For years now, I have used mindfulness with patients, in my personal life, and as a scientist, conducting randomized controlled trials funded by the NIH (see, for example, MacCoon, et al., 2012). In fact, my interest in mindfulness led to my graduate studies in Clinical Psychology with a focus on the role of attention in emotion regulation.
Mindfulness has been defined as the process of “paying attention, on purpose, to what is happening right now without judgement” (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). Pretty easy to say. Can be hard to do.
This leads to two questions: (1) Why is mindfulness important to my well-being? and (2) How do we mess it up?
Why is mindfulness important to my well-being?
There is a good deal of empirical evidence that mindfulness — and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, in particular — is helpful for a variety of forms of suffering, including chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and substance use (see, for example, Barnhofer et al., 2007; Davidson et al., 2003; Gregg, Callaghan, Hayes, & Glenn-Lawson, 2007; Kabat- Zinn et al., 1998; Ma & Teasdale, 2004; Pradhan et al., 2007; Speca, Carlson, Goodey, & Angen, 2000). We should note, in passing, that MBSR is like every other effective psychological intervention studied — it is as helpful as any other treatment that includes the factors common to all healing therapy (MacCoon, et al., 2012). The main point here is simply that you will be helped by a treatment that makes sense to you and is of interest to you, and find a provider who represents a good fit.
Theoretically, it makes sense that mindfulness would be helpful if we think of mindfulness as a form of attention and emotion training integral to self-regulation, a perspective articulated in a model I’ve published in which mindfulness is conceived of as “context-appropriate balanced attention” (CABA, MacCoon, Wallace, & Newman, 2004). The model is illustrated with anxiety, depression, and psychopaths. The premise is that the best any human can do in a given situation is to base their behavior on as much data as possible, including body sensations, emotions, and thoughts. In the long run, and on average, this strategy will lead to less suffering because our behavior will be as congruent with reality as possible.
How do we mess it up?
We can imagine an internal landscape of neural networks like a stereo equalizer (see picture, left), with each bar representing a thought, emotion, body sensation, or habit. In any given context, our brain automatically activates the networks that are most relevant for that context given our genes and learning history. Since every situation is different in some way from every situation that has ever occurred, our brain activates multiple networks at different strengths. When we are on autopilot, it is likely we will behave according to the most activated network. This is a real blessing to behave according to those automatic habits without much thought and often those automatic habits are fairly good for a given situation. In this way, we drive without thinking about it. Even when the automatic habit is wrong or inaccurate, there are certainly situations, like when we may be in physical danger, that it makes sense to jump from the snake and discover it is a stick later.
However, for most situations, it is likely that for a small cost in increased time, we can pause and survey all of the available networks and act more appropriately when we do so. This is mindfulness. Thus, whereas in the presence of a snake, the appropriate balance of attention is on the most activated network (run away, it’s a snake), most of the time, the appropriate balance most of the time is to focus on all of the available networks or data. It is easy to mess this up because in our culture we are typically not trained to do this pausing; instead, we value speed and focus on “important” work or “productivity.”
For example, William James tells us that Archimedes was made aware of the Battle of Syracuse by receiving his own death wound. One can imagine this genius of geometry so focused on his work that he failed to allocate any attention to his surroundings — in this case, it was a fatal misallocation of attention. In that particular context, obviously, it would have been more important for Archimedes to attend to his surroundings than his work. The problem is that he had developed that habitual style of focus over an entire lifetime, in which he was (presumably) rewarded time and again for concentrating on geometry (“productive work”) to the exclusion of other stimuli. We all have bad habits that can be activated or primed by our current context and lead us to behave in ways that are not helpful for ourselves and others.
It is no great secret that emotion can hijack our attention, a process that can lead to unhealthy rumination, self-criticism, hyper-vigilance, and fight-flight physiological responses. All of these are characterized by an unbalanced use of our attention — attending to one set of cues to the exclusion of others. It is ironic that our culture has responded to these unpleasant tendencies largely by emphasizing avoidance strategies (e.g., distraction, suppression, denial, “positive” thinking) to cope with reality, strategies that usually give a short-term gain for a long-term cost. One particular category of data that we seek to avoid is unpleasant emotion even though doing so might be negative for our lives (see this article on the important distinction between positive and pleasant, on the one hand, and negative and unpleasant on the other).
When I give public talks, I’ll give people this pop quiz: If your hand is on a hot stove, do you (a) disconnect the pain nerves in your hand, or (b) take your hand off the stove? Obviously, we use the pain of our burning hand as information that damage is occurring and remove our hand. Unfortunately, when confronted by unpleasant emotion, we are often trained that the emotion is a problem rather than data about reality that we need to deal with.
Mindfulness emphasizes intimacy with reality rather than avoidance, whether that reality comes in the form of pleasant or unpleasant emotion. In practice, mindfulness means training ourselves to focus on all of the data available in a given moment, including body sensations, emotions, and thoughts. I would call this wisdom. And, that definition means two things: (1) We all have the capacity to be wise, and (2) just because we can be wise does not mean we will achieve the outcomes we want — to make mistakes is an inevitable part of being human.
How do you train yourself to focus on all of the data available? There are probably dozens of ways, but one way is the practice of returning your attention to a neutral (and boring) stimulus like the breath even when it is hijacked by more interesting stimuli. That way, even when interesting stimuli occur in your life, like someone flipping you off or complaining about you or causing some unpleasant emotion, you can pause, notice that stimulus, return your attention to your breath (thus preventing a hyper-focus on those stimuli), and notice all the other data your brain views as relevant before acting.
In our avoidance culture, we train people to punish themselves when something occurs that makes them feel unpleasant emotion. For many people, self-criticism is a fairly compelling habit, one that will attract and hold attention, especially if we are in fight-flight mode. It is also a habit associated with depression (see, for example, Abramson’s work on the role of stable, global, internal attributions on depression, e.g., Abramson et al, 2002; Alloy, et al., 2006). Let’s also notice, though, that self-criticism is always inaccurate and counterproductive. If your hand is on a hot stove and you are spending your limited capacity calling yourself an idiot, that is not helpful for learning what to do differently next time (“be more careful in the kitchen”); furthermore, it is not likely that your mistake is due to poor intelligence.
From a mindfulness perspective, our task is simply to notice the causes of what happened and train ourselves — one moment at a time — to do something different next time. This involves attending to all of who we are in a given moment — as represented by all of the data represented in our brains and bodies — a form of compassion that has simple pragmatism as its foundation.
By: Donal MacCoon, PhD.
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