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Is Mindfulness a trap?

 

UntitledIn recent weeks there have been a number of articles about whether Mindfulness is being taught in “the right way” and some commentators have voiced concern that such courses may be doing more harm than good. Many organisations now pay for trainers to teach their staff how to be Mindful. But what does Mindful mean?  A HR director at a company recently asked me this question. The question made me reappraise my whole approach to Mindfulness and led me to conclude that Mindfulness should be at the heart of Coaching, Education, Politics, Business Training, Mind Therapies and Physical Therapies. In fact it is the essence of all we do.

Defining Mindfulness

A common definition of Mindfulness is, “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something

Another common definition is, “to be in the moment observing whatever arises in a non-judgmental way”.

Another way of saying Mindfulness is to attend to or pay attention to something. But what is the “of something” we are focussing our attention on?  This blog explores how established frameworks such as “Yoga” and “Buddhism” teach Mindfulness, how it fits into a personal and societal development framework and how these teachings can inform the methods taught within organisations.

 Mindfulness in organisations

download (1)Many training companies follow an approach similar to Jon Kabat Zinns Mindful Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR). They do this because it is a highly effective, evidenced based program. People who adhere to the program handle stress well, are able to regulate their thoughts and emotions effectively, have a higher tolerance to pain as well as enjoying many other positive physiological and psychological effects. In general it is an excellent program.  The MBSR program focuses on teaching:

  • How to observe the breath (to sharpen our ability to focus on the present),
  • Relaxation tools
  • How to observe the world through the five senses and
  • How to observe fleeting thoughts and feelings.

All of these are invaluable tools.  Organisations and their staff look to such programs to help manage their stress. They also produce wonderful by-products for the organisation. Employees who feel calm and balanced have improved levels of emotional and cognitive regulation. They tend to be more creative, productive and share information more readily with their colleagues.

Mindfulness taught in a vacuum

My only criticism of such programs is that they cherry pick bits of Buddhist and Yoga teachings in order to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Looking at the very words of MBSR – Mindful Based Stress Reduction.  Stress reduction is a goal. A destination. It is not a program with a holistic approach to personal development.

Since my preliminary attempts to introduce Mindfulness into organisations back in 2007 there has been an exponential increase in Mindfulness consultancy firms. Many are excellent. However I have seen awful examples of trainers with little personal Mindfulness experience going into organisations to run short, one off training sessions for staff.  These are merely stress Band-Aids. These poorly managed courses do not go to the heart of what it means to be Mindful. They teach techniques to alleviate stress without exploring underlying causes of stress. They merely encourage the practitioner to identify strongly with ego and use the techniques as temporary measures to deal with life.

My Vipassana teacher, S. N Goenka, taught me that breath awareness and other techniques to sharpen the attention are wonderful tools but they are merely part of a package. He describes training the attention in isolation from a holistic framework to be “bare attention”. Its like sowing seeds on barren ground.  When you open your eyes the world is still, at times, a violent and dangerous place. Without a holistic personal development framework, attention-focussing techniques merely embed the ego.

The Buddhist and Yoga approaches

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In both Buddhist and Yoga traditions learning to focus attention is a vital part of a persons development and is one of the tools enabling the conditions for good physical and mental health to develop.  Both traditions instruct that Mindfulness is taught in conjunction with:

  • Learning to contribute to a more ethical, harmonious environment.
  • Being sensitive to the needs of other people and the environment
  • Training ourselves to be kind, compassionate and empathetic
  • Learning to positively detach from wants, craving and desires
  • Understanding that life is constantly changing and learning to detach from a rigid view of our selves and environment

Mindfulness is complex

Both traditions also teach that Mindfulness is not a simple construct. For example we can be mindful of our internal world:

  • Our thoughts & feelings;
  • Each of the 5 commonly understood ways of detecting sensations within our body;
  • Our breath;
  • Our posture

And we can also choose to be mindful of the world around us by using each of our five senses.

Is it merely about being in the moment?

download (7)If we look at common descriptions of Mindfulness we see “being in the moment”, or “observing whatever arises without judgement”. By learning to focus attention on whatever arises, the act of observation quietens the mind and helps me observe recurring patterns of thought and feelings. This practice also sharpens the ability to attend to what ever I choose to attend to.  Many Mindfulness courses teach people to attend to the present moment by using a point of focus such as the breath. As discussed earlier these techniques have tremendous positive physiological and psychological benefits but they fail to address underlying causes. This approach to Mindfulness is useful but it is just part of the story of what it means to choose to attend to something. 

