“The only thing we have to fear…”

International terrorists are trying to ratchet up our fear. They’re devoting their lives to getting us to invest a lot of energy into making ourselves far more secure (in one specific dimension or another) than rationally called for. They’re working hard to make us distrust ordinary, often middle-class people from countries with different customs from ours but surprisingly similar beliefs and values.

Our own politicians are trying to ratchet up our fear too, and I don’t even need to give examples.

We’ve got domestic terrorists, who want whatever it is they want and have the means to try to get it… or at least to make loud, despairing statements about it by murdering people whose skin color or beliefs or proximity to something that bothers them puts them in their path at the wrong time.

Then there are random trolls on the Internet who get a kick out of fear and threats and drama, turning communities into hostile spaces, trying to shut down others’ voices.

Regular folks, our cousins and our neighbors, seem to partake in this fear. We hear them calling for strong leadership! Impenetrable borders! Or at a minimum the continued ability to attempt to defend themselves with far more powerful weaponry than they’d need to take down their annual quota of deer and game birds or to scare off a burglar…

Even powerful police officers, armed to the hilt, become infected by this fear, shooting unarmed people, some of them children, whom they forget that they’ve sworn to protect.

An epidemic of fear
Our country has been hit by an epidemic of fear, some of it deliberate, most of it a natural consequence of the contagiousness of fear. Many people are innately afraid of other people. Often they have good reason to be. Feeling threatened makes all of us more conservative, less open, than we’d otherwise be.

In the long term, this kind of fear runs its course, and we get to have stability and a greater degree of mutual trust and tolerance again. But if people think they’re benefitting from this climate of fear, and if they can see what works to ratchet it up again, then they may keep at it. We saw how that worked for Senator McCarthy, and we saw how that worked in 1930s Germany. We don’t want that here and now.

Fighting back!
Suppose that we want to fight back. Suppose that we see people out there doing their best to make us more afraid, and we want to fight back. What can we do?

The strategy I see most often, at least in social media, pretty much amounts to some combination of appealing to reason through facts and figures, and exasperated ironic comments that probably come across as ridicule. This strategy may help to innoculate those who aren’t already infected with fear, to bolster whatever immunity we have, but facts and figures can’t beat emotion that’s already inflamed, and ridicule and scorn certainly can’t either. The result is yet more polarization. What we really need is a strategy that works for all of us, not those of us who aren’t yet afraid, because eventually we could find ourselves in the minority, and history tells us what happens when fear takes over.

We know that empathy can work, on an individual level – if you know and like someone who’s a typical member of That Group, the rest of them may not be so bad. But the part about “typical” is important. I’ve long thought that Family Feud, bringing hundreds of regular, ordinary, friendly families of color onto the TV sets of America, may have done more to improve race relations than the achievements of any of the many African American athletes and entertainers, because the latter are all special, exceptional. If we think someone’s exceptional, we don’t generalize. That friendly Arab grocer you’ve known for years isn’t like the other Arabs, right? He’s different, he’s an exception. For one thing, unlike most Arabs, he lives down the street from you, and he speaks English and knows your name. You like him just fine, but the rest of them are still whatever scary thing we imagine Arabs are. But if you know dozens of Arabs, in their infinite variety, going about their daily lives, in times of peace? Now a random Arab is not so scary.

How about the people out there who actually are out to do us harm? A few of them are, sure. That’s always been the case. What can we do to reduce the odds that they’ll attack us? Okay, so, one obvious strategy is not to go romanticizing them with rhetoric about a war on terror, or a clash of civilizations, or other language that plays into their desire to be seen as hugely significant. This meaning, this dramatic significance, is the main reason they have for doing these things. So? Take it away from them. Criminals! Make them criminals, not soldiers or martyrs in a war for the hearts and minds of their people. True, they might harm us. But fear harms us too.

What else? Can we do something to dampen down the fear itself? Something reassuring? Can we channel the fear constructively for the public good, resisting the tendency to draw inward and hunker down? Could we appeal to bravery somehow? A lot of people who think in terms of “us versus them” also think in terms of heroism and bravery. Would a call for bravery help them move forward? I don’t know how that would work in practical terms, but maybe? World War II was scary, but there was a sense of everybody pulling together toward a common cause – can we find one of those?

