Mindfulness and seeing in the dark

(mirrored in the Practice Compassion blog at Psychology Today)

These days, the “mindfulness craze” has generated a lot of backlash articles about the possible pitfalls of mindfulness or why mindfulness isn’t all it is cracked up to be. What an astonishing series of developments we have witnessed! I’m sure that articles assailing McMindfulness will generate a lot of clicks and retweets, and that is all a part of the grand game of evolving human behavior. We can sit back, like John Lennon suggests, and watch the wheels go round and round, if we wish. But all of this reminds me of how much times have changed, and how important it is for us to return to our original intention in personal development and inner work.

20 years ago, as I was beginning as a doctoral student in clinical psychology,  Buddhist training and mindfulness work was seen as a “liability” by some of the faculty. Rather than viewing mindfulness as meaningful to mental health technologies, some of the instructors seemed to think that “meditation is something for hippies and freaks.” If I had been told then and there that my career would be based upon the blending of behavioral psychology and meditative disciplines, particularly mindful compassion, I would not have believed it. It would have been more than I would have asked for.

The mounting research on the value of mindfulness for mental health and personal growth is compelling, and it continues to grow.(link is external) For example, in just the past few weeks, researchers(link is external) have found that approaching harmful ways of thinking with mindful compassion can be more effective than simply disputing our “negative” thinking rationally. Having just completed writing a book on Buddhist Psychology and Cognitive Behavior Therapy, our team found that one of the biggest challenges was just keeping up with the flood of scientific discovery about the value of training the mind in mindfulness and compassion.

Mindfulness critics are quick to sketch out a claim that “mindfulness research is sometimes lacking” in methodolody and rigor. Taking a look at the research supporting psychotherapy and even medication will show you that the majority of mental health research needs a serious tune up!(link is external) Furthermore, most mindfulness and compassion research is at least as scientifically sound as what we typically see in psychology and psychiatry

There is potential for joy in the direction of our science, and in the results of our arriving data. We have possibilities today for the alleviation of human suffering that we just haven’t had before on this scale. Today, the core of many of our most advanced and research based approaches in psychotherapy is mindful compassion, and the direction we are heading is more than a trend, it is responsible science following the data to help alleviate human suffering.

Historically, training our minds in mindfulness was a part of a larger program of cultivating wisdom, compassion, and pursuing a personal awakening toward the true nature of the meaning and value of our human lives. While mindfulness research has demonstrated that we can make progress in overcoming depressive relapse, anxiety, emotion regulation problems and a host of other difficulties through deliberate mental training involving mindfulness, mindfulness alone really isn’t the point. When we understand our motivation in cultivating this state of mind and body, we can really light a fire under our practice and move towards lives of meaning, purpose and vitality.

Let’s take a closer look together at just how mindfulness might help us to establish a foundation for growing our compassion for ourselves and others; and how mindfulness might create a path forward towards meaningful and rewarding lives.

Cultivating mindfulness can help make us aware of just how much our minds and our attention are floating around on a current of different feelings and desires. Our attention can bob about like a cork on choppy seas but if you sit quietly for a moment, allow your breath to find its own rhythm and pace, rest in that breath, and let your mind settle into the experience of breathing, you will notice that it quickly moves away from the focus on your breathing and turns to other things. For example, your may start to think about you’ve got to do tomorrow, what to sort out for dinner, what Aunt Ethel said about your new shoes, and so on. This is sometimes called ‘automatic pilot’ or ‘monkey mind’. It is completely natural and relates to our ‘always on, better-safe-than-sorry’ problem-solving machine and threat-detection system, which is easily activated and which can dominate our behaviour, our attention, and seize control of our consciousness. 

Mindfulness is a way of noticing how our attention gets pulled in different directions and it is a way of practicing the gentle, persistent art of returning our attention to the present moment. Mindfulness training has been demonstrated to be an effective treatment for a range of psychological problems such as depressive relapse, anxiety and emotion regulation difficulties7. By developing our ability to be mindful, and learning how to apply mindfulness to more healthy methods of coping with stress, we may become able to break our habitual and unhelpful responses to anxiety8. 

If you have ever walked in a forest on a cool and cloudy night, without even the glow of the moon to guide your way, you may understand what it is to be truly in the dark. The shadows of the trees obscure whatever light there is. All around you, the limits of your vision give way to blackness that may cause you to freeze in your tracks, or nervously feel your way forward. The uncertainty of this sensory void might grab hold of your behaviour, and narrow your options for moving to very few possible courses. The limited perception may be thrilling and challenging, or it may be frightening and debilitating. 

What if you could see in the dark? Not by bringing more light into the environment, but by possessing an ability to see through the darkness in a kind of infrared way that would allow you to see a richer palate of colours than could have imagined possible. You could run and hurdle your way through this environment the way you might on a bright, calm spring day. Your actions would be your own again. No more feeling around in the dark. 

Humans have evolved with a unique and remarkable ability to represent the world around them in their mind, and to respond to these representations as though they were things in the outside world. We also have an amazing capacity to relate one experience to any other experience. This weaves a web together from everything we have ever known, allowing one thought or emotion to ceaselessly trigger another, and when they unfold before us, we experience these thoughts and emotions as if they were real and true. This allows the random associations of our imagination to seize control of our feelings and behaviours and, in fact, of our lives. To complicate things further, we know that what we resist persists, and the more we try to push our thoughts and feelings away, the stronger and more prevalent they become. 

In these ways, our ability to clearly see the world around us, with all of its possibilities and meanings, is often obscured by the content of our minds, very much as our vision is obscured by the dark that surrounds us in the forest. Our range of available behaviours narrows as we grope around, treading carefully. We become enveloped and enshrouded by the uncertainty of our futures, the regrets of our past, and the ceaseless struggle to rid ourselves of pain and suffering due to our anxiety. 

But, again, what if we could see in the dark? Not by changing the contents of our thoughts, or by altering our internal environment, nor by dispelling the dark, the experience of pain, the universality of human suffering or the finitude of life, but by cultivating the capacity to see clearly by being open and able to feel things for what they are. 

We broaden our possibilities as we become more able to see through the darkness, and rid ourselves of our attachment to our own past stories or the way we’ve judged ourselves. We become more able to move with more freedom through our lives, with passion, dignity and abandon, towards what matters most to us, as freely as we could move through the woods on a Spring day. 


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