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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.

Present Moment Awareness

“Present moment awareness” is one aspect of secular mindfulness that seems to get a lot of attention, to the degree that, for some people, it appears to be the essential essence of secular mindfulness. Why is this?

Perhaps, because it can be readily confused with the familiar quality of ‘now’, which pervades western culture: A hedonistic, adrenaline-buzz filled, living-for-the-moment sense of ‘now’. This ‘now’ involves abandoning any knowledge or wisdom that may come from past experiences, and, simultaneously disregarding any concerns or commitment to the future, lest either impinge on our total enjoyment of the present moment.

However, the ‘now’ we encounter with mindfulness has fundamentally different qualities, to the degree that it could be argued that secular mindfulness risks becoming devalued through a disconnection with past and future, if the focus on the present is too great. Writing on the subject of mindfulness in psychotherapy, Meg Barker [1] makes the point that mindfulness can also be applied to memories or plans, and thus the significance of present moment awareness may be over-emphasised in secular mindfulness. Indeed it has been argued that the secular mindfulness focus on the present moment may be misplaced, (the Pali word sati conveying a meaning of memory or remembrance). In a critique of mindfulness interventions in capitalist societies, Purser [2] describes Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), the pioneering mindfulness-based 8-session course, as having a fetishisation of the present moment.

I find these points most eloquently echoed in the words of Ken Holmes, director of Buddhist studies at the Samye Ling Tibetan Centre, [3]:

“Mindfulness could be taken very literally as the mind being full of, i.e. not forgetting, its purpose. In Buddhism, mindfulness is synonymous with remembering or, more precisely, not forgetting. The general outline is: being very aware of what is happening in the moment, one remembers wise council, because one cares deeply about the outcome.”

For me, this best captures the sense of ‘now’ in mindfulness; an awareness of the present moment that is not devoid of the wisdom of the past or a commitment to the future.

Worth remembering.



[1] Barker, M., (2013) Mindful Counselling and Psychotherapy. London: SAGE Publications.

[2] Purser, R., (2015) ‘Confessions of a mind-wandering MBSR student: remembering social amnesia’, Self & Society: An International Journal for Humanistic Psychology, 43:1, 6-14.

[3] Gilbert, P., Choden, (2014) Mindful Compassion. Oakland: New Harbinger Publication Inc. (p139).


Einstein's optical delusion

Listening to Jill Bolte Taylor's description of her 'stroke of insight' reminded me of a quote from Albert Einstein, which Richard Davidson used to close his session at the thirteenth Mind and Life dialogue, "The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation":

'A human being is part of the whole, called by us 'Universe,' a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest - a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.'

This brief quotation seems to connect so well with the insights that Jill shares in her presentation: The concept of oneness, or connection, and how we are cut of from it by the 'optical delusion' of our consciousness. The sense that we can observe this restriction and strive to free ourselves from it. And not least, the need for compassion.

On that subject, Davidson's presentation, (Mind-Brain-Body Interaction and Meditation), covered some of his research into neural states in experienced and novice meditators. He noted, 'Many areas of the brain were more activated during compassion meditation compared to the neutral state… Another brain region, the medial prefrontal cortex, has been implicated in self-relevant processing… This area of the brain associated with the self is deactivated when people are generating compassion, which is very much a selfless state.'

A transcription of the thirteenth Mind and Life dialogue has been published in "The Mind's Own Physician" - ISBN: 978-1-57224-968-4

Despite the fact that this is quite a well-known quotation from Einstein, there seems to be some uncertainty as to the exact wording he used. It’s possible he may have re-written this a few times, leading to confusion today, but after some searching I found the following quote was included in a letter he wrote in 1950.

'A human being is a part of the whole, called by us 'Universe', a part limited by time & space.
He experiences himself, his thoughts & feelings as something separated from the rest –
A kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.

The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion.
Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind'.


Albert Einstein, February 12, 1950.