Our top priority: Fear itself
I’m sure there are a lot of things we should be doing to reduce the climate of fear. These are just thoughts off the top of my head. The main point I want to make is that we ought to be putting this issue, this “problem of fear,” at the forefront of our national dialogue on how to move forward from where we find ourselves. Then we can start directing our resources toward things that are more important.

We ought to be able to focus our resources on things that are statistically more likely to hurt people, like addiction and cancer and depression and air pollution. We should also be focusing our resources on issues that could destabilize our country and the whole world. Right? My agenda would include global climate change, which could make millions of people homeless and destitute, and systemic issues that perpetuate economic inequality, making people frustrated and denying us the productive contributions of millions of people who could and would do more for us, given the opportunity and a fair playing field. These are real, large-scale problems.

Your agenda may be different, which is fine. But we should be debating agendas based on creating the long-term futures we want, all of us, together. If your agenda is best supported by making people afraid, then maybe it’s immoral and you should rethink it. And for now, at the top of our national agenda, we should be shutting down the fear factor.

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Mindfulness IV: Making Choices – Ethics and Mindfulness

Ideally, mindfulness would make us more conscious of the world around us and more sensitive to the way our actions affect others. But is that necessarily so?

Caveat Four:
Mindfulness doesn’t always lead to “goodness.”

Here are some possible ways that a mindfulness practice might not lead to greater ethical sensitivity and making the most responsible choices. These ideas may not all hold up to examination; I’m just throwing them out there for your consideration.

hume.sm1. Emotional detachment. Mindfulness detaches feelings from action and teaches just noticing feelings without being moved by them (feelings as distraction). Yet as both philosophers and neuroscientists know, we need feelings to guide our ethics. For that matter, you can do very bad things mindfully (in cold blood, or as an automaton).

2. Reduced brain power. Mindfulness uses up cognitive resources by making your brain spend energy on being aware of what you’re aware of, so there’s even less attention to direct towards things you weren’t already aware of. If you’re not already attuned to others’ feelings and experiences, you may now be even less likely to notice them.

3. Emphasis on the senses. When mindfulness isn’t being linked to a broader context, some valued bigger picture, it can promote a prioritization of hedonism and sensual pleasures over responsibility and a connection to larger, self-transcending sources of meaning. When you’re being mindful, you can get caught up in your senses, and as I described last time, you may be less attuned to the “big picture.”

4. Lack of guidance. Mindfulness doesn’t tell us how to set up the ordered list of tasks for which we’ll be mindful, the meta-level of structure in which mindfulness operates. If you want your life to be in service of some bigger picture, you have to bring that in from outside of the mindfulness process. (Maybe it’s part of the wider framework of Buddhism, I don’t know, but if so, that’s separate from a mindfulness practice).

There are many times when we should probably prioritize mindfulness over, say, acting on auto-pilot. When we’re interacting with loved ones, patients, clients, children – probably any interpersonal encounter is a good time to be attentive and open and self-aware. When we’re doing something that requires thoughtful decision-making, or careful focus – well, whenever we’re trying to be responsible, there’s a place for mindfulness.

But mindfulness is not enough. Suppose you’re a monk in a monastery, or a visitor on a retreat, and someone else has already decided the entire ordering of your day’s activities, and all you have to do is move from one physical task to another. Then, mindfulness could work very well for you – you could be fully present in each of those activities, or at least you could aspire to it, and that would be fine. But you’re not making any choices; you’re just moving from one anchor to the next. Someone else has set all of your priorities for you.

But if you’re living in the everyday world, and if your life has any complexity whatsoever, then you’ll need to make decisions. It’s great to be mindful when you’re deciding about how to spend your time, of course – mindfulness can help you notice where you’re enthusiastic and where you’re reluctant, and to not get caught up in either one to the extent that you aren’t meeting your priorities, but the priorities themselves come from outside of the experience of mindfulness. Mindfulness itself does not create any input or structure, and it cannot give you any goals; it’s just a mode of awareness and reaction.

