The Real Truth About Mindfulness

‘Many benefits and fruits of Zen practice are real, but they are not to be gained, nor pursued. Just sit, regularly, for a sustained period, and see what is here right now.’

Rosenbaum and Magid

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Mindfulness and Psychotherapy

Many psychotherapists find that mindfulness is of value in terms of their practice. There is a considerable evidence base that it can be an effective therapeutic tool. (Also see Baer, R. A.  and  The Lancet,)

Psychotherapists using mindfulness techniques help patients to understand, for example, that ‘thoughts are not facts’ (Christine Dunkley & Del Loewenthal) Self- awareness is vital, and such therapy can help people understand how they might be contributing to their own distress. For example, we might learn to accept the impermanence of life, instead of denying it:

“It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not. We need to learn to appreciate the value of impermanence. If we are in good health and are aware of impermanence, we will take good care of ourselves. When we know that the person we love is impermanent, we will cherish our beloved all the more. Impermanence teaches us to respect and value every moment and all the precious things around us and inside of us. When we practice mindfulness of impermanence, we become fresher and more loving.” Thich Nhat Hanh

There are three main ways in which mindfulness is used in therapy: (Barker)

  •   Teaching mindfulness to clients
  •   Practising mindfulness themselves in order to cultivate therapeutic qualities
  •   Attempting to create a mindful encounter in therapy itself

The techniques of mindfulness are used in several different therapies. For example, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy blends mindfulness with Cognitive-Behavioural therapy.

Mindfulness Based Stress-Reduction Therapy, developed byDr Jon Kabat-Zinn, aims to help alleviate some of the anxieties of daily life.

It is often used in the treatment of chronic diseases, with some beneficial outcomes. It is frequently offered as a group therapy, focussing on such aspects as staying in the present moment and the importance of the individual taking regular time out for meditation.

Critique of Mindfulness 

‘The commodification of mindfulness and meditation is increasingly prevalent and problematic’ Rosenbaum and Magid

 

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Whilst there is no doubt that mindfulness can be helpful and therapeutic, it has limitations. It is not for everyone, and needs to be used professionally.

Whilst there is considerable value in using mindfulness to reduce stress and increase self-awareness, it must be emphasised that it is not a panacea for all ills.

‘There is a contemporary shift in its use and meaning, which actually distorts mindfulness, taking it far from the original Buddhist emphasis on ethics and consideration of others. The danger is that it will be diluted into a corporate, self-serving and over-secularised commodity.’ Rosenbaum and Magid

An increasing backlash against this popular trend is occurring, in that it is becoming fashionable and commercial. It is often promoted as a kind of designer cure-all, another ‘one size fits all’ solution to life’s ills. Another criticism is that it encourages a narcissistic focus on the self.

Thus, there are mindfulness colouring books, mindfulness apps and books like Mindfulness for Dummies, The Mindfulness Diet, Mindfulness for Dogs, Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate, Mindfulness on The Go, Mindful Birthing and so on.

‘…this new corporatised McMindfulness – which in the long term will do as much as a McDonald’s Happy Meal to sate a person’s gnawing hunger for a richer life.’

 Daily Telegraph

 

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Incredibly, a Chicago burger bar sells ‘a more mindful burger.’ Joiner.

I wonder how they might advertise this product? Your ideas are welcome in the comments box below. Please contribute whatever comes to mind!

Here’s my take on it:

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One American headline asks:

‘Does L.A.’s Absurd, Narcissistic, and Pricey Mindfulness Trend Have Its Benefits? 

In Los Angeles, mindfulness has become a hot commodity (Los Angeles Magazine)

The writer’s conclusion is that it does: ‘Bring on the chakra exorcism and $24 hemp smoothies,’  she adds, entranced by her experiences. One of these ‘experiences’ is lead by a woman ‘spending the full 15 minutes with a hand over her heart, head tilted dreamily to the side, whispering, “May I forgive myself” over and over again.’

There is criticism of mindfulness as a process that prevents thinking, that it can be used as an avoidance of considering difficult situations, merely by an unquestioning acceptance of them.

Although the NHS supports mindfulness, an Oxford academic claims it stops people thinking deeply:

‘I think mindfulness and meditation are bad for people, I absolutely think that. People should be thinking.’ ( Theodore Zeldin)

This misuse of the concept surely constitutes another form of mindlessness; there is  criticism that corporate organisations use mindfulness in order to stop employees thinking about problematic work issues. (Hackspirit.com)

In similar vein, some schools and universities have used mindfulness to reduce student stress. However, there has been criticism that, as in the corporate setting, such use masks institutional flaws by focussing the problem on the students’ mental health.(Harriet Swain)

Another criticism resides in the ‘infantilising’ nature of this approach, in that it implies that students are going to be troubled emotionally if they do not engage in mindfulness.

Of course, some children are troubled emotionally; at this present time, the evidence of this in terms of child suicides is painfully apparent.

