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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.

Difficult decisions, challenging choices.

In our lives we’re presented with a constant stream of choices that require us to make decisions, thankfully most of them are not too difficult: Should I take the bus to work, or should I walk? Perhaps we have a preference to walk, as we’re trying to lose weight or keep fit, making it an easy choice, or perhaps it’s raining, which may make it an equally obvious choice.

As a result, it’s not surprising that we come to think of decisions as having one choice that is ultimately right, and one that is ultimately wrong, and we apply this kind of logic to all choices that we’re presented with. In fact, if life was this simple we’d all become quite robotic, as we follow logic and reason every step of the way. But difficult decisions present us with a different situation, one where the simple right/wrong, yes/no logic doesn’t apply, yet we so often fail to see that this is the case. Why?

Much of the time, a decision is difficult because it doesn’t have an obvious ‘right’ answer, and yet, whilst we might already realise this, we continue to review the options, think through the outcomes, and become frustrated by our inability to find the ‘right’ answer, even though we already know it does not exist! No wonder we so often feel we’re driving ourselves crazy in the process, as we endlessly think through our options, changing our mind again and again.

In such moments in can be helpful to recognise that the choice we’re considering doesn’t have a right/wrong answer, it simply has two different answers, each of which is right or wrong in similar measures. Perhaps both offer us the potential to be happy with the outcome of our choice, but in different ways. Let’s say the choice is between continuing to follow a career path as an employee or setting up a business of our own. In fact, each may offer a similar potential for future success, satisfaction and happiness: We just need to be comfortable enough to become the person that is better suited to the outcome we choose. In a sense, we go on to create the reason to have made that choice, after we’ve made the choice. In reality, this is a really empowering moment, one when we get to look inside ourselves for the reason and logic behind a choice, rather than searching outside.

In this way, we can come to see difficult decisions as those moments when we actually get to write the story of our life, rather than just drifting from one easy choice to the next.

Another reason we can find it so difficult to make the right decision is something psychologists call ‘affective forecasting’ - predicting how our emotional state will be in the future. But that’ll become the subject of another post…

False Memories…. when story and history get confused.

Many people still believe memories to be like video recordings, or filing cabinets containing perfect, detailed records laid down as events occur, and hopefully ready to be recalled at any time. Sure, we sometimes forget, or have hazy memory, but we believe that all those clear memories we have represent ‘perfect’ recordings of historical fact. However, research tells a very different story, which starts with the way we perceive the world: We take in a limited amount of information, which is then expanded and interpreted, based on our past experiences and cognitive biases, and becomes something we experience as an objective reality. The question of perception itself is a big subject, but it’s just the error-prone starting point for memories.

Our brains only record a small amount of our moment-by-moment experience in long-term memory, yet we tend not to experience memories as partial. In fact we ‘reconstruct’ memories when we recall them, and this process can easily cause memories to change over time, in a way that is imperceptible to us. A detail gets changed or added, extracts from other memories become combined, the chronology changes, and we may even add details that other people have told us about. But when we access that memory, it’s as if this was exactly how it was originally created. It feels completely true and accurate. These factors become particularly important when someone is being asked to recall a memory: If they are allowed to report what they remember, the result will be more accurate than if they keep being asked about details, which may lead to erroneous elements being added to the memory.

Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus studies false memories, and has been involved in conducting some of the most well known research in this field. One piece of research illustrated the hazards of leading questions in criminal prosecutions: People were shown a simulated accident and subsequently asked either the speed the cars were going when they ‘hit’ each other, or the speed they were going when they ‘smashed’ into each other. When the word ‘hit’ was used, witnesses considered the car’s speed to be 34 mph on average, but when the word ‘smashed’ was used, they recalled a higher speed of 41 mph. Furthermore, when the word ‘smashed’ was used, 32% of the people said they remembered seeing broken glass, against 14% who claimed to have seen broken glass when the word ‘hit’ was used. There was no broken glass.

