Mindfulness: The Common Thread

by Garrett Heaney

Over the past few years, in my quest to become a perfect human, I have sought a number of different therapies, therapists, counselors, and programming — each with its own specific agenda in attending to my mental health. Through it all has been a common thread that seems to tie together each of these individual disciplines in mental health. This thread, of course, is “mindfulness.”

It seems no matter where I was physically or mentally, whether battling depression, partying too much, or sitting in a weekly session of dialectical behavioral therapy, the concept of mindfulness was always right there in the forefront of treatment. Even my beloved couples counselor is a longstanding (sitting?) Zen practitioner who passes down mindfulness at every session. She is also a doctor, with a PhD in psychology, so don’t get the idea that her practice is some kind of metaphysical departure into obscurity. Everything she teaches on the subject of mindfulness is firmly grounded in biology, chemistry, and neuroscience.

So what exactly is this unifying buzzword all about — ‘mindfulness’ — and why has it infiltrated such a diverse range of mental health services? Where did it come from, and why are people just now paying attention to it?

Mindfulness at its most basic level is awareness — awareness of yourself internally (your thoughts and emotions) and awareness of your immediate environment, other people, and anything in range of your senses. This is the present moment, the being here, now. I know that sounds a little beatnik and hipster, but people have been talking about mindfulness for thousands of years, and believe me, it gets a lot more convoluted than that.

The brain is incredibly vast and not thoroughly understood. In his book “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain,” David Eagleman describes the inner mechanics and complexities of the brain, writing, “there are as many connections in a single cubic centimeter of brain tissue as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy.”

To be clear, the practice of mindfulness has its origins in Buddhism and dates back about 2,500 years. So it’s not new at all, except here in the West, where it has been inching its way into the mainstream since the 1960s.

You may have heard about the Beatles taking a transcendental meditation (or “acid”) trip to India with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (the ‘Giggling Guru’). This was 1968, and the experience inspired George Harrison to start playing the sitar and the group to write most of the songs released on the White Album.

Because of the clout only the Beatles could have, their curiosity in the Eastern traditions of meditation quickly translated into a popular interest in the same in the West. That’s not to say there wasn’t anybody practicing this stuff before then — Zen Buddhism had gained some momentum in America by the 1930s, and Alan Watts helped popularize Zen Buddhism with his book “The Way of Zen” in 1957. In the same year, Jack Kerouac published his novel “The Dharma Bums.”

So that’s where it came from, and that’s how it got here, but what about mindfulness makes it so universally valuable to mental health? According to Mark Epstein, M.D., author of “Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective,” part of the answer lies in the relationship a patient (or human being) has with the self.

You, I suspect, believe you have a true self — a core self, that you either live up to or let down on any given day. The problem is, most people never really consider where this “true self” comes from or if it is even real (or true!).

What Epstein asserts about mindfulness is that its primary goal is to break down false senses of self, something he calls “spatial self,” which is demarcated, stationary, permanent, and above all, problematic for a healthy relationship with the world. His view of self (and that of Buddhism) is temporal in nature — ever changing and adaptable to the present moment. Epstein writes, “Mindfulness involves awareness of how constantly thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations shift in the mind and body.”

In order to gain awareness, you have to pay attention to the mind, to recognize it, and to dissociate from the identity that such thinking can instill in a person — i.e., the self, or ego. Who you are today, at this moment, is not, nor does it have to be, who you will be tomorrow when you’re doing something besides reading a fascinating article in the paper. Each moment bears with it an opportunity for a different connection — whether that be simple observation, bare attention, or meaningful participation.

Epstein anchors this message saying, “Rather than promoting a view of self as an entity or as a place with boundaries, the mindfulness practices tend to reveal another dimension of self-experience, one that has to do with how patterns come together in a temporary and ever-evolving organization. This progression from a spatial metaphor of self to a more temporal one is portrayed in Buddhist literature as inexorable.”

When it comes to cognition, the most important understanding mindfulness can teach is how active and automated minds actually are. Being quiet is not a natural state — you and I want and need to think, all the time, even (and especially) when not trying to. Intentional thought is a commodity and one that the mind veers away from in order to conserve mental energy.

The mind often wanders around on autopilot, responding to outside cues and making hard-wired associations that play upon and support each other. The mind is in a constant stream that can sweep you up and make you forget that if you pause, and listen, there is actually another layer of consciousness in there — not the thinker, but the observer who can actually witness the thoughts coming and going. Being mindful is nothing more than getting in touch with this observational capacity of your mind and learning to identify with it as your objective self — rather than identifying with the spastic, if not downright neurotic, mental chatter in your head.

So where can you turn to develop mindfulness in your own life? There are many options, but I would definitely recommend picking up a book or two that discuss how the brain actually operates. The books I’ve mentioned are both a great start, as is Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” In this book, Kahneman divides the function of the brain into two systems: System 1 is fast, hardwired, and intuitive; System 2 is slower, requires effort and is intentional.

Learning about brain science and mindfulness intellectually can be helpful, but it is not to be confused with, nor is it a substitute for, actually practicing meditation. Here in Montpelier, there are a few options for incorporating mindfulness into your daily life.

Sue Swindell and the dialectical behavioral therapy program taught me a lot, and they can be reached through Washington County Mental Health. Dialectical behavioral therapy is a branch of cognitive behavioral therapy that merges mindfulness with talk therapy. Typically, dialectical behavior therapy meets once a week and is accompanied by individual therapy sessions. For information, call Washington County Mental Health at-223-6328 or visit www.wcmhs.org.

Other resources include:

Shambhala Montpelier at info@montpeliershambhala.org

and:

Mountains and Rivers Order, Zen Affiliate in Montpelier, http://mro.org/smr/vermont/, 456-1983 or by email at grhayes1956@comcast.net.

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