For example as part of my Positive Psychology studies I looked at the Zimbardo Time perspective research. This area of research describes a framework for our thoughts and chunks up our thought  (“time spent” or “mental capacity”) into the following areas (I’ve simplified this a good deal):

  • Past positive – looking back at the past and reflecting on prior experience in a positive way
  • Past negative – re examining the past an reflecting negatively on events
  • Living in the moment experiencing and observing whatever arises in the moment
  • Future positive – planning for and envisaging a positive future
  • Future negative – worrying about the future and focussing on what can go wrong

The way I have described the time perspective research is simplified and there are other dimensions but it enables us to explore what it means to attend to something in greater detail. The research suggests that the happiest people tend to be able to use each of these thought dimensions in a fluid manner. For example “future negative” thinking can be extremely useful when we need to understand worst-case scenarios to adequately assess risk, without becoming obsessed or overly stressed about a possible future.

Many Mindfulness courses simply teach practices to observe the present but in Yoga and Buddhist practices we learn to sharpen the attention so that we can deliberately choose to attend to potential realities. For example some Tibetan Buddhist practices teach students to visualise desirable beautiful bodies as rotting and decaying. With heightened awareness, students are able to do this without experiencing  an adverse physiological effect and to reflect impartially on death and impermanence. This is a useful technique to learn detachment from ego and permanence. It enables us to grow and prepare for the future. It allows Mindfulness to be a tool for personal development and not merely a stress management tool.

Similarly there are marvellous Tibetan Buddhist practices which teach us to deliberately attend to the problems and perceived ‘mistakes’ we have made in the past. By calm deliberate non judgmental reflection on these things we can change our negative tendencies and create new healthy patterns of living.

Sequential mindful observation

The Buddhist and Yoga traditions teach sequential Mindful observation. We can’t be Mindful of everything internally and externally all at the same time so we practice focussing on different things at different times. This does not mean that one stage leads to another but we train our attention to attend to different things at different times in order to grow and learn.  In this way it becomes an engrained habit to observe the world in a fluid and calm manner. The more we practice Mindfulness the better able we are to make positive healthy choices. We can pick our way gently through the noisy stimulation that surrounds us. We are better able to choose to attend to positive stimulus and thoughts

Yoga  an example of structured mindful development

UntitledPatanjali’s eight limbs of Yoga provide structure. The first two limbs, the Yamas and Niyamas, encourage us to attend to developing kindness and compassion and living within an ethical, harmonious framework. The third limb, Asana, teaches us to attend to the relationship between our mind and the physical sensations in the body as we practice the postures. The fourth limb, Pranayama, teaches us to be mindful of our breathing. We use this as a tool for both physiological and psychological benefit and in order to sharpen the attention.  Pratyahara is the fifth limb. Students begin the process of withdrawing from observation using the senses. This leads to the final stages of single pointed concentration leading to a state of Mindful awareness without judgement.

I need to emphasise again that although there is clear structure for developing Mindfulness in the Yoga system documented by Patanjali, one state does not lead to another. For example we do not attain mastery in attending to the development of kindness and compassion and then move on to mindful awareness of posture or breath. As part of our training we attend to one aspect at a time and build up our skills in each area

Through this process we learn to detach from negative influences and cultivate an optimistic and realistic mindset which is open to growth and development.

Challenges and negative stimulation

This is not to say that we ignore the challenges or negative influences around us. They are as much a part of life as positive influences.  However by learning Mindfulness within a Buddhist or Yoga holistic framework we observe the world with kindness and compassion and we develop an understanding that all things arise and pass away. “Good” things arise and pass away as do “bad” things.  By learning how to detach from fleeting thoughts and feelings we can minimise many of the harmful physiological effects of observing our pain and suffering or that of others.  Detachment does not mean that we become isolated and aloof from our emotions. As part of the Buddhist and Yoga traditions we train ourselves to be mindful of being kind, loving and compassionate.

Students of Yoga and Buddhism train their minds to feel the pain and suffering of others but learn to allow those fleeting emotions to flow through them without negatively affecting their physiology.  In this way they are better able to observe emotions, empathise with others, use both their emotional signals and their deeper values to choose better actions, then allow thoughts, emotions and decisions to flow through them – they learn to positively detach from suffering and move on.

Allowing the good times to flow

In the same way that students train their minds to  allow “negative” emotions and experiences to flow through them, they also appreciate that the good times come and go. By not overly attaching to the good times we allow new experiences to come to us.  We are taught that liking an experience can lead to attachment, which can lead to craving. When craving cannot be fulfilled it can lead to “negative” emotions which may have a strong physiological impact – for example loss, jealousy, anger etc.  That does not mean we can’t enjoy the good times and the positive emotions that arise from them. It just means we allow them to come and go in the knowledge that trying to hold on to a fleeting thought and feeling inevitably leads to suffering

He who binds to himself a joy Does the winged life destroy; But he who kisses the joy as it flies Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

William Blake 

Conclusions

I remain a big advocate of Mindfulness courses for individuals and for staff within organisations. My only note of caution would be that when trainers are putting courses together they should have the necessary practical personal experience of having learnt Mindfulness within an established tradition. Patanjali and the Buddha taught complex psychological tools 2,500 years ago. These have been observed, practiced and developed since then. A coach or trainer’s ability to teach Mindfulness depends upon their experience of what it means to be mindful.