5. Less responsiveness. If we do have this structure, these anchors from which to operate, then whenever we’re using one of these anchors, we lose some responsiveness to changing situations.

buberMartin Buber, the author of I and Thou and one of the leading philosophers on the ethics of relationships, gave an example from his own experience. Just before World War I, a young man came to him for advice, and Buber responded in a friendly fashion, but “without being there in spirit.” He himself was still focused on his own morning’s spiritual practices, which had been intense and emotionally engaging. Later he learned that the young man had died in the war, having put himself in harm’s way in an act of despair. Buber believed that he had failed in his responsibility to the visitor, that if he had been more fully attentive to him, rather than distracted by his morning’s activities, he may have helped him. (Between Man and Man, p.13-14; Friedman biography, p.7-8). Of course, being mindful in his encounter with the young man would have been one way to be more fully attentive, but the encounter was unexpected and not part of the structure of his day. His mind was still on the topic he had designated for being mindful of.

6. Potentially self-deluding about openness. Although mindfulness requires openness to the world, it may do nothing to actively cultivate our awareness of the ways that we don’t have the answers and don’t know others totally and that we harm them by making the assumption that we do. Mindfulness is more passive about openness – it encourages us to accept the unexpected, but it doesn’t push us towards seeing the unexpected. We may think we’re being more open than we actually are.

When you’re mindfully having a conversation with someone, you’re attending to the thoughts and feelings going through your head, and to your impressions of the thoughts and feelings that are going through the other person’s head, but that only works if you assume you know the person so well that your complete rapport is effortless. And that’s taking a lot for granted. It’s kind of denying them the freedom to be unpredictable, or for there to be aspects of their life that you can’t completely get.

allison.carterThe more effortful form of empathy called “perspective-taking” involves an imaginative leap into their experience, and there’s an ethical component to that, or at least there should be, where we recognize that our own experiences and biases will influence our imagination such that our ideas will always be incomplete and insufficient for fully understanding the other person. I should know, as a privileged white American, that I can never fully imagine what it’s like to have dark skin, but if I’m just taking for granted that I know how a dark-skinned person feels based on our common humanity, without ever taking an imaginative leap into her perspective, then I’m missing out on something ethically vital.

I’d like to think that really skilled mindfulness practitioners would have the ability to keep another person’s possibly very different perspective in mind at the same time that they’re highly focused on their own experiences and responses, but it seems that it would be really difficult. And mindfulness may help us to notice when another person is uncomfortable, but it doesn’t push us to make an imaginative leap to wonder why, or help us know how to respond.

To sum up – the teachings on mindfulness that I’ve come across, whether Buddhist or Western, encourage people to learn to live in the present moment, and that can have considerable value… but! An emphasis on mindfulness can also teach people to curtail a really vast and important part of human experience, which is our ongoing involvement in imaginative worlds that are not our present moment. And in doing that, I think the practice of mindfulness has the potential to lead some people to be excessively self-involved and less aware of others, especially others who are different from ourselves.

I do encourage you to learn more about mindfulness and to experience it for yourself. But whether you see it as a tool or as a way of life, it’s important to remember that mindfulness is only a method. We won’t find substance nor meaning in mindfulness – for those, we need connection and engagement with things we value.

And that’s all I have to say about mindfulness for now. Please let me know what you think!

This post is one in a four-part series:

Mindfulness – Four Caveats
Part I: Why Mindfulness?
Part II: “Always Be Mindful” – Good Idea?
Part III: When Mindfulness Sets Us Adrift
Part IV: Making Choices – Ethics and Mindfulness

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Mindfulness III: When Mindfulness Sets Us Adrift

One benefit often mentioned for mindfulness is the value of shaking up one’s complacent perspective on life. Jon Kabat-Zinn explained that “we lock ourselves into a personal fiction that we already know who we are, that we already know where we are and where we are going, that we know what is happening – all the while remaining shrouded in thoughts, fantasies, and impulses…” (Wherever You Go There You Are, pp. xiv-xv). Or, more succinctly put in a journal article called, “Mechanisms of Mindfulness,”by Shauna Shapiro and colleagues, “Rather than being immersed in the drama of our personal narrative or life story, we are able to stand back and simply witness it.”

