When Mindfulness is Not Mindful:
Creating Conducive Environments for Embodied Practice
When we create affectionate, appreciative, accepting, attuned relational environments, we don’t need to reject anything. This inclusive tone teaches us how to Allow the elements of our direct and present experience to be our guide, rather than defending against a perceived weakness. Turning toward these elements of emotions, sensations, images, thoughts, spirit, (consciousness, energy), as our indicators, to be assessed, determining what needs healing, and what links us beyond our personal suffering, can then steer us to the information we need for our well-being. Without knowing the potential benefit of including difficult emotion, in protection, we push away and ignore. It is this Avoidance which is at the heart of our dis-ease, keeping us fragmented, at odds with ourselves, weakened without the vitality these orphaned parts contain. Without an ability to reflect, from an inclusive quality of Awareness, we fall prey to a misinterpretation of the cues from our pain, and turn away in protective reaction. It is our perception which interprets good or bad, pleasure or pain, approach or avoid, directing our relationship to what is occurring internally and externally. We get to go beyond our immediate perceptions, born of past experiences, or our reflexive ‘default’ biology of negative brain biases, and actively engage in the study of our own minds. This contemplation can allow us to direct our Attention toward inclusion, thereby linking the elemental parts of a present internal experience, which we might otherwise push away, leading us to our integration and wholeness. For our well-being we need to reconnect to our full knowing, which can only be found through the totality of all our portals for this knowing, determined by our relational quality in and between body, mind, brain, heart, and spirit, of Self and Other.
Mindfulness can create this quality of relationship, within ourselves and between others, which opens the door to Turning Pain into Possibility™. Like a good parent, it holds us, regardless of the content of our minds, in a kind awareness, pointing us toward an inherent wellness. But Mindfulness is also a fierce teacher, asking us to look and relate to the full breadth and depth of our humanity, not to bypass in search of higher realms. We may confuse recent understanding in our power to cultivate what is good in us to be in conflict with directly experiencing our pain, as if happiness and pain are mutually exclusive. The push for the positive as a cover, leads to our rejection, cutting off parts of our human experience, which are deeply in need of our attention in order to cull their intrinsic generative capacity for authentic connection to Self and Other. Learning to approach our lives, as they are, as we are, requires feeling the sensation of our emotions, dropping us into a heartful embodied relational state. This is a kindness of heart which is a sorely needed antidote to our fast paced aggressive world which pits us against each other, competing for survival of our perceived separate selves. Choosing to cultivate this attentional kindness, and all the more positive, relational qualities of mind and heart, can feel like swimming upstream when the environment we find ourselves in flows toward negativity. There has been plenty said about this default negativity bias of the brain and its original intelligence toward survival, but it is imperative, for our health and well-being, and that of our society and planet, that we exercise our larger capacity for consciousness, which lifts us out of this reflexive biology, and can direct us toward our original default, which is of Love and interconnectedness, not merely a sentimental philosophical view, but our basic neurobiology, only requiring our repeated focal attention to bring it into full fruition.
The Dalai Lama insightfully engaged the scientific community to study the positive virtues inherent in us all, of compassion, empathy, kindness, love, and how we can cultivate states of mind that lead to our happiness and well-being. With this came the influx of research, of various types, but most especially that of neuroscience, showing how our focal attention can change the structure and function of our brains toward good by utilizing contemplative practices. This research became the wings on which mindfulness has now been widely disseminated in our culture, ushering in a secular understanding of this ancient practice, making it relative and available to the culture at large, so to expand its potential benefits to impact a global shift in consciousness, away from our divisive, destructive, separatist perspectives that seed hatred, violence, and result in isolation and deep suffering.
Ironically, with the speed at which mindfulness has entered the mainstream culture, now permeating medicine, psychology, education, government and even the military, comes the potential to misuse, misunderstand, commodify, and create a spiritual materialism as a means to secure ourselves, with aggressive attempts to “fix” our perceived imperfection by becoming more “mindful”. All the while we create the antithesis of its original inclusive quality of mind, bypassing what we deem as unacceptable states for this preferred better way, thereby negating our full integration and healing.