Offering mindfulness exercises is not going to help such children:

Pooky Knightsmith, vice-chair of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, said such exercises could be actively harmful for those who are particularly vulnerable or have a history of trauma.

“If a child is suffering abuse at home, being given space and time for thoughts to drift through your head isn’t necessarily good,” she said. “Schools need to be aware of the potential risks, even with the most seemingly nice of interventions.”

(Independent,2017)

Have you had experience of mindfulness? What do you think of it? DWill you let me know in the comment box below?

Metacognition and Mindfulness: Do You Know What You Don’t Know? Part 1

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Image: Denise Krebs: Metacognition, Flickr.

Contemporary Approaches to Metacognition

‘That which has been is what will be; that which is done is what will be done. And there is nothing new under the sun.’ Ecclesiastes. 1:9

The extensive range of contemporary approaches to thinking have roots stretching far into the past; the origins of the concept of metacognition can be found in the work of the great Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Aristotle.

When Socrates stated that ‘I only know that I know nothing’ (a somewhat roughly translated but succinct version of lines 21 a-e in Plato’s Apology), he was using metacognitive skills to acknowledge his lack of knowledge.

The wise Confucius said:

‘Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.’

He, too, was using metacognition to asses and monitor his own mental abilities.

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Image: Lentina_x.  Socrates. Flickr.

 

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Image: Confucius the Scholar. Qing Dynasty. Wikimedia Commons.

Whilst the term metacognition has its etymological origins in Greek (meta = above) and Latin (cognitio= thought), the concept was not termed metacognition until 1979, when American developmental psychologist, John Flavell, described it as ‘knowledge and cognition about cognitive phenomena.’ (Flavell)

This new – and ancient – concept has many dimensions and many applications. Metacognition, is popularly defined as ‘thinking about thinking,’ or, more technically,

‘a ‘recursive sense of consciousness…..the capacity to think about one’s own mind.’  Dehaene

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This ‘recursive’ aspect of metacognition is interesting, in that it signifies the ability to be self-reflective, self-referential, to have thoughts about one’s own thoughts and beliefs and, in so doing, to function as both subject and object.

Such reflexive thinking, is, in itself, a time-honoured concept. It involves holding up a virtual mirror to the self and then identifying one’s subjectivities, one’s personal perspectives and biases.

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Self-Monitoring: The self in the Mirror

Metacognition is thus about monitoring, control and regulation of our thoughts; it is a skill that is highly relevant to education and learning.

An example of a metacognitive thought might be ‘I know that I have a problem with science, but I am good at art.’ This is a ‘self-monitoring’ thought, which might lead us to action and strategy that could help us understand ourselves and our learning skills better.

The theory of metacognition can be applied to many different disciplines; as it relates to self-understanding, metacognition may be used in certain therapies. Over recent years, Professor Adrain Wells has developed ‘metacognitive therapy,’ which offers techniques to treat many psychological disorders.

It focusses on facilitating patients to recognise and manage their responses to their own negative and worrying thoughts. They are encouraged to explore their ways of handling, for example, ruminative thinking and a pervasive sense of threat.

Wells’ message is

‘Thoughts don’t matter, but your response to them does.’

Wells.

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The content of the thought is seen as less relevant than the way of thinking about the thought. Metacognitive therapy aims to enable people gain flexibility in the way they respond to their negative thoughts. They are helped to be less rigid in their ways of thinking and less dependent on unhelpful ways of managing such thoughts.

Metacognition and Advances in Cognitive Neuroscience

Using the tools of contemporary neuroscience, scientists are now beginning to identify the brain mechanisms that govern metacognition.
(Fleming)

Scientists at University College London (Fleming) have conducted a series of trials in which they identified that ‘the people with better metacognition had more gray matter in the anterior prefrontal cortex.’

Disorders like schizophrenia, stroke and dementia can adversely affect metacognition. Deficiencies in this area can have disastrous consequences, leaving a person unable to have ‘insight into his or her own illness.’ (Fleming)

Research has been conducted into the use of various medications to help improve metacognition. Some people do have better metacognitive skills than others; there are, however, ways to improve these self-assessment skills. It has been discovered that meditation and stopping to reflect on one’s learning can help with the process of metacognition.

METACOGNITIVE SKILLS

Mindfulness

How can we think mindfully? The process of mindfulness uses metacognitive skills; the term signifies an awareness and acceptance of one’s thoughts in the present moment, attending to them without judgement or censure.

Thinking mindfully involves acknowledging thoughts, without criticism, watching what happens to the thought in the thinking process. Although there is some overlap between metacognition and mindfulness, the former extends and develops the process further, perhaps into action.

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Theravada Buddhist Nuns Meditating

The term mindfulness originated in Buddhist meditation practice; it is now widely used, and in a variety of settings. It can be helpful in reducing stress levels and in enhancing enjoyment of life.

It can help us to become aware of what is happening both in and around ourselves, encouraging us to pause and notice sounds, smells and sensations.