The ways in which memories can be altered or contaminated by leading questions, or even conversations between witnesses, obviously raises may issues in criminal investigations and prosecutions, and it’s in this field that people became very interested in using hypnosis to ‘improve’ access to memories. The Los Angeles Police Department trained detectives to use hypnosis with both suspects and witnesses, and the officers became known as the ’Svengali Squads’. Perhaps the most dramatic success came in 1976 with the ‘Chowchilla’ kidnapping: Twenty-six children and a school bus driver were kidnapped by three men, but managed to escape after spending some time partially buried in a quarry. Under hypnosis the bus driver remembered the licence plate of one of the vehicles involved in the abduction, which led the police to detain the men responsible. However, the use of hypnosis did not prove to be a turning point in the fight against crime, and there were equally noteworthy failures. What was particularly significant on this occasion was that the driver had attempted to memorise the licence plate at the time of the abduction; the information had been encoded in memory.

Although there is still some debate on the subject, it seems there is little evidence that hypnosis makes memories more reliable as such, and although it can seemingly enhance memory access, it can also enhance all the errors that naturally occur in our memory; those ‘added details’, distortions and confusions. It’s like turning up a signal and getting more noise too. As a result, the pendulum has swung the other way in many places, including the UK where Home Office guidelines warn that evidence obtained under hypnosis is likely to be inadmissible in court.

Of course, this also raises questions about the use of memories in psychotherapy, and also the use of hypnosis to access memories in therapy. In fact, this was the subject of some pretty fierce fighting in the 80s and 90s, sometimes referred to as the ‘memory wars’. Elizabeth Loftus was on the receiving end of some of the hostility, for speaking out on the subject of false memories in therapy, something she discusses in her TED Talk linked below. Michael Yapko, clinical psychologist and author on the subject of clinical hypnosis, has written about this episode on a number of occasions, explaining that therapists used a range of techniques (including hypnosis) to ‘uncover’ repressed memories of childhood abuse. Unfortunately many of the therapists had no idea that digging deeply for memories of abuse could result in the creation of false memories. Inevitably, the results were disastrous for individuals, with families being torn apart, and on occasions innocent people stood accused in courtrooms.

Thankfully, the issues around false memories are better understood today, and psychotherapists can be expected to work with memories in ways that are not directive and do not involve suggestion. They should ensure their clients understand that memories would need to be independently corroborated, before they can be considered to have any historical accuracy, no matter how real they feel. But most often in therapy, unlike forensics, it’s the narrative truth that really matters. It’s the story we carry with us that influences how we think, feel and act, not the historical truth. Imagine a parent telling a child that they’ll get a great reward if they do well at school: The historical truth may be that the parent simply wanted their child to have the best opportunities in life, but if the child heard ‘I’ll only love you if you’re clever’, they may be left with a feeling of rejection, rather than unconditional love, and that is the story they will carry.

So, ultimately, memory is pretty unreliable when it comes to providing any historical truth, regardless of the fact that it feels so convincingly true. But, despite it’s inherent inaccuracy it forms the basis of our story, and fuels our thoughts, feelings and actions. Thus it can directly influence our present and our future.


See the TED Talk by Elizabeth Loftus here.

Happiness; meaning, flow and pleasure.

For many years the development of psychology was driven by the the desire to understand mental illness, rather than mental well-being. For this reason, little attention was paid to happiness, which was considered to be at one end of a continuum, with misery at the other end. However this has changed, in particular since the development of positive psychology, which seeks to understand our strengths, nurture talent, and help people to get the most from life… and that includes being happy and contented. Psychologists now view happiness and misery as two parallel lines, which enables us to understand that treating depression is not necessarily the same thing as making someone happier.

In reality, we’re not very good at working out what will make us happy, as Dan Gilbert points out, we have evolved a remarkable system for imagining the future, enabling us to plan and organise, however the system has it’s flaws. Unfortunately one such flaw applies to our understanding of what will make us happy, and how happy it will make us: We tend to think that getting the things we desire will make us happy, whether it’s new possessions, taking a holiday, passing an exam or winning the lottery. Research shows that we greatly overestimate the impact these things will have on our happiness, how intensely it will be felt, and how long lasting any changes will be. In fact, even just three months after any of these events, our levels of happiness will be very close to what they were before. This is known as impact bias; a tendency to overestimate the hedonistic impact of future events. Predicting how we’re going to feel in the future is known as ‘affective forecasting’, and we’re not very good at doing this: Most people would predict being happier moving to a warm sunny climate rather than to a colder, wetter climate. Yet there’s no evidence to support this prediction, intuitive as it seems.


