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Mindfulness and the Control Agenda.

Recently, I was delighted to be invited to lead a themed mindfulness sitting for a group in St. Albans, just outside London. I decided to work with the theme of the ‘control agenda’, and afterwards I thought it might be worth sharing this with a wider audience here, as it’s a subject that doesn’t seem to get discussed very often.

Before looking at the ways we get caught up in trying to control our thoughts, feelings and situations, let’s consider an important aspect of mindfulness meditation practices: They are a powerful way of learning how our minds work. This quote from Gilbert & Choden’s Mindful Compassion (New Harbinger, 2014) illustrates this point rather well:

“Mindfulness meditation actually means ‘becoming familiar with’ and ‘getting to know’ the mind, and the way we do this is through open attention and observation. This point cannot be over-emphasised.”

From this perspective, we can begin to see the distractions we encounter in mindfulness practice as the rich and fertile soil from which our mindfulness skills develop; as a way in which we can become more familiar with our minds. However, all too often we see distractions, such as a restless mind, as being a problem. We become frustrated, or self-critical: ‘I should be better at this, I’ve read all those books, listened to all those meditations, why can’t I stop my mind from wandering? Maybe I’m just no good at this.” When this happens, the challenge is to recognise that we’ve become caught up in a control agenda; we want to control our mind, to stop it from distracting us, and to make it become quiet, thus allowing us to maintain a rigid attention. Once we recognise that this is happening, we can identify this as another aspect of the way our minds work, and learn from it. So welcome the distraction, it really is a valuable part of our practice, rather than a failure, a problem or a difficulty. Learn to notice the patterns of distractions created by the mind and body, and also the subsequent reaction to them.

Sometimes we can also find a control agenda creeping into the way that we engage with our mindfulness practice, and this has the potential to be quite destructive to our long-term practice, so it’s worth looking at more closely. This most often occurs when we attempt to control our internal experience, such as by relaxing, or when we turn away from our experience, such as by distracting ourselves.

Let’s start by considering relaxation. Mindfulness meditations often produce relaxation in the meditator, however, this is not the intention when practicing mindfulness, it’s merely a by-product. And there’s no guarantee it will always occur; for example, if you’re sitting in meditation and difficult thoughts keep arising, you’re unlikely to find it relaxing. But if you’re seeking to relax, then on such occasions you’re likely to think something’s gone wrong, your favourite relaxation technique is no longer working… and if this keeps happening, you may even stop practicing. The fact is, there are hundreds of relaxation techniques to try – but mindfulness meditation is not one of them. When engaged in a mindfulness meditation our intention is to be present, and turn towards our experience in an open, curious and non-judgemental way – this can be difficult when we’re preoccupied with trying to relax, and thus to alter our experience, rather than turning towards it. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with becoming relaxed when meditating, but when we seek to do so, we’re no longer practicing mindfulness, and instead we’ve turned it into yet another relaxation technique.

It’s also worth considering that relaxation techniques work best when we’re essentially safe, in fairly non-challenging situations, and not too distressed. Under conditions when we don’t feel safe, are deeply distressed and in a challenging situation, relaxation techniques may fail to work. Ironically, it’s actually the skills and psychological flexibility that we cultivate in mindfulness practice that are most likely to help us to cope at such times.

So, following on from this, let’s also consider those kinds of circumstances when we might unintentionally use our practice as a distraction technique to avoid the present moment, rather than turn towards it. Sometimes these situations can be quite hard to recognise, but let’s take the example of someone who really doesn’t like their daily commute by train, so they decide to use the time to meditate. And let’s say they discover they are able to meditate on the train, and begin to do this on a daily basis. On the one hand this seems like a great idea: This was ‘down’ time they weren’t going to be using to do anything else, so it really helps them to fit their practice into their day. But on the other hand, when we look a little closer, we can see they’re also using their practice to avoid their experience, to turn away from it, to not be present. This is really the opposite of a mindful approach, and instead the meditation has just become another control strategy. Perhaps the clearest way to spot this is to look at the motivation to practice at that particular time or location; is it to avoid being present?

To be clear, none of the above is meant to be interpreted as a set of rules, but simply as food for thought. Most often people move away from practicing mindfulness by slipping into intending to practice relaxation or distraction: There is nothing inherently wrong with avoiding or controlling our experience, and nothing wrong with using relaxation or distraction techniques, but they are quite different to mindfulness.

Mindfulness involves turning towards our experience in the present, with openness and curiosity. When practiced in this way mindfulness offers an extraordinary opportunity to learn how our minds work. To keep in touch with this, when practicing, it can be helpful to begin by connecting with our intention in the practice (being present, observing the breath, etc.), and also connecting with our motivation to practice, and doing this can help to expose those times that we’ve begun to move away from mindfulness and towards relaxation or distraction.

A trip to La La Land

Something that I posted on my previous blog, and I really think is worth sharing again, is this unmissable TED talk;

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroanatomist who woke up one morning with a headache, which turned out to be the early indications of a stroke. Her understanding of the brain gave her insight into what was happening, and an ability to interpret what the changes in her brain function meant in terms of her moment-by-moment experience. In this presentation she sheds light on how the functioning of our brains impacts our perception of reality, how our knowledge of the world, and of ourselves is fundamentally changed by the the ways in which our brains are wired. The fact that she does this with humour makes it all the more compelling to watch…

Much of our sense of an embodied self is generated in the left hemisphere of the brain, (in the Parietal lobe), along with our internal dialogue, whilst activity in the right hemisphere creates the sense of present space and time that we are in. It would seem that some degree of disconnection between the two, which may come from deep meditation, psychedelic drugs, damage, etc., can transform our experience and understanding. The result may be an experience of insight that is religious, mystical, enlightening, spiritual and profound, often accompanied by a loss of the sense of self, and a feeling of connectedness or oneness. But what is remarkable about these experiences is that they so often produce enduring changes to the outlook of those people that have them. Whether they are monks, hippies or neuroanatomists…