Mindfulness – A more scientific approach

Mindfulness is a term adopted by Western Psychology to describe a type of thought pattern adopted from Buddhism to help manage one’s own mind and mood. It is a practice of bringing the attention from external to the body and present back to your own body and now. It is a powerful tool in the use of self regulation.

History

Jon Kabat-Zinn [wiki] was used his history of Zen Buddhist techniques to develop a stress reduction course, which he named Mindfulness in 1979. He based it on his understandings of Sati, a term used in Zen Buddhism to refer to being aware of here and now. While he based the mindfulness methods on the Zen Buddhist technique, he put the practice in a more scientific based context, removing most of the philosophy from the method. This developed  a small following and use of this technique as Kabat-Zinn perfected his technique in a therapy context.

In 1991 Kabat-Zinn published a book based on this method with the frugally titled “Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness” (Delta, 1991).

Definition of Mindfulness

Despite this single source for the scientific concept of Mindfulness, it is poorly defined. In essence, the definition of Mindfulness is “is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment” [wiki] – but what the heck does that mean, and how is it done? The different interpretations of this simple phrase and the multiple methods for how to get there mean that studying the effectiveness of “Mindfulness” are difficult.

A loose definition allows for a loose list of outcomes that are difficult to disprove. Did the failure of this particular line of research fail to prove the claim of X because they didn’t do Mindfulness properly, or was it because the claim was false? To disprove the claim, does every method of Mindfulness need to be checked, and what methods are not technically Mindfulness?

Different studies of Mindfulness may disagree on the efficacy simply because of the different implementation of the method in their research.

For this article, Mindfulness is the use of skills and techniques that allow you to reach a state of mind that may be used to ameliorate your mood and attention.

Past, Present and Future

It has been glibly stated that “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” – frequently and falsely attribute to Lao Tzu (which in itself is an error, his name was Li Er, Lao Tzu is his title “The Master”), but is most likely created by either Warren Buffet or Junia Bretas. While this statement is simplistic and frequently falsely quoted or attributed, there is a really nice nugget of truth worth looking at here.

Hourglass indicating time
Time – ticking away the moments

If your mind keeps going back to past events, or your keep forecasting the future, you fail to notice the present that you are in. Right now, as you are reading this, you are not in immediate danger. Take a moment and look around, notice the things that are there. Look for something red, something orange, something yellow, green, blue, purple and black.

Congratulations, you brought your mind to the present.

You aren’t reading in a loop the first sentence of this article, trying to extract all the meaning from it – that has diminishing returns on effort. Once you have looked at it, perhaps glanced back to review it, you move on. Nor do you skip to the last sentence of this article and miss all the bits in between – because the bit you are reading right now is the bit that is relevant right now. That bit is the present.

You might take a sneak peek to the end to see where this is going, even the section titles to see how this will flow – but that depth of the discussion is in the bits between these projections, and to get that you have to be present and reading.

The same thing is true in our lives. When we think back to our past, we usually pick moments that were scary or troubling in some way. Learning from these past experiences has excellent merit, but being stuck in them is a problem. Projecting into the future what is likely to come and where you’d like to be gives you some things to do right now to affect that prediction. But if you only predict, you never do anything. Additionally, your predictions will become less and less valid as you lose connection to what is happening right now.

The past and the future are merely guides to what is happening right now. This is where you live.

Therapeutically speaking, often when people are experiencing elevated or flattened emotion, they are not reacting to what is present right now, they are reacting either to something they remember or something they predict. Neither of these harm the person right now.

As our mood elevates, we become less able to plan a solution. All of our brain resource has gone into feeling that mood and preparing for conflict. A conflict that isn’t here and thus a preparation that is not needed.

In the rare instance that conflict is a clear and present danger, by all means, be present to that – but if it isn’t, it is time to calm down.

Low mood has a similar problem. The present things in front of you seem distant and disconnected. Things don’t seem real. This could be due to being over stimulated by too many things – overwhelmed; it could be due to a safety fuse shut down – recent too elevated feeling; it could be due to medication or some other factor.