I’ll just note as an aside here, that not everyone thinks of themselves as living inside a life-story. There are lots of ways that we might structure our thinking about our lives, such as following the social rules for the roles we have, or checking off life-achievements from a personal master list, or even just floating along from one set of sensations to another. The point is that we all think of ourselves as living in one or more contexts, which give our lives a sense of at least minimal order, and sometimes meaning and purpose.

tolkienOne useful way to think about these life contexts is the idea of “secondary worlds.” J.R.R. Tolkien made up this term for talking about the imaginative act of immersing ourselves in a story-world, but it works just as well for talking about all of the other “worlds” or “stages” or “settings” that we encounter that go beyond our day-to-day life experiences. In essence, it’s a conceptual model we create in our minds for understanding some social context – a mental model of some possible sphere of action. Whenever we think about national or world politics, for example, we’re conjuring in our imaginations a “world” that has its own actors and events, causes and effects. We have beliefs about how it works, and it influences our own choices and perceptions, but for most of us, it’s separate from our immediate experiences. We can certainly let it color our immediate experiences – we can make connections between the dinner on our table and the big picture of world politics – but we can also simply eat whatever food is before us without reference to these other actors, that is, mindfully.

Here are some other examples of secondary worlds: situations from one’s past, or possible future; any social context when we’re not there in the middle of it (work, school, family); similar aspects of other people’s lives; other commonly understood spheres of functioning, like Wall Street or Hollywood or the Vatican; games and sporting events; ecosystems; the mental models we use to think about the inner workings of one’s body; the ongoing “conversations” of science and philosophy. Pretty much every time we’re thinking or talking about something other than our current immediate experience, we’re referring to some secondary world.

Secondary worlds can create the contexts for our actions. Secondary worlds can also provide us with the social constructions that allow us to interpret everything we perceive – if we notice a bodily sensation, we then usually resort to socially created interpretations to help us make sense of it.

This means that mindfulness is a technique for turning off our automatic interpretations – our automatic recourse to secondary worlds – which can leave us free to try out new interpretations, or simply to notice and then move on, but which can also leave us feeling adrift. Context (which can include sense of identity) is perhaps the primary source of meaning-in-life.

As I explained in the last post, active immersion in one context means a lack of openness in other contexts, because your attention is already taken up. But there’s also a more passive type of immersion, the sets of beliefs and involvements you take for granted, the world(s) you’re immersed in without trying, and sometimes even without giving them more than occasional bits of attention. Examples might be your identity in terms of roles you find yourself in, or affiliations from your past that you don’t need to think about.

Letting go of our customary contexts can definitely be a good thing: Vacations, travel, catching up with old friends, moving to a new city, and changing jobs are all examples of times when we step out of our usual patterns and expectations and put our attention elsewhere. We’re out of our “comfort zone,” and that can lead to new discoveries, new energy, new perspectives.

Mindfulness can do this too. When you’re practicing mindfulness and its openness, your passive immersion in other contexts is weakened. You find yourself living more in the immediate present, without these more automatic filters and expectations. In Buddhism, they encourage this as “beginner’s mind.” This can be a good thing when it leads you to step outside the life-stories you take for granted, if they’re ones that aren’t consistent with your values. But when your observing self isn’t yet strong, or when you’re feeling doubts about yourself or dismissed by others, these right-here-in-the-present experiences can make you feel alarmingly unmoored. Remember, it is only in connection that we find meaning.

And this brings us to Caveat Three:
Mindfulness can set us adrift.

If we succeed in letting go of our usual life-context, and we aren’t replacing it with another, deliberately chosen context, this can be emotionally stressful. Fully experiencing the present moment can give us the illusion that there is no context for our lives. Experiencing this no-context and the kind of detachment that mindfulness teaches can be depersonalizing, and this can be frightening.

buddhist.teachingNow, the thing is, when mindfulness is taught as a part of Buddhism, this experience isn’t something a beginner would normally encounter. Mindfulness traditionally is learned in the context of one’s cultural values – a Buddhist in Asia, for example, is not stepping out of his usual belief systems when he practices meditation. At a minimum, a Buddhist student learns mindfulness and other meditative practices in the context of an ongoing dialogue with his teacher. All beginning Buddhists, in Asia or the West, are expected to work with a skilled teacher and to learn in the context of this relationship. When mindfulness is integrated into a Western clinical practice, like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, it likewise is taught in a context. In this case, the person focuses on identifying her deepest values and committing to live accordingly. Depersonalization doesn’t occur in the context of meaningful action.

