Thursday, September 20, 2012

Jesus, Joseph, and Mindfulness

I can't actually recall how I first heard about "Mindfulness." Maybe it was from a Facebook posting from "Action for Happiness," a secular movement in the UK that promotes increasing the world's happiness quotient.  Or it might have been via indulgence of my fascination with Positive Psychology, a newish branch of psychological science that, in contrast to the first century of work -- which focused on pathology of mental illness -- instead studies factors that make for a positive, healthy, and happy life.

At any rate, at some point I started noticing studies on the benefits of practicing mindfulness. Or perhaps I should write Mindfulness_tm -- it's been tidied up, formalized, taught to a small army of teachers, and packaged into a standardized 8-week course. I hunted around and found there were several of these courses not too far from home.

So it was that last night I found myself taking a full 10 minutes to explore the minutest details of a single raisin (yes, raisins, do make noise if you hold them up to your ear and squish them gently) and lying on the floor with six strangers as Miranda Bevis, a former NHS doctor, guided us through a 25-minute "body scan" which I am obliged to practice daily (accompanied by her slow, soothing voice on a cd, "... Bring your focus to the area around your left hip.... Repeatedly bring the mind back to the body, just exploring whatever you are experiencing. There is no 'right way' to feel...")

Miranda places the origins of Mindfulness  -- as well as the origins of her enthusiasm for it -- within the realms of traditional psychology -- and also Buddhist meditation. She relates how John Kabat-Zinn developed Mindfulness as one of the few helpful practices for people with painful but medically untreatable illnesses of the mind or body. He incorporated a sanitized, secularized version of Buddhist meditation into Mindfulness practice.

Miranda said she had been won over by the power of Mindfulness in helping the clients in her psychiatric practice. And at a taster session before the first class, she related how helpful Mindfulness had been to her late husband, who had motor neurone disease (the British term for Lou Gehrig's disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS.) He hadn't expected it to be worthwhile, disliked it ... but ultimately found it transformed his life. I think it was Miranda's relating of this experience that  induced me to plop down my £225 for the course with her. Street cred.

Another exercise at the first class entailed pairing off with another course participant and discussing our reasons for being there, what we expected to get out of it, what we thought the obstacles would be. I rather inarticulately told my delightful partner, a reception (kindergarten) teacher, that I was hoping it would bring me some clarity in discerning the course of my life, and maybe greater happiness. I think I also mentioned hope for a sort of buffering effect on my moods. Mindfulness can't eliminate the stressful, depressing things that happen to us, but it can, I hope, reduce the intensity of my reactions to them -- make the lows less low and the anxious times less rattling.

My expectations might sound like a tall order, but consider this list of demonstrated benefits mentioned on the Wikipedia page for Mindfulness (psychology):
  •  ...reduces distractive and ruminative thoughts and behaviours, reducing distress...
  • ...emotional regulation ...
  • ... declines in mood disturbance and stress
  • ... increases over time in purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms.
  • ...increased brain and immune function ...
  • ...a lower financial-desire discrepancy and thus ... the perception of “having enough”.
  • ...improved academic performance for women.
  •  ...faster recovery time from exposure to a negative experience...
One should take this with more than a few grains of salt. I've left out a lot in the ellipses -- the underlying research, the caveats, qualifications, the 'needs further research' bits. As a science writer, I see neuroscience, including psychiatry and especially positive psychology as being in their infancy. There are so many problems just with basic definitions and appropriate controls for experiments, etc etc that the eyes glaze over just reading the comparatively non-technical stuff on Wikipedia. I am pretty skeptical of much of the research.

I think the real basis for my hopes for Mindfulness are actually a gut-instinct, emotional suspicion, call it "faith" that what one really needs to improve life is to be more present to what's going on right now, right where you are. And that is what seems to be at the core of Mindfulness. To wit: Kabat-Zinn's definition:
"Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the moment, and non-judgementally."
"Being Present" to me implies not replaying past troubles like a broken record. It implies not engaging in fruitless worry about the future. With less distraction from brooding and worry, Being Present could mean greater engagement in creative work with concomitant "flow" -- getting totally caught-up and engaged in what you're doing. Being Present implies noticing the world around you, including the everyday miracles and wonders right beneath our noses -- thus encouraging savoring and appreciating life, which makes for daily happiness. It implies really listening to -- and thus loving -- the people in our lives, thereby improving relationships, and again building happiness.