Awareness

There is an itchy bit on your body. Do a quick body scan. Did you find it? Have you noticed how annoying it is? Are you tempted to scratch it, rub it or press upon it? Notice how it is getting worse? Now bring your attention to another part of your body, perhaps the warmth of your breath as you exhale and the cool on your skin as you inhale. Feel the movement of your lungs as you breath in and out. In and out. Do you feel the expansion of your torso as you breath?

I apologise (a bit) for the mind trap above. Go ahead and scratch if it is safe to do so… Anyhow, as you focused on your itch (sorry), it became more pronounced, more encompassing and harder to put up with. (Again, sorry). As your took your mind to another part of your body and focused on an innocuous thing (apologies for those with injured ribs) the itch diminished.

Now replace itch with anxiety, or depression, or pain, or fatigue or some other feeling/aspect you wish to negate/diminish. You have experienced the power of mindfulness.

Midnfulness

There are some common factors that are useful in a good mindfulness exercise:

  • Bringing the temporal awareness to the present
  • Focusing on a body element
  • Giving the mind a specific thing to do

Following are a few of my favourite mindfulness exercises.

Four Second Breath Cycle

A full breath is taken when you breath down with your diaphragm, all the way down to your belly button. Your belly button should move in as you breath out, and out as you breath in. Put one hand on your stomach just under your belly button and take a deep breath in and feel your hand move outwards. Now breath out and feel it come in. This is easier if you sit or lie such that your back is straight rather than hunched.

When our body is ready for fight and flight, our digestive system is set to “purge”, making us feel nauseous and reluctant to breath deeply. Our breath speeds up and is shallow, to avoid triggering our purge setting and compensate to keep oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange happening in preparation for our energetic expectations.

Our attention is fixed out there looking for the threat that is going to hurt us. If it is actually right there, then it is important to do something about it – if immediate, use your heightened state to run away. If it isn’t immediate then we need to solve it.

We need to disrupt our breathing in a meaningful way. That is what this breath exercise does.

Note, if you can, how you feel. What feeling is it? What score would you give it out of 10, where 0 is an absence (so it won’t be that) and 10 is “OMG – I’m going to die!”

Now that we have defined a full breath, we are going to breath in for a count of four seconds. As you breath that deep diaphragm breath, count the seconds – one, two, three four. Now hold your breath for four seconds. Feels how your chest has expanded. Count – one, two, three four. Now breathe out, feeling how your shoulders drop or your ribs move. Count – one, two, three, four. Hold your breath for a count of four seconds. Notice the urge to breathe in. Count – one, two, three, four. Repeat four times.

Now, how do you feel? What feeling is it, and what is it’s score?

Five Senses

Technically we have more than five senses. However most of us learned in primary school the five primary senses – taste, smell, touch, hearing and sight. We are going to use these.

How do you feel? What feeling is it and how strong, out of 10, is it?

Now, what do you taste? Sometimes this is hard to describe because we often don’t have words to describe taste in the absence of food. But you do taste something. I’d like you to tune into that feeling. Is it nice, unpleasant or very meh? Move your tongue a bit and see if different parts of your mouth taste differently.

What do you smell? What is a strong odour in your area? What is a subtle odour in your area? Can you smell yourself? Is there an object nearby that you can pick up and smell? Which nostril are you smelling from?

Touch something with your finger tips. Feel the texture, the temperature, the friction. Is it pleasant? If you rub the thing lightly does it feel different to when you press and rub hard? Does a different finger feel the thing differently? Try rubbing it with a nail, or the back of your hand or arm. How does that change the feeling?

Listen… what is the loudest thing you can hear? What is the most distant thing you can hear?What is the quietest thing you can hear? Now the deepest sound… now the highest pitch. Which sound did you like the most?

Look at a distant thing and put your finger between your eyes and the thing. Close an eye – did your finger jump? Switch eyes and try again. Now focus on your finger. Go back to the distant object and notice the shift as things go into and out of focus. Now pinch your fingers close together, but not quite touching and look through them. Do you see the interference lines where some bands of dark and some bands of light exist? That’s quantum man… Can you see your own nose? Most people can, but they automatically tune it out.