Without understanding that Mindfulness goes hand in hand with developing positive intention, understanding impermanence and detachment, many of the benefits of practice may not accrue. Indeed simply teaching Mindfulness as a stress management tool deepens attachment to ego and may be a barrier to personal to growth and raised self awareness.

My experiences

For more information about courses Positive Psychology and Mindfulness go to www.breathe-australia.com

Like many Mindfulness coaches my training has come from many different sources including :

  • Mindfulness of body awareness and breath from my Yoga and Chi Kung training (Sivananda and Iyengar Yoga)
  • Mindfulness of the relationship between cause and effect (Tibetan Buddhism)
  • Mindfulness of physical sensations arising in my own body (Vipassana meditation, Goenka centres)
  • Mindfulness of cultivating kindness, empathy and compassion (Buddhism, Vipassana and Positive Psychology)
  • Mindfulness of emotions (The Mayers Salovey Caruso model of emotional intelligence)
  • Study of the Mindful Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR)
  • Various research areas from Positive Psychology including Flow and Philip Zimbardo’s research on Time perspective

I started practicing physical Yoga (the Asanas) in 1999 and subsequently trained with the Sivananda organisation to become a Yoga teacher. They provided an excellent grounding in the philosophy of Yoga.

In 2007, as part of my Masters degree in Positive Psychology, I studied the Jon Kabat Zinn Mindful Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program and my dissertation was “introducing Meditation and Mindfulness into organisations”. Since 2008 I have practiced Vipassana Buddhist meditation techniques at the Goenka centres around the world. In 2008 I studied the MSCEIT model of Emotional Intelligence. This model teaches a systematic approach to recognising, understanding, using and managing your own and other people’s emotions.

 

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Learning to meditate

Learning to meditate

This is the third in a series of blogs and newsletters about the different wellbeing courses I’ve attended over the last thirteen years.  I’ve picked the courses, teachers and books that have had the most profound impact on the way that I perceive the world.  One of the most transformational courses was a ten day Vipassana meditation retreat in the Rocky mountains four years ago.

As I left Vancouver on a rainy Summers day I was filled with uncertainty about the challenge ahead.  As the bus snaked through the foothills I was reluctant to leave the misty Pacific and I reflected on the rules that I had agreed to abide by for the next 10 days:

–        No communication with anyone on the course.  This included verbal and non verbal communication.  For example eye contact with fellow participants was to be avoided.

–        No communication with the outside world

–        No ipods, no music, no books or magazines.  Nothing to hear or read or watch for 10 days

–        A simple vegetarian diet with no alcohol, no tobacco or drugs of any kind and just two small meals per day

–        Complete emersion in the practice.  They were to teach us a form of meditation and we were to practice this style only

–        Each day started at 5am and lasted until 10pm.  90% of this time was to be spent in a shaded room sitting cross legged on the floor practicing the Vipassana meditation technique.  The rest of the time was to be spent taking silent walks alone in the forest or receiving meditation instructions.

So you can understand my concern! This was serious spiritual bootcamp. Why endure this when there was so much to see outside – the beautiful snow capped Rocky Mountains.   Why spend time looking inside alone with my hopes and fears for 10 days.  Where would the love be, the touch of another, the smile and the loving support that we all need?

The taxi drive from Merritt greyhound station up to the retreat in the mountains only took about 20 minutes.  What surprised me most was the electric fence surrounding the centre to keep Grizzlies at bay.  Throughout the early part of the course my thoughts kept returning to whether, in the event of a power cut, they had a good backup generator.  I didn’t want to be eaten by a bear just as I was on the threshold of enlightenment.

Before dinner on day -1 we met the people on the course and as usual on such things there were people from all walks of life.  On this course there were four senior members of Obamas election campaign team.  After dinner we received the first of our instructions and from then on we agreed to engage in the practice and not communicate.

We spent the first three days practicing a breathing technique to help make the mind sharp.  Over three days we focussed our attention on the sensation of the breath entering and leaving the nose – how warm it felt as it left the body, how cold it felt as it entered the body, which nostril it came in through more strongly etc.  3 days focussing on the sensations felt at the tip of the nose!