If you’re practicing mindfulness on your own, however, there can be problems. If the context you find yourself in is denying the value of your beliefs and experiences (shaming, gaslighting, or otherwise debasing you), or if you’re going through a life transition that involve experiencing a loss of your customary identity (such as losing your job or an intimate relationship), then “beginner’s mind” can set you adrift and lead to panic as you vividly experience a sense of loss of self. You will then have to reassert that “observing self” along with a sense of fundamental “okayness,” and this becomes harder if you’re simultaneously experiencing a loss of connectedness. At times like these, you’re probably much better off if you focus more on your values and strengthening your other connections.

A famous American Buddhist author and teacher, Jack Kornfield, recently told the New York Times (1/31/14) that even as an experienced practitioner, mindfulness and other forms of meditation didn’t always help. As he put it, “There were major areas of difficulty in my life, such as loneliness, intimate relationships, work, childhood wounds, and patterns of fear that even very deep meditation didn’t touch.” He added,“Meditation and spiritual practice can easily be used to suppress and avoid feeling or to escape from difficult areas of our lives.”

Meditation, including mindfulness, is not about meaning and connection. We are more likely to find meaning and connection in immersion, particularly in that “reflective immersion” I described in the last post, when we’re aware not only of what we’re encountering but how we ourselves relate to it. Participating in “secondary worlds” is the “big picture” for our lives. It’s how we give our actions a bigger significance. It’s how we get things done. Mindfulness can help us be focused and appreciative, but it’s only part of the story.

Tomorrow, Caveat Four: Mindfulness and Making Choices

This post is one in a four-part series:

Mindfulness – Four Caveats
Part I: Why Mindfulness?
Part II: “Always Be Mindful” – Good Idea?
Part III: When Mindfulness Sets Us Adrift
Part IV: Making Choices – Ethics and Mindfulness

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Mindfulness Caveats II: “Always Be Mindful” – Good Idea?

“Chopping wood is meditation. Carrying water is meditation. Be mindful 24 hours a day, not just during the one hour you may allot for formal meditation… Each act must be carried out in mindfulness.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness!, p.24.

As I described in my last post, mindfulness involves keeping your attention in the present moment, and when it wanders off elsewhere, you note it and patiently bring it back. If you’re cutting vegetables, you’re cutting vegetables, not also thinking about what your boss said earlier in the afternoon. And this is good, both because you’ll be safer with that knife you’re using, and because you’re then attending to the sensory experience of interacting with the vegetables, which can be pleasurable, and you’re not taking food for granted, either. But if you’re always mindful, then what time is left for thinking about what your boss said? Or for planning something, solving a problem, or thinking about situations you’re not currently bodily right in the middle of, like the latest Supreme Court decision?

A recent New York Times article (1/14/2014) talked about several issues with mindfulness and noted some contrary research. The mind-wandering that is so scrupulously cut short during mindfulness exercises is an important element in creativity, for one thing. (Mindfulness also inhibits “implicit learning,” which is the kind of learning you do by just picking things up through exposure and effort; I’m not going to follow up on that here.)

What happens when the mind wanders? In essence, it’s engaging imaginatively with some situation that’s not in the here and now. It can be stressful and counterproductive when the mind keeps wandering off to obsess about something that’s in the past and can’t be changed, or to fret about things that are beyond your control and may never come to pass. In these cases, a dose of mindfulness can help us notice these patterns and sometimes learn to let go of them. At other times, though, more positive forms of mind-wandering like daydreaming can help us see what our real priorities are and can even help with problem-solving.

But I want to think some more about this matter of “engaging imaginatively with some situation that’s not in the here and now.” Remember when I made the distinction between focusing exclusively on activity (“Just do X”) and being mindful about an activity (“Just do X and know that you are doing X”)? Well, here’s a good example: reading a really good book. If you’re fully absorbed in what you’re reading (or watching on a screen, or listening to someone tell you), then your mind is fully in that narrative world – you’ve tuned out your physical environment. You don’t necessarily notice what someone else is doing right beside you, or whether you’re hungry or thirsty, and if you do happen to notice these things, they’ve disrupted your immersion in the story world.