One headline I read recently, illustrates this potential misuse, “Mindfulness can make you younger”, like the new Botox. Now, one could say, that no matter the doorway we enter, even if it is through a youth obsessed, death denying, vain, cultural perspective, at least we have entered, motivated by values relative to what drives our action, and by having walked through we can engage in an ancient practice that could very well seed more than an individual narcissistic wanting. From this argument, at least the conversation has begun, and Mindfulness can be seen as something viable within mainstream culture, rather than strictly relegated to “Olympic meditators” in monastic settings, but now user-friendly and readily available with enough scientific backing to supply our incentive.
However, when Mindfulness becomes the latest trend, something to acquire, like the best designer shoes, it will not benefit and may possibly cause harm. The intention we bring to anything seeds the quality of outcome. Mindfulness is not for the faint of heart, requires deep commitment and courage to learn how to bear the entirety of our human experience. It brings great benefit but illuminates all, not just what we would like to see.
We can understand the unmindful fury toward mindfulness when the latest stunning scientific research demonstrates the relationship between Mindfulness practice and our longevity. Mindfulness changes us on a cellular level. Jon Kabat Zinn was on to this back in the 80s with his study on MBSR, (mindfulness based stress reduction) and psoriasis, and is the pivotal figure in our cultural shift toward Mindfulness. Now, along with recent incredible studies on brain plasticity supplying us with neural incentives to incorporate mindfulness, we are catapulted into an undeniable recognition of the power this practice has in its potential to literally extend our lives. These are unparalleled research findings that can lead to our good implementation of skills training and education in authentic Mindfulness. However, without our conscious direction of this implementation, it could also lead to a consumer-like frenzied feeding that leaves people full of idealized concepts, creating an even greater divide in their relationship to their internal world and world around them.
Here I share a brief synopsis on the longevity research, and then discuss two components of mindfulness, witnessing and experiencing, which are part of what is called Presence. If we are present in an embodied relational way, we then activate the cellular level toward our longevity. But in my work as a psychotherapist, and in my own self observation, I find the tendency to create a dualistic relationship to the self referencing states of observer and experiencer, preferring one over the other as an exclusive controlling means to avoid unwanted content of experience. I am interested in what heals, and how I can help guide the slow return back to the feared direct experience of our emotional worlds. I want to learn how we can keep from bypassing our emotional content by creating a relationally inclusive context for our Return to our bodies and the full experiencing of our lives. Settling into our sensory embodied present moment, we might then benefit, in all ways, from Mindfulness, in mind, body, brain, heart, spirit, and cultivate the type of happiness the Dalai Lama has been pointing toward; a happiness that is not dependent upon circumstance, but on the open, available, receptive quality of relationship to what arises, which is simply, Love.
In brief, the latest scientific findings on Mindfulness and longevity came from Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 2009 for the discovery of how our chromosomes are protected by telomeres. Telomeres, literally meaning, the end part of our chromosomes, which essentially act as the agent for continuation of cell life, protecting our chromosomes from deterioration. Further, it is the enzyme telomerase which keeps up the production of these needed telomeres for our longevity. Studies have shown that chronic stress and depression shorten telomeres and that mindfulness increases their length. Specifically studying how psychological states impact cellular aging, Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, and Elissa Epel, PhD, and colleagues, created a study to determine a causative link between mindfulness changes in cognitive appraisal and telomere length, (Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres). Not only showing increased length in telomeres with mindfulness, but in 2010, research revealed mindfulness increases the production of telomerase, (Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators). The implication of these studies is that Mindfulness practice literally saves our lives.
Exactly which variable within a specific practice of Mindfulness meditation actually mediates this physiological change in telomerase production is still open for exploration. Dan Siegel, M.D., of the Mindsight Institute, who teaches about neural integration from his Interpersonal Neurobiology model (IPNB), has recently stated there is a new, yet to be published, study on Presence, (the quality of awareness within mindfulness), identifying Presence as the mediator of increased telomerase. To be present mindfully requires both an experiencing and witnessing capacity, found to be two distinct neural circuits discovered in a study done in 2007, at the University of Toronto, by Norman Farb and colleagues, (Attending to the present: mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference). From an IPNB perspective, it is the linkage of these differentiated neural circuits that results in an integration of consciousness. Integration refers to the linkage of differentiated parts, and constitutes our health and well being.
