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Deconstructing Mindfulness

Mindfulness is everywhere nowadays.  Like so much else in American life, it’s become a commodity, a product.  Not long ago I was looking over the 2013 course listings for an East Coast conference center and saw 19 courses being offered with the word mindfulness in the title.  And that’s not counting the ones with mindfulness’s first cousin ‘consciousness’ appearing in the title.

A quick Internet search showed similar offerings elsewhere on Mindfulness in Capitalism and Conscious Horseback Riding.  If being mindfully capitalist helps someone gain a widened, less-adrenalized perspective on themselves (and maybe their cardiac health), their families and co-workers, then they’re working with themselves in a good way.  As for conscious horseback riding, I’m not so sure but if it helps to keep you from falling off the horse, well, that too is a good thing.

My skepticism here is certainly not about mindfulness, but the commodification of it, the making it a thing outside of ourselves to search for, a product to own.  Mindfulness is really about one of the most ordinary things in the world, that is, using our mind and focused intention to track, observe and follow what our experience is right now.  It’s available to us at any time and its basic nature belies its potential power and depth for simple transformation.  Even now.

Mindfulness taught and accessed as a skill set comes from meditation technique, particularly teachings from the Buddhist traditions.  Mindfulness as a skill or tool to be learned is a de-mystification of meditation.  Teachers of it – I’m thinking of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work with Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction – have stripped away much of the cultural and religious references to Buddhism, revealing a core of valuable life skills that offer us volumes in this speedy, rev-ed up and sometimes scary 21st century.  It’s an opportunity for our mind – and brain – to rest, gain horizontal space and perspective and to recuperate.

Mindfulness is not doing nothing but may involve a letting go; it doesn’t involve stopping all thoughts or emptying your mind (that’s a tall order) but is an active, watchful state of mental balance where tension can down regulate but you’re not sleeping either.

Mindfulness offers a structured way to step back from our thoughts, observe them unblended from emotionality and right size them as mental constructs vs. a felt full on reality we’re being confronted with.  As an antidote to the busyness and pressure of multi-task mind, mindfulness practice offers us an opportunity to reset the clock, to see the world, this life we’re living with the simple appreciation of the moment we’re in.

And mindfulness practice is just that: its a practice to engage with.  Part of that engagement is never fully perfecting it.  And the never perfecting it is part of the practice.  It can be as big as you make it.  Right now: at the end of that last sentence there was a period.  Stop.  Take a breath.  What did you notice?

One reason mindfulness works as a skill set is that it utilizes the frontal lobes of the brain to observe thoughts, emotions and the comings and goings of our mindstream.  These frontal cortical regions enable us to reason, think through, prioritize and give order to mental activity.  When online they balance and can override those emotionally reactive – and volatile – limbic regions of the brain with their jumpy monkey-mind ways seeming to have a life of their own.

That ability to access our frontal lobes can be the missing link for people with trauma and abuse histories.   These folks can stay locked in loops of reactivity, pained memory and split realities leaving little room to down regulate or self reflect without judgement.  That ability to press pause and right size trauma-triggered mental life is a key benefit of mindfulness.

Outcomes from bringing mindfulness into our lives can include a gentler relationship with ourselves, with increased self acceptance, not marked so by self criticism but by a sustained view of where we are now, the world inside and outside of ourselves and our place in both.

Peter Goetz

Peter Goetz

Peter Goetz has been working as a therapist for over 25 years often working with people with overlapping psychiatric issues (e.g. PTSD, bipolar, major mood, attention deficit, dissociative disorders), medical problems (e.g., cancer, HIV, chronic pain), drug or alcohol mis-use or behaviors and traits.

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