When we’re absorbed in a book, we are “just doing X” but we clearly are not “knowing that you X” because we’ve lost all awareness of ourselves at all. In fact, not possible to read properly while at the same time maintaining a full awareness of self/body/etc., and experiences that bring us back to awareness of self/body/etc. destroy this immersion experience; we have to take moments to regain it.

In other words, immersion is a “just X” experience, and it can even be a less distractable one than ones where you’re making an effort to focus on something. Along with reading, any other sort of involvement in a story – like listening to a storyteller, watching a film or TV show, or playing some kinds of video games – also qualifies as immersion (which in psychology is also called absorption, or “narrative transportation,” because you’re “transported” to a different world).
But immersion is a much broader phenomenon than that. It happens every time we put some context at the forefront and tune out the rest. When friends meet up in a supermarket and get involved in a conversation, they’re often oblivious to the people trying to maneuver their carts around them, and they may even temporarily forget that they’re shopping. When we’re really involved in a project for work, or a recreational activity, we set aside the other things going on and can lose track of time and our bodily needs.

Even dogs and cats do this. A few days ago, I saw a dog so excited about interacting with his humans that he completely didn’t notice he was jumping into the street, with oncoming cars. (He was fine.) And when my kitten Sorin is plotting a particularly challenging jump, it’s next to impossible to get his attention with the toys or treats that normally would fascinate him.

Immersion is a really important aspect of our lives. It’s not just reading or watching a movie, it’s also any sort of real give-and-take conversation, and pretty much any activity that involves thinking. All of those involve immersion. This brings us to our second caveat.

Caveat Two:
Non-mindfulness can also be valuable.

The Buddhist writings I described above may seem to imply that the ideal is to be mindful all the time, and encourage us to build up to this ideal by practicing mindfulness during lots of specific times. But I’d like to suggest that the skill we should be building is to know how to optimally integrate our mindful time with our non-mindful time, and to know when the latter may be the better choice for us.

In an earlier post, I talked about times that it can be much better for us not to be mindful. As one friend described it, mindfulness privileges the body and the now. Sometimes it’s best to have our attention elsewhere.

If we’re experiencing moderate or chronic pain, then mindfulness can be very helpful, because it strengthens the part of us that can experience the pain without getting caught up in it. But if we’re experiencing severe physical or emotional pain, it may be better just to put our minds elsewhere and get through the experience with as little awareness as possible. Going into shock, for example, is part of the wisdom of our bodies that lets us function when a full awareness of our situation might easily disable us.

Here’s another example. One way of thinking about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is being so immersed in a painful context that the person can’t really leave it, even when it’s years in the past and maybe thousands of miles away. Veterans describe programs for working with horses and dogs as helpful for PTSD because they have to bring their awareness fully into this new context in order to take care of the animals. If they immerse themselves into “conversations” with the animals in their care, they gain that many moments of respite from falling back into immersion in their prior traumas. Simply focusing mindfully on the sensations that come up when they have these memories doesn’t have the same healing effect as replacing a harmful immersion with a healing one.

Or, in a more common situation, sometimes we need to think about the future, or the rest of the world, which can both be pretty abstract. If we’re focused on our immediate physical selves, then we’re not doing that, and we might be biasing our thinking undesirably (more hedonistic or self-focused than we want to be, for example).

So what I’m saying is, being “actively immersed” in one context, giving it your full attention, precludes being “open to experience” in another. (Later I’ll make a distinction between being “actively immersed” and “passively immersed,” where you’re not necessarily paying attention, but where you take your immersion in the context for granted, so that it colors your perceptions and evaluations.)

I don’t want to imply that Buddhism, the source of mindfulness-thinking, has no place for imagination. It certainly does. In Tibetan Buddhism, guided visualizations are one of the main ways to receive advanced teachings. The Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the leading proponents of mindfulness practices, has offered numerous imaginative exercises for observing one’s negative feelings, such as anger and fear, and learning to treat oneself more kindly. In these contexts, I think they’re teaching how to integrate mindfulness and imagination, through specific immersive practices.

For the rest of us, if we see a value to mindfulness, but we also have things we want or need to immerse ourselves in, how can we combine them? I don’t know any specific techniques, but there’s an interesting way to think about it, from the psychology of reading.