In a similar way, research has shown that when incomes and standards of living have risen over time, people’s levels of happiness do not rise in equal measure, but tend to follow a fairly flat line on the graph, the opposite of what most people would expect to happen as incomes rise. To understand this better, we must look at what happiness is, how we experience it, and what really makes us happy.



What makes us happy?

It’s no surprise that Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, has some interesting things to say on this subject. Seligman believes there are three different ‘happy lives’ to consider, partly because different things generate these three forms of happiness; he calls them the Pleasant life, the Good life, and the Meaningful life.

The Pleasant life:

This involves having as much pleasure as possible, and the positive emotion it generates, and also developing the skills to savour these pleasures (such as mindfulness), sustaining them for as long as possible. Unfortunately, although this life of pleasure is perhaps the most obvious route to happiness, particularly from a western perspective, it has some fundamental drawbacks. The first is the fact that our genes play a significant part in our ability to gain happiness this way, accounting for around 50% of an individual’s potential. Ever noticed how some people just seem to end up happy no matter what, whilst others always seem unhappy in similar situations? Another problem is that it habituates very quickly, so if you keep seeking pleasure in the same way, you’re soon getting less and less from it. Sadly, we often don’t notice this fact, and ‘retail therapy’ can get expensive as we keep trying to generate pleasure by consuming more and more. This form of happiness also tends to fade rather than sustain, so we generally experience it in highs and lows. For these reasons, this pleasant life offers the most potential as a way of boosting our happiness levels when the other areas of our lives are optimal, rather than as a primary source of happiness.

The Good life:

This is all about being in a state known as 'flow’*, which roughly equates to everyday terms such as; ‘in the zone’, ‘in the moment’ or ‘in the groove’. This is a state of concentration and absorption, where time seems to stand still; it may be found in work or hobbies, and is generally considered to require an active role, (rather than passively watching TV, for example). Those times when you are completely absorbed in the present moment, and simply don’t seem to be aware of time passing. According to Seligman the secret to experiencing more periods of flow seems to be all about finding what your strengths are, then structuring your life around using those strengths in work, play, love and friendships. In doing this you will experience more absorption in your daily life, increasing the sense of contentment, satisfaction and even joyfulness.

The Meaningful life:

Again this involves working with your strengths, but in the service of something larger than you. This seems to tap into the way we feel the benefit of altruistic acts for much longer than we benefit from doing things that generate pleasure. It’s also worth bearing in mind that when we experience kindness from others, we tend to feel good, but it may be coloured by feelings of guilt or even obligation. When we show kindness to others, the improvement to our feelings are not usually restricted by these things, especially if we are acting in a genuine way.

Seligman’s research into overall satisfaction with life, repeated many times, has shown surprising results, quite the opposite of what had been expected. The meaningful life made the most significant contribution, followed by the good life. The pleasant life seems to contribute little to overall satisfaction with life: However, the pleasant life becomes more significant when the other two are already high.



Returning to pleasure…

…it turns out we can be fooled into experiencing it; Paul Bloom describes an interesting experiment where participants were given wine to drink, whilst inside an fMRI brain scanner. Half were simultaneously told that the wine was cheap, whilst the others were told that it was an expensive, high quality wine… Of course, they all tasted the same wine. Remarkably, for the group that were told the wine was expensive, the pleasure centres in their brains lit up far more than for the others. Quite simply, they literally experienced more pleasure from the wine, they didn’t just believe they were experiencing it: Their reality changed. Bloom suggests that the belief we have about the history of an object changes how we experience the object. This is why we can attach huge value to an original artwork, and little value to an identical fake; we value the unique act of original creativity that is present in it’s creation, and missing from the copy.

So, raising our overall level of satisfaction with life, happiness and well-being is achievable, but not necessarily in the ways that might seem obvious to most of us, thanks to the way our brains are wired. It’s not about winning the lottery, regardless of how appealing that may seem. There may be nothing intrinsically wrong with having a winning ticket, but before you do, just make sure you’ve done what you can to develop the meaningful life, and the good life, so you can really savour the pleasant life.


Links for the TED Talks referred to above:

Dan Gilbert: The surprising science of happiness.

Martin Seligman: The new era of positive psychology.

Paul Bloom: The origins of pleasure.

* ‘Flow’ was named by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, there’s a Wikipedia page on the subject here.

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.

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…