In the world of health behavior research, mindfulness is definitely hot. New benefits are being discovered all the time. Mindfulness helps people cope with stress, by reducing their cortisol (stress hormones) and blood pressure and increasing their resilience, and in turn these benefits also improve the immune system. Mindfulness can be a valuable part of treating depression and anxiety, by teaching people how to notice negative thoughts without getting caught up in them. And by its very nature, it helps people increase their focus, training the mind to stay on-task and avoid distraction.
Mindfulness is definitely a skill worth having and practicing. There are a few issues, though, that seldom get discussed in the middle of all the hype. What are the potential costs of having a mindfulness mindset? Please follow along as I explore some of these costs in a series of four blog posts. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
First, let’s be clear about what mindfulness is.
A recent New York Times article (1/31/14) says that “mindfulness just means becoming more conscious of what you’re feeling, more intentional about your behaviors and more attentive to your impact on others.”
Well, no, that’s not it, really. Let’s call that “Mindfulness Light” and set it aside. I’m not going to raise any objections to being self-aware, conscientious, and sensitive to others’ feelings, and when researchers talk about mindfulness, that’s not precisely what they’re referring to.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a psychologist who’s been particularly active in promoting mindfulness practices and research, describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Wherever You Go There You Are, p.4).
In 25 Lessons in Mindfulness, Rezvan Ameli lists six things that mindfulness practice can cultivate:
• Attention (sharpening our awareness of our sensory experiences and the contents of our mind)
• Present moment orientation (letting go of thoughts about the past or future)
• Nonjudgment (staying non-critical of the self and others)
• Letting go (increasing patience)
• Beginner’s mind (keeping a fresh perspective)
• Acceptance (engaging in life more fully)
Mindfulness means paying close attention to your thoughts and feelings, without becoming caught up in the content of the thoughts or interpreting the feelings. Imagine sitting very quietly and paying attention to what’s going on in your mind. Hm, my knee itches, now my ankle does. Now I notice a sound out in the street – it’s Marcus, probably, bouncing a basketball. Oh, that’s an interpretation, let go of that, just focus on the qualities of the sound. Blrrrt. Blrrrt. Braaap. Blrrrt. I wonder what Jonathan’s typing and when he’s going to go outside; is he still thinking about the new Magic cards? Or is he posting on a thread, what was it he was reading about earlier? Was it a health care thing? … That was a pretty long thought, I got caught up in that one. Back to the present… hey, am I thirsty? Back to the present, breathing in, breathing out…
Okay, that was a pretty good example – I tried to report here where my mind was going as I experienced those few moments. I didn’t notice everything I was doing, though – I never mentioned my typing fingers or looking at my computer screen, although obviously I had some attention there too (without thinking consciously about it).
You simply can’t notice everything. If your attention is on your breathing, you may not notice noises in the background. If your attention is on your steps as you walk, you’re probably not noticing your heartbeat, or the weight of your hair on the back of your neck. The idea is to be aware of what you’re noticing, and to accept that it’s there without reacting – or if you do react, notice that too, and then let it go.
As a Buddhist practice, mindfulness can be a form of meditation, where you sit in one spot and anchor your awareness on your breathing, or bodily sensations, and then note where your awareness wanders. Buddhists sometimes also dedicate their walking, cooking, eating, etc. to mindfulness, and put that activity at the forefront of what they’re attending to.
Practicing mindfulness can be a really valuable way to balance out our tendencies to “live in our heads,” for those of us who, for whatever reason, spend much of our time thinking about things. Personally, I live in a beautiful place, and it can be wonderful to remember to pay attention to the world around me, stopping and smelling those literal and metaphorical roses, and really noticing that I’m doing so.
Mindfulness can also be a useful mental health practice, especially for people experiencing depression or anxiety, because it can help keep negative thoughts from spiraling out of control. Imagine you just took an important exam, and you realize you made a mistake on one of the problems. Your thoughts might go like this, “Ack, I made that mistake. But that’s just the one I know about – I probably messed up most of that whole entire section. Now I’m going to get a C at best, and I need a B to stay in good standing. Why am I even doing this, anyway? I should seriously think about dropping out of the program – I really am not good at this.”
Or your thoughts might go like this, “Ack, I made that mistake. Oh. I just had the thought “ack, I made that mistake.” I hope that won’t start spiraling into a big negative fuss. It was just one thought. Hm, now I’m starting to feel worried about my grade. Okay, that’s what worry feels like. Knot in my stomach. Let’s just quietly notice that feeling… well, okay, whatever.”
The idea is to be aware of unpleasant feelings when we have them, without trying to suppress them, judge them (or ourselves), or change them. We just rest there with the feeling in our consciousness until some other thought or feeling naturally takes its place.
This brings us to Caveat One:
Mindfulness involves the observing self.
Books about mindfulness are not consistent. Sometimes they’ll say that mindfulness is there when you “Just do X,” whether X is breathing, eating a pretzel, playing with a kitten, or standing hip-deep in the river and fishing. “Just do X.” At other times, they’ll say that mindfulness is when you “Just do X, and know that you are doing X.”
These are not equivalent statements.
In The Miracle of Mindfulness!, the Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh quotes an ancient Buddhist sutra on mindfulness: “When walking, the practitioner must be conscious that he is walking. When sitting, the practitioner must be conscious that he is sitting. When lying down, the practitioner must be conscious that he is lying down.” (p.7)
When you’re doing X and you’re conscious that you’re doing X, the part that makes it mindful is that you’re strengthening a part of your awareness that Arthur Deikman and others call the “observing self.” It means that you’re identifying with this calm center, not with the flurry of somewhat random thoughts and emotions that continuously pop into your head. The more you identify with this calm center, the more you strengthen your sense of the “you” who remains constant throughout all situations. You become more even-keeled, less automatically swayed by emotion.
(Then, if you’re a devoted practitioner of Buddhism, you can learn how to transcend this sense of self in favor of even greater insights, with the realization that even the “self” is impermanent and ever-changing, but I’m not qualified to talk about that, and that’s not the point of these posts anyway.)
I once went to a talk by a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Tai Situ Rinpoche, who said that he was surprised when he started working with Westerners, because their sense of self was so weak compared to the Asians he’d known. Isn’t that ironic? We’re all about our individuality, but at least in this context, we have less of a sense of who we really are. Mindfulness is about strengthening that sense.
Tomorrow, Caveat Two: The Value of Non-Mindfulness
This post is one in a four-part series: