Mindfulness: A brief introduction

Kabat-Zinn (2006) defines mindfulness as “paying attention, in the present moment, on purpose, non-judgmentally, as if your life depended on it.”  A second, more compact definition attributed  to the writer Jiddu Krishnamurti is “conscious affectionate awareness of the moment.”Check out this new video for a quick introductory illustration of mindfulness (https://vimeo.com/93795056)

Learning a fundamentally new way to think about thinking:  ‘You are not what you think?’  In Western culture, we grown up with a belief that our thoughts and feelings are, by and large, a reflection of ourselvesor our reality—e.g., “you are what you think.”

While there can be benefits to this way of thinking in some contexts, in others, it can cause problems.  In the case of depression or anxiety, for instance, this mindset can lead individuals to see disturbing thoughts and feelings as some kind of a literal reflection of themselves or their reality—i.e., coming from them or saying something about them.  As Arline notes above, once an individual ‘feels depressed,’ they may therefore take for granted that they ‘are depressed.’  As one interview participant said, “Before treatment . . . I just thought that whatever I thought was true” (4).

By contrast, Eastern philosophy reflects a striking departure from these taken-for-granted assumptions.  From this perspective, thoughts…are thoughts.  Feelings… are feelings.  While they may reflect upon reality and teach us
something of ourselves, they do not necessarily fulfill either function.  Instead, this approach understands that thoughts and feelings can come and go, not always linked to our own behavior and circumstances.  To convey this idea, Buddhists talk of “mind-weather”—reflecting the way thoughts or feelings can change, moment-by-moment, like weather patterns or clouds passing in the sky.  Some days, our mind-weather is sunny—everything is easy and unusually calm.  Other days, the storm hits, for no apparent reason.  This type of an experience is perhaps common for most people:  waking up, going to work as normal, then suddenly being barraged by an array of emotions and thoughts associated with an uncomfortable event from the past—or perhaps not linked to anything reasonable at all.

Another helpful metaphor is ‘thought spam.’  Regardless of our filtering system, the amount of junk e-mail that sometimes floods our boxes can be overwhelming and burdensome.

However we describe them, when we are not responding to rushing thoughts and emotions in a calm, non-judgmental way, they can easily sweep us away.  When we “momentarily lose touch with ourselves,” Kabat-Zinn (2005b) observes, we can “fall into a robot like way of seeing and thinking and doing.”  It is in these moments that we can “find ourselves taken hostage and carried away by the thought stream.”  It is not difficult to see the implications and rippling effects of this “mindlessness” on emotion and thought:

When not examined in the larger field of awareness, thinking can run amok. . . .When we lose ourselves in thought…it can sweep our mind and carry it away, and in a very short time, we can be carried far indeed. We hop a train of association, not knowing that we have hopped on, and certainly not knowing the destination.  Somewhere down the line, we may wake up and realize . . . that we have been taken for a ride. And when we step down from the train, it may be in a very different mental environment from where we jumped aboard (Williams et al., 2007, p. 169).

Lack of awareness itself can thus potentially be another powerful isk factor for emotional problems.  This process described above, “can wind up . . . imprisoning us, causing great suffering.”

In the 1970’s Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, began testing the effects of an eastern, mindfulness-based intervention for chronic pain patients.  What he found was surprising:  as patients learned a fundamentally different way of relating to their pain, it decreased significantly.  Since that time, his “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction” (MBSR) class has spread to clinics and hospitals across the nation, with heartening results documented across grueling and relentless chronic physical pain associated with cancer, back problems, etc. (Kabat-Zinn, et al., 1992; Kabat-Zinn, 2005a).

Over the same period, several top cognitive psychologists in the U.S. had been exploring the common struggle patients have with relapse once therapy for depression was over.  While changing one’s thoughts during cognitive-behavioral treatment was helpful for a time, underlying emotional turmoil would often drag individuals downward and backwards again.  After learning of Kabat-Zinn’s work, these researchers believed it might hold a clue to resolving the relapse problem.  Subsequently, these two research programs joined forces to develop a joint treatment approach addressing core emotional patterns often driving destructive behavioral habits and relapse itself.

Alongside therapy and classroom based protocols for depression (Segal, Williams & Teasdale, 2001; Williams, Teasdale, Segal & Kabat-Zinn, 2007), the same basic approach is now being applied to eating disorders, and schizophrenia as well (Kabat-Zinn et al., 1992; Kristeller Baer & Quillian-Wolever 2006).   Although mindfulness can be practiced in any activity (brushing teeth, working), meditation is one of the more common ways to practice.  Through meditation, we can gently practice guiding our thoughts in the direction we want, but not in an extreme and controlling way.  Kabat-Zinn (2006) teaches, “One way to envision how mindfulness works is to think of the mind as the surface of a lake or ocean. There are always waves, sometimes big, sometimes small. Many people think the goal of meditation is to stop the waves so that the water will be flat, peaceful, and tranquil–but that is not so.”  He continues, “Meditation is not about shutting off our thinking, not about shutting down our thinking; it’s not saying ‘it would be better if you didn’t think’ and that we’re trying to just suppress all thought and have the mind be silent.  If you try to suppress your thoughts, you’re going to wind up with a gigantic headache.  It’s like trying to stop the ocean from waving; it’s in the nature of the surface of the mind to wave, secrete these little thoughts; these bubbles coming off a pot of water.”

Over time, this kind of practice can improve one’s fundamental emotional capacity to be calm in the face of struggle.  Research and stories like these lead some to call mindfulness a great ‘mood stabilizer’ (McManamy, 2008).  This explains, in part, why this process of learning and practicing this capacity has been emphasized as key to relapse prevention (Williams et al., 2007).  Additionally, these kinds of techniques have shown substantial impact on helping people respond to addictive of cravings of different kinds in a way that decreases their intensity over time (Marlatt & Donovan, 2007).  These researchers explain, “[The goal is to] stabilize and deepen our capacity for paying attention . . . to train the mind to be less scattered and more ‘present’ . . . so we are not perpetually at the mercy of the mind’s ingrained habits of reactivity” (p. 73).  Kabat-Zinn continues:

As with any instrument, you have to actually calibrate [the mind] and stabilize the platform on which it sits so that you can get reliable readings. . . . If trying to look at the moon and put the telescope on a waterbed, every time you find the moon, every time you shifted your posture every little bit, you’d lose the moon in the telescope.  It’s the same with the mind.  Meditation is about learning the rudiments of stabilizing the mind enough so that it can actually do the work of paying attention and being aware of what’s actually going on beneath the surface of our own mind’s activities (which is often what thwarts us).

3 responses

    • This is a rich question that I’d love to get others’ thoughts about at some point, Ron. The way people typically think about meditation involves “clearing the mind” or making “thoughts stop” – OR meditating to get to some other transcendent state. I’ve heard other Christians critique this approach to meditation and personally haven’t found it as easily harmonizing with my beliefs (or with how my mind works, for that matter). The Vipassana tradition of meditation, however, which invites people to practice becoming more present to our current moment and reality – personally feels much more aligned with my deep beliefs as a Mormon. In the Book of Mormon, the Prophet Jacob describes the Spirit as speaking of “things as they really are, and of things as they really will be.” In a fallen, deluded world where we’re constantly exposed to “things as they really are not,” however – seeing the actual reality of things clearly is not as simple as it seems. Anything that helps us do that more accurately – whether prophet, scripture or meditation practice itself – seems incredibly helpful (and complementary). My own experience of this kind of “insight meditation” is that flashes of inspiration come as I practice. I sometimes call Vipassana or insight meditation “revelatory” meditation for that reason.

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