Awakening Into Mindfulness
“The best way to capture moments is to pay attention.
This is how we cultivate mindfulness.
Mindfulness means being awake.
It means knowing what you are doing.”
— Jon Kabat-Zinn
The definition of "Mindfulness" is awareness of present experience with acceptance. While it may not sound special, acceptance is not the usual reaction to the things that happen. Typically, we automatically evaluate things so we can react to them, or at least express an opinion about them. Changing your automatic reactopm requires some discipline.
Mindfulness Meditation Exercises cultivate your capacity to shift from the ordinary, autonomous doing mode to the mode of simply noticing your subjective experience without evaluating, problem-solving, or processing at any level. The following exercise will get you started:
Mindfulness Meditation: Follow Your Breath
For the next 10 minutes or so, selectively attend to the sensation of the air as it passes in and out of your nostrils with each breath. Each time a thought or feeling arises, notice it, but don't analyze it or judge it. Just accept whatever experiences come along and return your attention to following your breath.
Don’t approach this exercise with the expectation that anything special will happen (that is the very trap we seek to escape). As you follow your breath you will notice that all sorts of thoughts, images and sensations arise in your consciousness, and some of them elicit emotional reactions. Your task is to intentionally suspend the impulse to characterize or evaluate what you are experiencing, and instead accept the experience and return your attention to your breath.
As you dispassionately observe the workings of your mind you will become familiar with subjective phenomena including thoughts, emotions, pleasures, and discomforts. As your personal research continues you will discover that if you accept your beliefs, perceptions, and evaluations for what they are—passing subjective phenomena — you become free to exercise your will.
Technical terminology has the advantage of providing a dedicated vocabulary when ordinary language would use words that mean different things to different people. Important terms:
- Acceptance like final stage of grieving. When someone you love dies, you don't want it to be so, but there is nothing you can do about it, so you grieve. You may try to bargain, but discover it does not do any good. You may become angry, but discover the anger is pointless. Depression is usually next, but that, too, is also pointless. Eventually will have exhausted all the methods to change what you cannot change, you must finally accept the way things are — that is be finished with trying to change it, figure it out, or even emotionally react to it.
- When something you cannot control goes against you, what are your options? The alternative to acceptance is a negative emotional state, such as frustration, anger, depression, which is likely to deplete the cognitive resources that would be better spent focused on things you do control. Acceptance allows you to disengage from one aspect of your environment so another can structure your attention.
- De-Reification is a consequence of mindfulness. Reification means: To regard or treat an abstraction as if it had concrete or material existence. For example, during his ruminations, Barry thinks, "I am a failure.” He does not view this as a belief that may or may not be true, but as a statement of fact. The more he believes in this concept of himself and his prospects the more potent is its depressive effect on his mood and performance. He becomes free of this trap by De-Reifying this conceptualization of himself and recognizing it is just his biased appraisal and not part of objective reality.
Awakening out of Neurotic Traps
For the person who has become a slave to her emotional reactions, one path to freedom involves De-Reifying the abstract causes of the emotional reaction through mindfulness practice.
The general strategy to escape neurotic traps advocated throughout this course involves two steps:
- Rational Understanding of the nature of the trap and how to escape it [achieved by the Abstract Processing System and implemented by the puppy trainer].
- One way to excape from your neurotic traps is to awaken from the autonomous mind set of Doing Mode, in which you are continually evaluating yourself and others so you can fix the problems, by shifting into Being Mode — in which you simply notice your current experience with acceptance.
- First explore this faculty of attention experientially by observing what happens when you practice the exercises on this page. You will undoubtedly observe that the untamed mind tends to wander. There are many competitors for your attention, but you can only fully attend to one thing at a time. Appreciating the faculty of attention and developing your ability to control it is the goal of Focused Attention Exercises.
- After developing some mindful control of your attention, shift your perspective so that you can observe the sequence of phenomena that you experience — the Follow Your Breath exercise provides a good opportunity to develop your capacity for non-reactive observation.
- As you become more comfortable shifting into the perspective of acceptance, mindful reactions to the things become your default.