Mindfulness provides a way of becoming aware of thoughts, especially intrusive and troublesome ones. These can have a powerful negative effects on our lives if they take over and appear to wield power over us. We can learn how to control them, gaining new perspectives:

A teacher walking with his students points to a very large boulder and says, “Students, do you see that boulder?” The students respond, “Yes, teacher, we see the boulder.” The teacher asks, “And is the boulder heavy?” The students respond, “Oh yes, very heavy.” And the teacher replies, “Not if you don’t pick it up.”

(Shapiro and Carlson)

This story illustrates how mindfulness can help manage fears about ‘obstacles’ that may be insurmountable only in one’s thoughts. A mindful approach would involve being aware of the boulders, but not to feel one is necessarily compelled to rearrange or shift them.

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Mindfulness teaches an approach of  acceptance, an awareness of the impermanence of life. Has this technique helped you? Let me know in the comments below.

Discover more on this subject by checking out next week’s post: Mindfulness: The Real Truth.

What Thinks Can We All Think Up?

 

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‘Pensive.’ Millais.

‘Think left and think right and think low and think high.
Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!’

(Dr Seuss, Oh The Things You Can Think )

“What are you writing about?” I’m asked , often.

My reply is invariably brief and a little cautious:

“Thinking. I’m writing about thinking.”

Silence. A look of puzzlement on the other’s face. Then, every time, a change of expression and a look of total understanding. Followed by an explanation of their ideas of what I’m writing about thinking.

Except I am not. Thus far, hardly anyone has got it, my way of thinking about thinking . Everyone, of course, answers from their own frame of reference. The thing is, none of their answers is ‘wrong’. They are all correct. For them.

Dr Seuss’s joyful rhyme above may be addressed to children, yet it captures perfectly the breadth of meaning in terms of the highly complex notion of thinking. It is this complexity that led me to want to write about thinking; the fact that there is so much to discover and to contemplate. In addition, this feels a very timely subject to explore, given that, in contemporary culture, there seems to be little space for real thinking.

Here’s how the idea developed. As I reflected on my career after I retired and, especially, on my own experience of psychotherapy, I realised that what I could now do was to think much more clearly. After years of focussing on feelings, I really had time to think about thinking. I could reap the benefits of years of work, training and experience to concentrate on this fascinating subject. I immersed myself in discovering and writing about thinking over several years.

Now, my intention in this blog is to present and share this work, reaching across professional disciplines, pooling resources, collecting ideas on thinking of those in the know and putting them together with my own thoughts.

This is not going to be a definitive guide to thinking. There are many such works, proclaiming the way to think, telling us how we should manage our lives. They are often delivered in a dogmatic and prescriptive style.

I certainly do not presume to have any answers. What my blog will offer instead is a thought-provoking contrast to the quick-fix, superficial, answer-rich society in which we find ourselves. This is a discourse on thinking about thinking that is an invitation to pause and contemplate, to stimulate new thoughts about thinking, but not in an all-inclusive, absolute way.

What is, I think, more useful, is a curious, open, questioning approach, one that empowers the reader, rather than an inflexible presentation of unequivocal ‘truths.’

A comprehensive enquiry into the whole area of thinking is beyond the capacity and limitations of any one specialism. Thus I will initiate a necessary pooling of resources, a gathering together of knowledge from different areas of expertise. The aim is to create an encounter, a bringing together, perhaps sometimes a discordant jarring of incompatibilities, an aggravation of thoughts and ideas about thinking that will ultimately produce an exceptionally distinct and original outcome.

Why is it now more important than ever to think about thinking? These are exciting times for thinking; new technologies are dramatically changing our world. At the same time, however, the internet, whilst enormously useful and helpful, can be a great obstruction to the thinking process. It distracts us from listening and attending to others, from focussing on our internal world, from being mindful and giving attention to our thinking.

How can we digitally detox, turning down the noise in our technology-driven life? How can we take back control of our lives again, given the addictive power of the internet for many us? How can we quieten things down so that we can ‘stand and stare,’ and re-connect with our thoughts?

Many would regard our society as sick, with people disconnected from self and other, addicted to the internet and, perhaps hardly aware of its sickness:

‘ It is no measure of good health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’

(J. Krishnamurti )

To add to this state of dis-ease, in a global context, our world is changing dramatically, becoming precarious and uncertain.

Zygmunt Bauman, in his book  Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty,  sees this as an insecure age, when all ‘social forms’ about us seem uncertain and short-term, when ‘interhuman bonds….become increasingly frail and admitted to be temporary.’  It is now more than ever, in this time of intense global flux, that we need to examine what is happening to our ways of thinking.

In my blog there will be space to face uncertainties and to decelerate our thinking, allowing for reflection and for a quiet meditative journey into the deeper reaches of our thinking selves. In the words of Pico Iyer, in his fascinating book The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere:

‘In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow.
In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.
And in an age of constant movement nothing is more urgent than sitting still.’