How do you feel now? What is your score out of 10?

Muscle Exercise

While this exercise can be done lying down, sitting down or standing up, I’m going to describe it as if you are sitting down. Get comfortable. Put your feet flat on the ground. If you can be barefoot, it is a bit easier, but if not, that is okay too.

How do you feel? What is your score out of 10?

Curl your toes into the ground. Notice how your foot arches up a little to do this. Count to five – one, two, three, four, five. Now relax your toes. Lift your toes up and tense your ankles. Do you notice that muscle on your shin tensing too? Count to five. Say the numbers. Now relax.

Gently tense your calf muscle. We don’t want to go too tense on this in order to minimise the chance of a cramp. Count to three. One, two, three. Relax.

Tense your knees. I bet you don’t do this one very often. Notice how the muscles just under your leg but above the knee tense too. Count to five. Now relax.

Upper thighs. What do you notice? Count to five. Relax.

Butt cheeks. Did you lift up? Count to five. Relax.

Fingers – can you make fists? Or make the fingers rigid? Pick one. Where else stiffens when you do this? Count to five. Relax.

Elbows and biceps. How does this change your fingers? Count to five. Relax.

Shoulders. Flex them apart. Notice how your back moves. Count to five. Relax.

Lower gut, all around from the lower back to your belly button. Notice how this changes your breath. Count to five. Relax.

Chest. Use your lower gut area to breath. If you can, count to five. If you can’t breath while tense, count to three. Relax.

The next two are hard to do subtly in public, feel free to skip them.

Neck and lower jaw -tense them. Hold your breath. Count to three. Relax.

Face and back of head. Notice how flexible your face is. Count to three. Relax.

How do you feel? How intensely out of 10?

Seven Colours

The rainbow didn’t always have seven colours. Different times and different cultures often described it as having three or four colours, and those colours varied a bit depending on place and time. However once Isaac Newton started playing with prisms, he defined the rainbow colours as 7. He had to fudge indigo to make this happen. Partly because he liked the number 7 and partly because it made memorising it easier – ROY G BIV.

How do you feel? What intensity would you rate it out of 10?

Look for something Red. Does it feel warm to you or cool? What is a fruit that looks like that?

Look for something Orange. How does orange feel today? What is another orange object that matches the orange colour you found, but isn’t the object you found?

Yellow.

Green.

Blue – Light blue

Indigo – Dark blue

Violet – Purple

It is fine if you happen to not find the colour you are looking for. It can’t always be found. Acknowledge its absence and wonder at its absence and move on.

How do you feel? What score out of 10 now?

 

Did you notice how each of these exercises mixed elements of the three mindfulness factors?

Grounding and Meditation

Sometimes grounding and or Meditation is used interchangeably with Mindfulness. Mostly this is due to Mindfulness having such a poor definition and thus being broadened to include everything. Here is how I differentiate them.

Meditation is a method of focusing the mind through a set of patterns, often to reach a thought type state. It can be done via guided visualisation (self or other guided), repeated kinesthetic movements (such as weeding, or trimming the hedge) or just attempting to empty the mind of distractions. Mindfulness uses meditation, but meditation may not be mindfulness. Much like a dog is an animal, but animals aren’t always dogs.

Weeding implements indicating weeding as a meditation
Weeding in the garden can be very calming

Grounding is about bringing the self back to the here and now. This may seem very similar to Mindfulness, but it lacks the hyper awareness aspect of Mindfulness. Grounding is more about being switched on to what is here in this moment, than it is about becoming chill. Mindfulness aims to bring awareness of self to your attention and shift your mood to a moderate level. Grounding doesn’t need these two aspects.

Grounding can also be a way to visualise excess feeling or energy going into the ground and being recycled by the earth. Sometimes these feelings are negative and brooding, sometimes they are just too much zing. Grounding can also be used to visualise creating a barrier between you and the rest of the world, just beyond your finger tips. Imagine you are in a white bubble and only helpful things can get through it, all else is blocked.

Similarly to meditation, mindfulness uses some aspects of grounding in its skill base, but grounding is not mindfulness.