn to let go of past events we feel critical about and we stop worrying about future ones - we’re just pleasantly floating along in the here and now. Out of this simple process blossoms a new world for the practitioner which we’re told resolves numerous modern psychological, happiness and wellbeing afflictions.
I won’t go into a discussion right now about the emerging evidence used in support of this Mindfulness place which is, on the surface, all rather persuasive. Until you scratch below the surface and find it is not as overwhelming or as robust as one might expect.
I do have to agree that being in the here and now can be a rather pleasant place to be sometimes. And I’m not going to argue with countless numbers of people who have experienced benefits, but the outcome does depend on the context.
The really big but is, however, my growing discomfort that we’re not being told the whole story and I think we’re being sold short.
There are several strands to this discomfort.
The first is that this megatrend is incomplete as a system of practice - a fragment of the whole relevant bodies of knowledge. This is compounded by the process of bolting it on to other very new and unproven psychological methods, which by comparison to the underlying bodies of knowledge that fed mindfulness, have yet to progress out of their nappies.
The second, which is not just applicable to those using it in a clinical setting but also from a performance enhancement perspective, is that to know Mindfulness and the nature of the journey into it, you have to have practised it, gained experience, over a significant period of time. I’m almost sure that doing it for a mere 8 weeks or so probably doesn’t raise any issues in the majority of cases but sustained practise over the long term certainly involves a complex and sometimes scary inner journey of consciousness. This can lead to long term disturbing side effects for some. These side effects are known, acknowledged and explained in the wider systems from which Mindfulness has been extracted. A teacher needs to have knowledge to guide students through this experience and unfortunately it appears that a lot of people are jumping onto the bandwagon without, in my view, sufficient experience and knowledge. Buddha said something along the lines of wisdom comes from practise (not from learning), which is mirrored in the process of becoming from Chinese philosophy that I gave earlier.
Enough of the abstract talk. Lets look at this from a more worldly perspective. In my research into the psychology of elite motorcycle racers, I found a common theme within their experience which was about having a clear mind and being in the moment, yet this being in the moment has a different quality to it than simply being present. It is inextricably linked to having rhythm which by its nature paradoxically contains a simultaneous past, present and future. This, as it happens, aligns with the Chinese philosophy.
In simplified form:
- The motorcycle racer’s first task is to engage with his/her environment. This is their context and they must know it to function effectively within it. By far the majority of elite motorcycle racers have been riding and racing since very early in their lives so their psychology has learned to read the context. This is a complex process that involves reaching out to their environment both statically (walking, standing and looking) and dynamically (adding speed and flow which starts slow and gradually builds up).
- This process leads to a quality of thinking (imagery) that not only guides their seeing of lines, but also a sense of rhythm along with the physical senses relating to the dynamics of riding.
- This leads to the formulation of knowledge about the circuit. Not just where the circuit goes (e.g. left or right) but also the wider qualities of the circuit relevant to racing. It is purpose based.
- When reflecting on this knowledge, racers can begin to form ideas about how they will use it - how they’ll impose themselves upon the environment and influence it (because their being on the circuit and riding it changes the nature of the circuit).
- This turns into a plan of action for their riding.
- They go out onto the circuit to put this plan into action.
- The whole cycle repeats itself as a continuous test, learn, test, learn.
- This leads to the wisdom they have about their context.
- In practice this means that they ride with a plan they want to follow in mind. For example, for each particular corner, they will be able to judge the effectiveness of the plan and whether they could successfully put it into action. If not, why not? This is kept in mind for the next lap during which time the plan may have been reformulated, all whilst still riding the circuit according to their intentions and logging that experience.
- Sometimes there is so much going on with the re-assessment of their rhythm that they need to come off circuit to digest the experience and to change either their tool, the bike, and/or themselves, but this means engaging with experience rather than letting the thoughts merely float by. Riding successfully is determined by feel, and therefore they have to be engaged in those feelings - they’re important. If they detach themselves from a bad feeling, it can lead to catastrophic accidents.
This process distinguishes itself in many ways from the taught central Mindfulness themes, but here I will focus on three:
- There is a very well defined purpose which underpins the rider’s presence and this, by necessity, means that there is a quality of being ahead of themselves.