When you’re reading fiction, there are roughly three degrees of immersion you might experience. The first is being fully immersed in the story, completely caught up in it, not aware of anything else. This quality is what makes for good popular fiction, like a thriller or a romance novel – it’s purely recreational, and the author’s skill puts you completely in her world. Then at the other extreme, you’re resisting immersion. The story is too boring, too alien, or too poorly written, or you’re too distracted, and although you can make sense of what’s going on in the story, you’re not inside its world at all.

But there’s also a third way to read, the way that “real” literature aspires to, which we can call “reflective immersion.” You’re immersed in the story world, but your mind is also busy. You’re relating current events in the story to things that happened earlier in the story, or you’re thinking about how things happening to one character might affect another, or maybe you’re even relating things about the story to things in the real world, or a completely different book you once read.

It’s possible that the more you exercise this skill of integrating across contexts, the better you’ll be at it altogether. Reflective immersion isn’t normally mindful, since we’re not usually conscious of it, but it would be interesting to see what results we’d get it if we experimented with making it so.

Tomorrow, Caveat Three: Mindfulness and Alienation

This post is one in a four-part series:

Mindfulness – Four Caveats
Part I: Why Mindfulness?
Part II: “Always Be Mindful” – Good Idea?
Part III: When Mindfulness Sets Us Adrift
Part IV: Making Choices – Ethics and Mindfulness

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Mindfulness – Four Caveats / Part One: Why Mindfulness?

In the world of health behavior research, mindfulness is definitely hot. New benefits are being discovered all the time. Mindfulness helps people cope with stress, by reducing their cortisol (stress hormones) and blood pressure and increasing their resilience, and in turn these benefits also improve the immune system. Mindfulness can be a valuable part of treating depression and anxiety, by teaching people how to notice negative thoughts without getting caught up in them. And by its very nature, it helps people increase their focus, training the mind to stay on-task and avoid distraction.

Mindfulness is definitely a skill worth having and practicing. There are a few issues, though, that seldom get discussed in the middle of all the hype. What are the potential costs of having a mindfulness mindset? Please follow along as I explore some of these costs in a series of four blog posts. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

First, let’s be clear about what mindfulness is.

A recent New York Times article (1/31/14) says that “mindfulness just means becoming more conscious of what you’re feeling, more intentional about your behaviors and more attentive to your impact on others.”

Well, no, that’s not it, really. Let’s call that “Mindfulness Light” and set it aside. I’m not going to raise any objections to being self-aware, conscientious, and sensitive to others’ feelings, and when researchers talk about mindfulness, that’s not precisely what they’re referring to.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, a psychologist who’s been particularly active in promoting mindfulness practices and research, describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Wherever You Go There You Are, p.4).

In 25 Lessons in Mindfulness, Rezvan Ameli lists six things that mindfulness practice can cultivate:

• Attention (sharpening our awareness of our sensory experiences and the contents of our mind)
• Present moment orientation (letting go of thoughts about the past or future)
• Nonjudgment (staying non-critical of the self and others)
• Letting go (increasing patience)
• Beginner’s mind (keeping a fresh perspective)
• Acceptance (engaging in life more fully)

Mindfulness means paying close attention to your thoughts and feelings, without becoming caught up in the content of the thoughts or interpreting the feelings. Imagine sitting very quietly and paying attention to what’s going on in your mind. Hm, my knee itches, now my ankle does. Now I notice a sound out in the street – it’s Marcus, probably, bouncing a basketball. Oh, that’s an interpretation, let go of that, just focus on the qualities of the sound. Blrrrt. Blrrrt. Braaap. Blrrrt. I wonder what Jonathan’s typing and when he’s going to go outside; is he still thinking about the new Magic cards? Or is he posting on a thread, what was it he was reading about earlier? Was it a health care thing? … That was a pretty long thought, I got caught up in that one. Back to the present… hey, am I thirsty? Back to the present, breathing in, breathing out…

Okay, that was a pretty good example – I tried to report here where my mind was going as I experienced those few moments. I didn’t notice everything I was doing, though – I never mentioned my typing fingers or looking at my computer screen, although obviously I had some attention there too (without thinking consciously about it).