After that we were taught to focus our attention at the top of the head and enquire, without thought, what the sensation of observing felt like.  As we observed the body did we feel heat, cold, joy, pain, light etc ?

From here we learnt to scan the body from top to toe and back up constantly remaining present to the observation of sensation.  Perhaps each scan took an hour to complete.  Sometimes it felt excruciatingly painful in my back and knees.  Part of the process was to learn to become dispassionate about this discomfort.  Sometimes harrowing thoughts and sadness kept intruding. Sometimes the boredom felt crushing and sometimes when you were able to be truly in the moment you felt utter bliss and pleasure.

At the end of each day we received video instruction on how to improve our practice.  Many of the key messages that came through during the 10 days have stayed with me:

–        The mind is lively and excitable.  It’s obvious that we have a brain to think and create with but it’s also clear that having periods in each day where we train ourselves not to think can be extremely relaxing.  It also gives you a sense of calm and understanding that you don’t have to clutter your mind with thoughts and clutter your life with so much stuff

–        Practicing not thinking helps us become more dispassionate.  This does not mean that we loose passion.  During the 10 days observing the body mind relationship you realise that pain and pleasure are often self created mind constructs.  They ebb and flow.  You learn to accept that sometimes there is pleasure, sometimes pain.  That’s not to say that there is no real pain in the world.  The pain of loss and suffering is real but the scanning practice that I’ve talked about here illustrates to us that pain and pleasure are certain throughout life but that these states are not constant.

–        The  practice teaches us to be empathetic and sympathetic to the pain of others but not to allow that pain and suffering to affect the balance and equanimity of our own mind.  This might sound cold hearted but a loss of hope and negative emotions can be contagious if you let them.  You can only be a source for positive change in yourself, loved ones and the world if you engage with the pain of others but not allow it to affect your underlying state.  A daily meditation practice helps you do this by reminding you that pain and pleasure states flow.

–        Similarly you appreciate that the bliss, joy and ecstasy of deep relaxation is also illusory, ie enjoy it whilst it lasts but don’t crave positive feelings.  Craving and desire inexorably leads to pain and suffering because inevitably at some stage in life you wont be able to get what you once had nor do what you once did.  The practice teaches you to stay open to new possibilities and not overly attach to one type of pleasure sensation again and again.  Pleasure can lead to habits, minor addictions, major addictions and suffering for you and others.  Not overly attaching to one pleasure allows the full world of possible sensations to be experienced.  As you focus your attention on one thing with your eyes  closed it enables you to be present to a stream of endless beautiful possibilities when your eyes are open.

–        Lastly towards the end of the 10 days we were instructed in the practice of a loving kindness meditation.  This practice teaches us to harness the good will and positive energy that has been accumulated during the previous 10 days and communicate it to all beings.  We are reminded that the practice of mindfulness and meditation is meaningless without positive intention.  Many people use spiritual practices as a means of withdrawing from the outer world and suppressing emotions.  Practicing meditation without developing kindness and compassion has been described as bare attention ( as opposed to bear attention).  You do these practices not to become isolated from but to become an active, engaged, positive member of society.

On day 10 we opened our eyes and I felt as though I knew my fellow participants in a very deep way.  I felt re wired, buzzing, energised and fully alive.  The next 3 weeks were spent with my family camping in the Rocky Mountains with my eyes wide open.  The world is so beautiful.  Enjoy all it has to offer.

Find out more about Vipassana mediation centres all over the world .  This is the one in British Columbia that I went to http://www.dhamma.org/en/schedules/schsurabhi.shtml

Training your mind to see the positive

Brains of happy people tuned in to notice positive events

Psychologists Wil Cunningham and Tabitha Kirkland at Ohio state university observed the brain scans of volunteers whilst showing them pictures designed to evoke positive, negative or neutral responses.  Positive images included a basket of kittens and negative images included someone being threatened with a gun.

What they found was that those participants who rated their own subjective level of happiness highly had a greater arousal of the amygdala (a region of the brain used to process information about the world around us and our emotional responses to it) when shown positive images, than participants who rated themselves lower on self reported happiness scales.

 The scans results showed that all the volunteers responded in similar ways to negative and neutral images.  What this may suggest is that people with a rosy outlook on life respond positively to positive stimulus in their environment and are more likely to observe these events, however they are still highly aware of threats around them.  They see the world in a balanced way. 

When I learnt the vipassana meditation technique I was constantly reminded to keep observing the world afresh.  The mantra was to view the world as it is rather than how you think it should be. 

That’s one of the great things about positive psychology – its interventions train your mind to focus on what’s good in the world and by doing so you build the tenacity to overcome your challenges and deal with the threats.  For all the problems in the world its still a beautiful life

Our next positive psychology course details are at Breathe London