- There is judgement and critique - from themselves and from the team and this is a necessary component in development. Sometimes this process is unpleasant or painful (i.e. involves thoughts and emotions considered negative, not forgetting injuries);
- They experience an array of emotions and they are engaged with these emotions, they don’t merely notice them and let them float by, they use them as allies in their performance and improvement;
If we extrapolate these processes into other environments where performance can be measured and dissected, the qualities tend to be the same. Top performers everywhere will have a purpose to what they’re doing, they will need to be present while doing it so that they can remember and then judge and criticise it to learn from it. I think that in every case, the associated emotions play a central role in fuelling the process. Anger, frustration, fear, sorrow, sadness, elation, happiness, joy and anxiety tell us very important messages about ourselves in that moment of experience and context. Why disengage or dissociate from them? And what value do we actually derive from detaching ourselves from them anyway? Can you imagine, for example, the best actors, singer song writers and performers disengaging from their feelings and emotions?
There are similarities here with the movements, or forms, of Tai Chi in that they have purpose (in fact they have multiple levels of purposes) upon which there is a gentle soft focus. Awareness and concentration are applied as an ongoing assessment of the movements and, ultimately, there is an element of critique, from both self and teacher which is a necessary component of learning, improvement, practise and, we hope, the cultivation of some kind of wisdom..eventually.
During the self-development of a Tai Chi practitioner, it is anticipate that they will experience a wide variety of feelings and emotions as part that journey.
So why engage with the emotions rather than dislocate and observe them dispassionately? I think it is because you can only really know them when you’re in them. They tell us important things about our experience, and they provide additional, essential depth by adding dimensions that go beyond the rational and linguistic qualities of experience. General intuition is a good example of this.
This would obviously go against the grain in mindfulness so I would ask why can we not immerse ourself fully, in a completely engaged way in our internal and felt experience or do it in connection with someone else - it’s too wonderful to me to miss out and truly what life is about, isn’t it? Like it or not, life is about the lows as well as the highs. In business, for example, entrepreneurialism, there is an almost unspoken reality of there being more lows than there are highs. I don’t think you can sustainably shut yourself off or detach yourself from that experience and remain healthy.
My discomfort also comes from of the idea of drifting along in the moment without an eye for the future. Where is the purpose of our engagement with our world? How do we then act upon the world in an intentional way? Easy compliance perhaps?
When going through a process of creation and innovation, uncomfortable, difficult and frustrating, feelings are part and parcel of the process. As is the process of heavy rumination and deep thinking guided by a close relationship with those associated feelings. Does the creative process get enhanced by the mindfulness detachment, the floating by of this sometimes grating, abrasive process that may eventually lead to worldly moments of enlightenment and creation? The qualities of he creative process are not all roses, perfume and delight. It can many times be a difficult and painful experience full of knockbacks.
These are certainly questions that I am left pondering, aware of my embodied response which is helping me to locate where I’m at with it all.
But it brings me back to what is probably my main discomfort. If I recall correctly, one of Buddha’s quotes says something along the lines that everybody’s path to enlightenment is different.
This for me doesn’t sit well with a generalised learning by formula where the expectation (and false promise) is that everyone will get the same outcome - which is what the message around Mindfulness tends to be. Formulas aren’t good for divergence, in my view.
So with these contemplations ringing in my mind, what about the growing evidence, especially that of the indisputable Neuroscience?
Evidence versus Experience
It says that Mindfulness meditation changes our brains, that certain bits get bigger and thicker, and in a matter of a few weeks. They say it develops the pre-frontal cortex so that it short-circuits the amygdala so regulates stress. These are proven..
Considering the question from a different angle, merely existing and doing things in the world, that changes your brain too. Unfortunately, the world adds complicated context so the scientists can’t actually measure it in a properly controlled way.
If we consider the phenomenological aspects of mindfulness and the qualities people report they gain from the practice, there are also many other activities that can produce the same results.
Here are some suggestions
Spending quality time in the countryside. Walking is good. Just engage with the environment. There’s growing evidence about the value of this for everything from depression to anxiety, to stress. There’s been research into how this dramatically changes behaviour in children and also helps them with their learning. Some research in US regarding what is called Biophilia show some interesting conclusions about how time spent in nature at a young age can reduce the prevalence of depression in later life.
This also has the benefit of building in some healthy exercise which compounds the benefits too, I would think.
Similarly, spend some time in direct contact with animals. Horses have an amazing therapeutic effect, helping to settle and ground us.