I feel a bit like a dilettante taking a course that was developed for people with more significant psychological problems than my garden-variety troubles. At the taster session for Mindfulness, people described their hopes that the practice would help them cope with addictions, sleeplessness, and extreme stress. I suppose the same dilettantism blame could be tossed at the field of positive psychology. Why should such talented psychological thinkers and research resources be lavished on maximizing the happiness of people who are basically doing okay? Especially when there are so many deeply hurting people in this world.

The way I rationalize this for myself is that perhaps, if I can get my act together via Mindfulness, I will be better able to help other people get their acts together, too. And perhaps this holds for positive psychology as well. By pursuing comparisons -- maybe even following gradients -- between unhealthy psychological states and healthy ones, the experts can come up with things that help the unhealthy become healthy. I know research on healthy bodies informs the understanding of disease. Just this morning on BBC 4 they were discussing Alzheimer's Disease researchers' need for post-mortem brain donations from elderly people who die with healthy (non-demented) brains. But I digress.

Martin Seligman, a father of positive psychology, defends the non-luxury status of his field with great magnanimity:
 "most of Positive Psychology is for all of us, troubled or untroubled, privileged or in privation, suffering or carefree. The pleasures of a good conversation, the strength of gratitude, the benefits of kindness or wisdom or spirituality or humility, the search for meaning and the antidote to 'fidgeting until we die' are the birthrights of us all."
Seligman's mention of spirituality and the some of the other pleasures of life being studied by Positive Psychology highlight one aspect of the field that particularly intrigues me: its links to spirituality. With a bit of arm-waving I could make a case for Jesus being the first Positive Psychology practitioner.

But back to Mindfulness ("You may find your mind wandering. That's just what minds do. Each time you notice your mind has wandered, gently bring your attention back...") Kabat-Zinn might have stolen mindfulness concepts from Buddhism. But I if I turn my head just so and squint a bit, I can imagine secularized Mindfulness being re-homed comfortably within Christian religions.

Think of the meditation involved in prayer, psalm, song. Aren't these ways of focusing the mind, bringing it back from its perambulations into worry and anxiety? Think of Jesus' 40 days of mindfulness in the desert. Or consider Jesus' invitation to consider the non-worried, beautifully arrayed lilies of the field. Recall the young Jesus getting so caught up in the flow of his youthful discussions with the rabbis at the temple that he forgot to head home with the parents. Jesus was consistently present to people around him. He was a here-and-now sort of guy who proclaimed the Kingdom of God was at hand -- the richest, fullest life possible--if we could just ditch the behaviors that separate us from God, one another, and ourselves.

Similarly, the Mindfulness handout, Session 1 says,
"The aim of the course is to increase awareness so that we can learn to live more fully, and, instead of always reacting automatically, we can respond to situations with choice."
Besides hearing echos of the full life Jesus offered, I see in the Mindfulness aim a harness for the charging elephant of automatic emotions and intuitions that Jonathan Haidt describes as dominating human behavior and leading to our many and profound societal disagreements over politics and religion. I see a way of helping myself to create equipause moments when I can stop and reflect rationally before jumping in automatically with an idiotic response that serves no one well.

Jesus mostly focused on individuals, as does Mindfulness. But by summing over lots of changed individuals, could we indeed build toward heaven on earth? If not with the help of religion, could this begin by more people paying gentle, non-judgmental attention to their thoughts, their bodies, and their surroundings, here and now? It's a smallish and happy step, I would guess, from there to focusing intentionally, kindly, and non-judgmentally on the people around us.

An appendix: Mindfulness poems


  1. I have always thought that 'consider the lilies of the field' as an invitation to mindfullness. and has helped me in my practise.

  2. Absolutely! Let those who have ears, listen! hugs,