Like everything else that requires practice, the development of mindfulness first involves learning some concepts, and some methods to practice. The methods are practiced over and over again, first only in very structured situations, eventually in all kinds of situations.Ultimately, the skills become reliable ways of responding with freedom, wisdom and kindness to a greater and greater range of human experience.
Bare attention – Attending to sensory experiences that arise with an object of attention, without distraction or thinking too much. For example, when attending to your breathing with bare attention, you just notice the sensations of breathing and nothing else. When this is occurring, many subtleties and nuances of breathing, and patterns in these, reveal themselves to you. Also, you are just noticing these sensations as they arise and pass away in the present moment – not thinking about them, not labelling them with language, not associating them with other sensations or patterns you may have experienced before.
With practice, bare attention can be applied to bodily and emotional responses, including those triggered by very painful or traumatic experiences. For example, a person might attend to the sensations in her chest, throat, and face that arise when someone raises their voice in anger and reminds her of a hurtful parent or step-parent. Focusing on emotions as bodily events while “dropping the story” of verbal thoughts, bare attending.
Labelling – Mentally applying a word or brief phrase to a particular content of experience.
Not all mindfulness meditation instructions include this practice, but many do. The idea is to help oneself simply notice something arising in your experience, without judgment, so that you can get back to observing the flow of experiences arising and passing away. This practice can also eliminate the control of particularly “sticky” thoughts and feelings over one’s attention. For example, one might use the labels “sadness” or “anger” when these emotions arise; or “planning,” “worrying,” or “remembering” when those common cognitive processes arise.
Acceptance – Accepting the reality of one’s current experience is particularly important when it comes to potentially intense negative emotional responses. Once such emotional responses have arisen in one’s current experience, neither mindlessly being carried away by them nor attempting to suppress them will be particularly helpful. Acceptance allows one to see them more clearly for what they are – unwanted and intense, but passing experiences – and choose how to respond to them, perhaps with acceptance and nothing more.
Non-reactivity – Responding to experiences, including emotions and impulses, without getting carried away by them or trying to suppress them. All organisms, including human beings, are conditioned to react automatically to most of the experiences they have. We grasp at what we want and like, and push away what we don’t want or like. Before we even know it, such conditioned responses to stimuli and emotions carry us away.
Mindfulness involves the skill of non-reactively observing split-second conditioned reactions, which provides the option of not acting out the entire chain reaction that would normally follow. This non-reactivity opens up space for new observations, reflections, learning, and freedom.
Curiosity – An attitude of interest in learning about the nature of one’s experience and mind. Through mindfulness, this quality of mind can be brought to a much greater range of experience than we ordinarily do. When it comes to experiences that we don’t want, including painful memories and emotions, we tend to just push them away and avoid them, again based on our conditioning. We tend to reserve curiosity for things and experiences that are new and at least somewhat positive. But with mindfulness, we can bring curiosity to the full range of our experience, and discover much that is new and enlightening.
Patience – Accepting a slow pace of change; bearing unwanted, difficult or painful experiences with calmness. Experiencing the breath over and over again, and repeatedly observing – with acceptance, non-reactivity, and curiosity – that one’s mind has wondered or been carried away in a chain reaction of conditioned thoughts and feelings, is a wonderful way to cultivate patience. And these experiences can translate to daily life, enabling us to become more patient with ourselves and others as we all continue to fall into habitual responses that increase our suffering.
Thoughts and feelings as events, not facts
We often respond to our thoughts and feelings as if they were facts or truths that “demand” or “justify” particular responses. However, it is also possible to understand and experience our thoughts and feelings as events that arise under certain conditions, and then pass away. This is true of all sensations, perceptions, feelings, memories, fantasies about the future, and other mental experiences.
Understanding and experiencing our thoughts and feelings in this way opens up some “space” around them. Instead of the thoughts and feelings having you, and carrying you away, you can experience yourself as having certain thoughts and feelings under certain conditions, and as having options about how you respond to them.
Attending to process vs. attending to content.
Most of the time, most of us are lost in the contents of what is running through our minds. Though fears, cravings and various emotions drive our thought processes, we tend to get lost in the specifics and details of our thoughts and memories. Mindfulness meditation teaches us how to observe the processes of our minds and how they work.
For example, when we are experiencing a pain in our body, or a painful memory, we tend to focus on the content of the pain experience and relate to it as something solid and unchanging. When that happens, the pain or memory is experienced the same way we always experience it, with the same predictable results. However, if we truly attend to the process by which sensations of pain or aspects of remembering arise and change from moment to moment, the experience tends to lose its grip over our awareness and become more tolerable and workable.
When we can attend to a painful memory as a process that arises and plays out in our mind, we notice how the images, thoughts, feelings and bodily experiences change from moment to moment, and that experience of remembering involves new learning and opportunities for healing. Repeatedly attending to the processes of one’s mind in daily meditation practice, one can become more mindful and more skilled at noticing the processes of experiences in daily life – and choosing not to get lost in the contents of experiences.
The transformative and healing power of this shift in how we attend to our experience really is amazing, though it does take practice and discipline. Most important, this is a skill that truly can only be experienced directly, and only hinted at with words and concepts like these.
Until next time, Steve
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Steve Clifford Senior Accredited Integrative Psychotherapist. Accredited Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist.
This blog post is largely an abridged version of “Mindfulness and Kindness; inner sources of freedom and happiness,” by Jim Hopper, PhD – http://www.jimhopper.com [Accessed 18/02/15]