When Mindfulness is misperceived and misused in a fervent desire to reap all it promises, its misapplication will not yield integration but dis-integration, dis-association, and dis-ease. Continuing from the IPNB model, if we are not integrated, we are either in a state of chaos or rigidity. In a simple example, we could see depression as a rigid hypo-aroused state, (constricted in ruminative negative cognitions disconnected from immediate sensory input), and anxiety as a chaotic hyper-aroused state, (disorganized anticipatory thinking and focus on nervous system activation). Relative to my focus on our tendency to bypass our emotional content by misappropriating Mindfulness practice to defend against experience, we can observe this lack of integration, (chaos or rigidity), when we prefer one mode of mindful presence, witness or experiencer, in an effort to avoid and control the immediacy of our moment, each differentiated but no linkage between these neural circuits. Rather than mindfulness becoming the Return to inherent health, it becomes a new tool to perpetuate our continually aggressive controlling relationship to Self to keep from feared pain.
The instructions in formal, object of attention focused, Mindfulness sitting practice, asks us to bring our attention back to the object we have chosen for a cultivation of concentration to begin to steady the mind from its norms of distractibility, for example, focusing on the sensation of breath. When other sensations, thoughts, feelings, perceptions, anticipations arise, just notice, maybe label them, ah, just a thought, and return, over and over, to the sensation of breath. This has enormous psychoneuroimmunological benefits, to name only a few: Increases in emotional regulation, Response Flexibility, Empathy, Insight, Memory, Attention, lowered blood pressure, increased immunity, etc., hence, the call for a secular ethic to make this practice more widely available.
This is a necessary first step, to direct attention of mind, within a quality of awareness which does not determine the judgments of the content as fixed, so to cultivate a settling down of mental activation which can lead to the ability to see the elements of experience. The problem is when a practitioner becomes attached to this witnessing self reference state and begins to bypass emotional experiencing. This then becomes an example of rigidity. It does not yield connection to Self or the compassionate inclusive neural correlates toward other. The seduction of a seeming control over emotions that are perceived to have caused so much suffering is subtle and savvy. Without the linkage to the experiencing circuitry, this merely becomes a continuation of a disembodied state, using strategies of a thinking mind to escape direct experience of vulnerable states. Further, it does not lead to the physiological changes in production of telomerase production if working from the proposed hypothesis that presence is the mediator. We become further distant and estranged from ourselves in a refusal to be present to the information arising in our experience which the act of concentrative practice has illuminated.
The counter bypass in the practice of Mindfulness, preferring the experiencing versus the witness, is an example of chaotic unintegrated states, when what arises in direct experiential perception becomes central, and we identify with the content without any larger context of observation, thereby solidifying an internal state which becomes closed to the immediacy of present moment information. Further, when we then add the “warm” practices of heart, concentrating on compassion and loving kindness, we need to be aware that here too can be a bypass to our full presence and integration when they become exclusive; preferring states of ego identified love and connection, merging with others, without an ability to work with difference, conflict, or feelings of anger, fear, and sadness, (linkage with others but no differentiation between self and other). Without the neural linkage to the observing circuitry and alliance only in the experiencing self, people can get lost in ecstatic states of ‘oneness’, unable to create healthy boundaries, or tolerate the full continuum of emotions. When we are only able to be with what feels pleasurable, negating thoughts, or only allowing positive affirmations/images, we then lack full functionality and tend toward chaotic overwhelm when faced with reality. The benefit of appropriately integrated “Maitri”, (loving-kindness), practices is to bridge us to our natural compassionate state toward ourselves and toward others, allowing a responsive inclusive presence, which stands on the ground of our differentiated self linked to the differentiated other, and pointing to our understanding of an inherent interdependence, which then makes someone else’s happiness relative to our own.
This is what happens in mindful practice, we become aware of our dance between content and context, we become familiar with how our minds work to potentially layer suffering onto our experience of pain. My concern is without proper guidance, and when mindfulness is viewed as the new quick fix, taught too quickly and only delivered in part, without preparation of what to expect, we are not then given the full path to our reconnection and possibility for healing, which is inherent in this practice and in us. In fact, we create its opposite, a great deal more separation, which is the essence of suffering.
In PART II: Now that the science is laid and the understanding of how Mindfulness can go wrong, next we will dive more deeply into less intellectual perspectives and into the direct experiencing of how to create conducive environments internally, in an embodied Mindfulness, which helps us work directly with emotions to illuminate the best of who we are. We then can define the true meaning of mindfulness, happiness, presence, and exactly what it means to heal.