Awakening Into Mindfulness

Posted By William Dubin, Ph.D. on February 3, 2016 at 11:16am | General, Intentional Trance Formation, Recursive Traps [Neurosis]
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“The best way to capture moments is to pay attention.
This is how we cultivate mindfulness.
Mindfulness means being awake.
It means knowing what you are doing.”

 — Jon Kabat-Zinn

The definition of “Mindfulness” is awareness of present experience with acceptance. While it may not sound special, acceptance is not the usual reaction to the things that happen. Typically, we automatically evaluate the things that happen so we can react to them, or at least comment on our opinions about them. To react non-automatically, we have to adhere to a discipline.

Mindfulness Meditation Exercises cultivate your capacity to shift from the ordinary, autonomous doing mode to the mode of simply noticing your subjective experience without evaluating, problem-solving, or processing at any level. The following exercise will get you started:

Mindfulness Meditation

For the next 10 minutes or so [20 minutes if you have experience with meditation], selectively attend to the sensation of the air as it passes in and out of your nostrils with each breath. Each time a thought or feeling arises, notice it, but don’t analyze it or judge it. Just accept whatever experiences come along and return your attention to following your breath.

Don’t approach this exercise with the expectation that anything special will happen (that is the very trap we seek to escape). As you follow your breath you will notice that all sorts of thoughts, images and sensations arise in your consciousness and the reactions they elicit. Your task is to intentionally suspend the impulse to characterize or evaluate what you are experiencing, and instead accept the experience and return your attention to your breath.

One goal of Mindfulness is to learn to accept thoughts, emotions, pleasures, and discomforts for what they are—passing subjective phenomena. There are two two understandings embedded in this goal: Acceptance and the Dereification of subjective experience.

  • Acceptance like final stage of grieving.
    When someone you love dies, you don’t want it to be so, but there is nothing you can do about it, so you grieve.
    You may try to bargain, but discover it does not do any good. You  may become angry, but discover the anger is pointless. Depression is usually next, but that, too, is also pointless.
    Eventually will have exhausted all the methods to change what you cannot change, you must finally accept the way things are —  that is be finished with trying to change it, figure it out, or even emotionally react to it.

    • When something you cannot control goes against you, what are your options? The alternative to acceptance is a negative emotional state, such as frustration, anger, depression, which is likely to deplete the cognitive resources that would be better spent focused on things you do control. Acceptance allows you to disengage from one aspect of your environment so another can structure your attention.
  • De-Reification is the other component of mindfulness. Reification means: To regard or treat an abstraction as if it had concrete or material existence. For example, during his ruminations, Barry thinks, “I am a failure.” He does not view this as a belief that may or may not be true, but as a statement of fact. The more he believes in this concept of himself and his prospects the more potent is its depressive effect on his mood and performance. He becomes free of this trap by De-Reifying this conceptualization of himself .

Awakening out of Neurotic Traps

The general strategy to escape neurotic traps advocated throughout this course involves two steps:

  1. Rational Understanding of the nature of the trap and how to escape it [achieved by the Rational Processing System and implemented by the puppy trainer].
  2. Experiential Training the puppy to react to the things that happen in ways that promote your interests and principles.

Barry illustrates the Awakening Path. For him, first step of was the easy one. He quickly developed the Meta-Cognitive understanding that his thoughts, appraisals, and emotional reactions are transient, insubstantial mental events rather than accurate representations of reality. He experienced the Meta-Cognitive insight as an epiphany. He experienced the epiphany as a high, but continually reminding himself of it was labor. The payoff for the effort was change that progressed at the speed of housebreaking a puppy.

Barry’s friend wants him to accompany her to a social event, that Barry wants to avoid. He rationally appraises the costs of avoidance as greater than the costs of exposure, and decides to go. He heroically accepts the subjective experience of dread and social anxiety that he experiences intermittently before and during the event. While experiencing the anxiety-related thoughts and feelings he De-reifies them by reminding himself that ideas such as “They think I’m ugly and awkward are products of my mind not theirs. I’m not a mind reader and have no idea what they really think about me. For all I know they would like me to show them attention so they can feel special and liked.” [The last sentence is an example of Reification of a concept that may elicit a helpful motivational state.]

Mindfulness Exercises: Acceptance

Tolerating Discomfort: The Hot Pizza Exercise

Eat an amount of hot sauce or hot pepper that produces a slightly greater reaction than you are used to and focus on the sensation of discomfort.  Simply investigate the experience and how you react to it.  Later, after the hotness recedes try it again and see if you can push your limits while maintaining a clear, focused mind.

Important note: don’t cause tissue damage or hurt yourself; be compassionate and only push the limits to the extent that you can do so without being self-punishing or doing any damage to this body you inhabit..

You can also experiment with a cold shower, or alternate the shower temperature between a bit too hot and a bit too cold.  The goal of these exercises is to experience the sensations while maintaining a clear and focused mind, and without tightening up mentally or physically.

The ability to tolerate temptation and discomfort without defecting from your path of greatest advantage is one definition of Willpower.

Labeling Discomfort: The SUDS

Our goal here is to perceive experiences as phenomena that we can observe and come to see as consequences of antecedent events and then as causes of subsequent events. The SUDS  —  Subjective Units of Discomfort Scale  — is a tool to help you shift your perspective from the one who experiences to the one who observes experience.

This tool is useful to research your reactions in high-risk situations. To get some practice with SUDS, repeat the previous exercise and record your SUDS at intervals to reveal the intensity of the experience over time [the pattern often looks like a sine wave —  starting small, reaching a crest, and then subsiding].

Mindfulness Exercises: De-Reification

Reifying the beliefs and perspectives that promote negative emotional states weaken willpower; developing the capacity to tolerate unavoidable discomfort with acceptance strengthens willpower.

Deviations from the path of least resistance require will, because it is more effortful. Losing weight, quitting smoking, and other self-improvement intentions require additional effort to resist the desire for the immediate gratification of using the incentive. Observing the ebb and flow of desire associated with a self-imposed restriction — e.g., weight loss diet, smoking cessation, cutting back on your alcohol intake — provides an opportunity for some useful personal research.

Tolerating Desire: Shifting to the Observer’s Perspective

When you encounter the experience of desire, label it by silently saying something like: “Ah yes, there’s desire again.”  No need to judge the experience, analyze it, or try to change it.  Just label it as soon as you’ve identified it—nimbleness is important.  What does desire feel like?  What are the mental and physical changes that are associated with desire?  Notice how the experience changes with time. Does it seem to occur in a series of waves of greater or lesser intensity?  Are there thoughts that suggest you give in to the desire?  The goal of this exercise is to shift from the associative perspective of the entity directly experiencing the desire to the dissociative perspective of the dispassionate observer.  You may find it interesting to use the SUDS to observe the time patter of desire and the factors that increase or decrease it.

Both discomfort and desire are motivators. Discomfort repels; desire attracts. Rather than be the helpless play-thing of these attractive and repellent forces, you can rise above their influence. How?

The Meta-Cognitive Awareness that your subjective experiences, including your appraisals and emotional reactions, are the creations of a biological creature with a particular history and point of view — and are not accurate and complete depictions of objective reality [or even of what is good for you] —  can free you from the corruptive influence of passing fears and desires.

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Posted by William Dubin, Ph.D.

Bill received his doctoral degree in Psychology from the University of Iowa. He has dedicated his career to the study of mood and addictive disorders and how to escape them.

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