Tai Chi is also an alternative option. If taught properly it will provide all and more mental benefits but it is much more functional than Mindfulness. It is a physical exercise too, of course. Correct Yoga teaching applies here too.
Other physical exercise that you love doing can bring similar benefits if you approach them with some sensitivity which is about a gentle and soft focus of awareness on your feel rather than by just mindlessly doing it, focussing on external measurement (e.g. lap times, power output, heart rate zones) whilst listening to some music on your iPod.
When I work with my clients, I have had many experiences where we have to explore alternative directions for them, that are individual to them and sometimes it’s because they’ve been handicapped by the ideas and techniques of Mindfulness itself.
So whilst I do employ procedures that people might identify with Mindfulness there are some fundamental differences in both purpose and outcome. I always desire that the process is one of learning and that my clients learn something new about themselves through their practise.
It is not uncommon for Mindfulness practitioners, including Mindfulness based therapists, to role out standardised scripted techniques that their client is asked to follow. This is done without wider consideration of the functional patterns and psychological tendencies of the client.
A client is given a breathing technique where they’re told to concentrate (usually effortfully) on their breathing and as part of this concentration they most focus on getting the breathing to be full and deep. In effect they’re being told to use effort to control their breathing. Simultaneously they are told to let go of their thoughts and keep a focus on this breathing control. Following a spell of doing this, they’re then instructed to do a body scan which again requires a lot of focus and effort, especially when trying to exert attention onto getting some awareness of various body parts and maybe getting those parts to relax.
If this client is a high achiever with a pattern of going for everything 100% in life without stopping, driving themselves hard in everything they do and feeling disappointed if they don’t do it all with perfection, then giving themselves a hard time if they even have to have 5 minutes of downtime at some point and are always looking for the next rung on their list of achievement, they’re going use these tendencies in their Mindfulness practice.
They’ll set a minimum time like 10 or even 20 minutes which is often much too long. They’ll then employ this same focus and drive on their focus and concentration and if they don’t get it soon, there will be hell to pay inside themselves.
So basically, they learn nothing by perpetuating their own patterns of behaviour.
What they really require is an entirely different way to approach mindfulness practice that takes them in a different direction and perhaps learn something new about themselves in the process. Qualities that they might benefit from learning are to engage gently with natural patterns of breathing without control and similarly just to relax. Initially they may only be able to do this for a handful of minutes - as it actually takes years to develop the capacity to maintain a meditation frame of mind for 20 minutes - especially when you’re living in the real world with real day-to-day demands. Because they’re so bent on being active and doing stuff all the time, this may best be overall achieved using a regular walk in a green, preferably countryside location.
In my experience, it’s unlikely this will be picked up by an attending Mindfulness teacher, by the way. It also won’t be picked up by an online mindfulness course that some organisations are starting to roll out to their staff, nor is an app going to do it for you. And because the person doing the Mindfulness is merely perpetuating and possibly re-enforcing existing habits, they’re not going pick it up, other than some intuition that tells them something’s not working. They could also make things worse. Some of these problems arise because the focus is on the process or technique, rather than the intention, quality of experience and outcome. Keep in mind that in Buddhism there is an underlying intention to the meditations as well as a journey toward an outcome.
Another example, is someone who experiences a pattern of big ups and downs. During the ups, things are fine but as time passes there is a build up of pressure within them. They get to a point where they crash and burn, go of the rails for a while and maybe even sink into a depressive low for a while. Grasping onto the Mindfulness meditations, they meditate hard, and harder, and while they feel great during the 20 minutes or so of meditation, the patterns remain the same in day-to-day life.
The message that this person receives is that the Mindfulness process can sort this out, they’re doing it as diligently as they can so they feel like it’s them and more than a little helpless. But what they don’t get told is that the meditation state may not transfer from the clinical setting or their living room into the complex and challenging world within which they live. The why in this needs to be explored with someone with good knowledge and experience.
I’ve even seen those who have dropped other things they’re doing that were actually beneficial to them because of a promised Mindfulness elixir that looks easier and simpler, takes a lot less effort too. Unfortunately some of these people are in vulnerable places and desperately seeking some resolution.
Unfortunately, it isn’t just in a magical 20 minute daily pill.
In conclusion, if you’re doing Mindfulness and it’s working for you, then great. Otherwise, I suggest you take some care in your choice of a mindful awareness practice and teacher. Consider your options, because you might just get short changed.