You simply can’t notice everything. If your attention is on your breathing, you may not notice noises in the background. If your attention is on your steps as you walk, you’re probably not noticing your heartbeat, or the weight of your hair on the back of your neck. The idea is to be aware of what you’re noticing, and to accept that it’s there without reacting – or if you do react, notice that too, and then let it go.

As a Buddhist practice, mindfulness can be a form of meditation, where you sit in one spot and anchor your awareness on your breathing, or bodily sensations, and then note where your awareness wanders. Buddhists sometimes also dedicate their walking, cooking, eating, etc. to mindfulness, and put that activity at the forefront of what they’re attending to.

Practicing mindfulness can be a really valuable way to balance out our tendencies to “live in our heads,” for those of us who, for whatever reason, spend much of our time thinking about things. Personally, I live in a beautiful place, and it can be wonderful to remember to pay attention to the world around me, stopping and smelling those literal and metaphorical roses, and really noticing that I’m doing so.

Mindfulness can also be a useful mental health practice, especially for people experiencing depression or anxiety, because it can help keep negative thoughts from spiraling out of control. Imagine you just took an important exam, and you realize you made a mistake on one of the problems. Your thoughts might go like this, “Ack, I made that mistake. But that’s just the one I know about – I probably messed up most of that whole entire section. Now I’m going to get a C at best, and I need a B to stay in good standing. Why am I even doing this, anyway? I should seriously think about dropping out of the program – I really am not good at this.”

Or your thoughts might go like this, “Ack, I made that mistake. Oh. I just had the thought “ack, I made that mistake.” I hope that won’t start spiraling into a big negative fuss. It was just one thought. Hm, now I’m starting to feel worried about my grade. Okay, that’s what worry feels like. Knot in my stomach. Let’s just quietly notice that feeling… well, okay, whatever.”

The idea is to be aware of unpleasant feelings when we have them, without trying to suppress them, judge them (or ourselves), or change them. We just rest there with the feeling in our consciousness until some other thought or feeling naturally takes its place.

This brings us to Caveat One:
Mindfulness involves the observing self.

Books about mindfulness are not consistent. Sometimes they’ll say that mindfulness is there when you “Just do X,” whether X is breathing, eating a pretzel, playing with a kitten, or standing hip-deep in the river and fishing. “Just do X.” At other times, they’ll say that mindfulness is when you “Just do X, and know that you are doing X.”

These are not equivalent statements.

In The Miracle of Mindfulness!, the Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh quotes an ancient Buddhist sutra on mindfulness: “When walking, the practitioner must be conscious that he is walking. When sitting, the practitioner must be conscious that he is sitting. When lying down, the practitioner must be conscious that he is lying down.” (p.7)

When you’re doing X and you’re conscious that you’re doing X, the part that makes it mindful is that you’re strengthening a part of your awareness that Arthur Deikman and others call the “observing self.” It means that you’re identifying with this calm center, not with the flurry of somewhat random thoughts and emotions that continuously pop into your head. The more you identify with this calm center, the more you strengthen your sense of the “you” who remains constant throughout all situations. You become more even-keeled, less automatically swayed by emotion.

(Then, if you’re a devoted practitioner of Buddhism, you can learn how to transcend this sense of self in favor of even greater insights, with the realization that even the “self” is impermanent and ever-changing, but I’m not qualified to talk about that, and that’s not the point of these posts anyway.)

I once went to a talk by a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Tai Situ Rinpoche, who said that he was surprised when he started working with Westerners, because their sense of self was so weak compared to the Asians he’d known. Isn’t that ironic? We’re all about our individuality, but at least in this context, we have less of a sense of who we really are. Mindfulness is about strengthening that sense.

Tomorrow, Caveat Two: The Value of Non-Mindfulness

This post is one in a four-part series:

Mindfulness – Four Caveats
Part I: Why Mindfulness?
Part II: “Always Be Mindful” – Good Idea?
Part III: When Mindfulness Sets Us Adrift
Part IV: Making Choices – Ethics and Mindfulness

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Mini-update II

This is just a quick post to say I’m still working on those mindfulness posts.  They’re getting rather, shall we say, “thorough,” in fact.  Soon!


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It’s been nearly six months since I’ve posted here – I’ve been caught up in work and haven’t had time to develop the ideas I want to share here. Within the next week or two, though, I’m planning to write a post or two on problems with mindfulness.

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