Barry's story illustrates this Awakening Path. For him, first step of was the easy one. He quickly understood that that his thoughts, appraisals, and emotional reactions were transient, insubstantial mental events rather than accurate representations of reality. He experienced this Meta-Cognitive insight as an epiphany, which occasionally accompanies rational insight. But the real predictor of his success was that whenever he began experiencing symptoms he reminded himself of this insight and shifted to the dispassionate perspective of acceptance; "this was labor," he told me. The payoff for the labor was change that progressed at the speed of housebreaking a puppy.
Barry's friend wants him to accompany her to a social event, that Barry wants to avoid. He rationally appraises the costs of avoidance as greater than the costs of exposure, and decides to go. He heroically accepts the subjective experience of dread and the social anxiety that he experiences intermittently before and during the event. While experiencing the anxiety-related thoughts and feelings he De-reifies them by reminding himself that ideas such as "They think I'm ugly and awkward are products of my mind not theirs. I'm not a mind reader and have no idea what they really think about me. For all I know they would like me to show them attention so they can feel special and liked." [The last sentence is an example of Reification of a concept that may elicit a helpful motivational state.]
Tolerating Discomfort: The Hot Pizza Exercise
Eat an amount of hot sauce or hot pepper that produces a slightly greater reaction than you are used to and focus on the sensation of discomfort. Simply investigate the experience and how you react to it. Later, after the hotness recedes try it again and see if you can push your limits while maintaining a clear, focused mind.
Important note: don’t cause tissue damage or hurt yourself; be compassionate and only push the limits to the extent that you can do so without being self-punishing or doing any damage to this body you inhabit.
You can also experiment with a cold shower, or alternate the shower temperature between a bit too hot and a bit too cold. The goal of these exercises is to experience the sensations while maintaining a clear and focused mind, and without tightening up mentally or physically.
The ability to tolerate temptation and discomfort without defecting from your path of greatest advantage is one definition of Willpower.
Labeling Discomfort: The SUDS
Our goal here is to perceive experiences as phenomena that we can observe and come to see as consequences of antecedent events and then as causes of subsequent events. The SUDS — Subjective Units of Discomfort Scale — is a tool to help you shift your perspective from the creature who experiences to the one who observes the experiences of the creature.
This tool is useful to research your reactions in high-risk situations. To get some practice with SUDS, repeat the previous exercise and record your SUDS at intervals to reveal the intensity of the experience over time [the pattern often looks like a sine wave — starting small, reaching a crest, and then subsiding].
Reifying the beliefs and perspectives that promote negative emotional states weaken willpower; developing the capacity to tolerate unavoidable discomfort with acceptance strengthens willpower.
Deviations from the path of least resistance require will, because behaving non-automatically is more effortful than behaving automatically. Developing control of excessive appetites require additional effort to resist the desire for the immediate gratification of using the incentive. Observing the ebb and flow of desire associated with a self-imposed restriction — e.g., weight loss diet, smoking cessation, cutting back on your alcohol intake — provides an opportunity to observe and work with a rich assortment of subjective phenomena.
Tolerating Desire: Shifting to the Observer's Perspective
When you encounter the experience of desire, label it by silently saying something like: "Ah yes, there's desire again." No need to judge the experience, analyze it, or try to change it. Just label it as soon as you've identified it—nimbleness is important. What does desire feel like? What are the mental and physical changes that are associated with desire? Notice how the experience changes with time. Does it seem to occur in a series of waves of greater or lesser intensity? Are there thoughts that suggest you give in to the desire? The goal of this exercise is to shift from the associative perspective of the entity directly experiencing the desire to the dissociative perspective of the dispassionate observer. You may find it interesting to use the SUDS to observe the time pattern of desire and the factors that increase or decrease it.
Both discomfort and desire are motivators. Discomfort repels; desire attracts. Rather than be the helpless play-thing of these attractive and repellent forces, you can rise above their influence. How?
The Meta-Cognitive Awareness that your subjective experiences, including your appraisals and emotional reactions, are the creations of a biological creature with a particular history and point of view — they are not accurate and complete depictions of objective reality [or even of what is good for you] — can free you from the corruptive influence of passing fears and desires.
Emotional reactivity to the things that happen is characteristic of the mentaility of childhood. Awakening into mindfulness is a more advanced cognitive strategy, but it is not the only one. The Serenity Prayer is based on several ancient schools of thought, each of which can help you outgrow the mentality of childhood so you can act in accord with your interests and principles despite the fears and desires that would motivate you to defect.