Umberto CrisantiCBT, Counselling and Psychotherapy in Canterbury

Mindfulness

In recent years, Mindfulness has become a buzz word everywhere from health and lifestyle magazines, to scientific research papers. Evidence suggests that there are numerous health benefits for both psychological and physical symptoms. Mindfulness has also become mainstream for individuals and groups, and a well-known element of psychological treatments.

I completed the 8-week MBSR mindfulness course (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) in 2013, however my journey in mindfulness started in 2010, and I can honestly say that apart from its beneficial clinical application, for me it has become a way of life.

My Journey with Mindfulness

I don't view Mindfulness as a technique: Through meditation, I have learned that meditation is not simply something one can do, rather what one can be. I believe that the reflective practice mindfulness brings can really enhance life, as Heidegger said: 'We are ourselves the entities to be analysed” (Heidegger, 2008, p.67).

Benefits I have noticed in these years of meditation:

- Illness:
Since 2015 I have barely been unwell, and I feel real confidence in my body's ability to function well, no longer dreading the onset of winter colds or stomach upsets.
- Energy:
I have much-improved energy levels and can run further and faster than I did in my youth.
- Reduced anxiety:
Although not a natural extrovert, I now feel very comfortable when I have to talk to an audience, having confronted and let go of a lot of fear. I would like to say I am fearless - this is not true, but I am working on it!
- Increased confidence:
I feel more comfortable in my skin, I can be myself and I tend to not worry about what people may think of me. Generally speaking, I actually feel that I don't worry too much about things and can trust I have the resources I need to tackle what life might throw at me.
- Increased patience:
My patience has improved a lot. Instead of being frustrated when things don't come together immediately, I actually enjoy doing projects in small chunks, which unfortunately sometimes doesn't meet other peoples expectations, who would perhaps like to do things at a different pace and finish tasks as soon as possible. In fact, it is taking me ages to finish this website and I accept without problems that it will never be perfect!
- Increased creativity:
I have felt a new drive to create, especially coming away from moments of meditation with lots of new ideas. For example, I invented a theoretical model explained the paper entitled "Can the phylogeny of Compassion Focused Therapy and the ontogeny of Transactional Analysis go beyond Dual Process Theories and propose multiple modes of thinking?" which will be published in March 2021 by Springer Nature.
- Joy!
Not only do I feel more joyful, but I have also learned to distinguish between pleasure, which gives me a short term thrill, and joy which makes me more deeply content as a person.

What are the benefits of mindfulness?

Research shows that there are numerous benefits such as a reduction in anxiety and depression, a better balanced cardiac autonomous nervous system, better cardiac response during stressful situations, and greater brain activity coherence. Mindfulness can bring about improved concentration, a greater attention span, and better quality of sleep.
Most importantly, mindfulness aligns the physical, mental and “pranic” body, so that an “overwhelming experience of joyfulness” will naturally transpire from within.

What's the purpose of mindfulness?

My view is that the purpose of mindfulness is self-preservation from the outside world. I have seen people achieving all sort of things in life and being miserable. These people haven't lived mindfully, their attention has been externally driven for instance by possessions, power, recognition, but true happiness comes only with wisdom, and not material possessions or outside circumstances.
Many people don't realise that all these things are impermanent and bring only temporary pleasure. When they lose these things, they will also lose their happiness. On contrary, finding yourself will bring calm, safety, and peace within yourself.

How do I use mindfulness in my sessions?

I integrate mindfulness in my treatments (if clients are interested) to address stress, anxiety, depression, pain, trauma or simply to become more relaxed. I am familiar with over 50 breathing exercises and behavioural practices which I have learned from attending retreats. Some of them are very easy, I explain several and normally people choose what fits them best.
What does mindfulness have to do with pain?

I am going to quote Thich Nhat Hanh on this:

"There’s the energy of the pain, and there’s also the energy of mindfulness and concentration. When that positive energy embraces the painful energy, there will be an effect. The energy of mindfulness will penetrate, like heat waves or sunlight. In the earliest hours of the morning, a lotus flower is still closed. As the sun comes up, the sunlight begins to touch the petals. The sunlight doesn’t just surround the lotus flower; its photons actually penetrate the lotus flower with energy, and soon the flower will open." (from "Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through The Storm" by Thich Nhat Hanh)

Many self-improvement books have been focused on changing the content of the mind – that is, claiming to train the brain to control and cultivate more acceptable thoughts and emotions, what's your view?

I would like to discuss two common misinterpretations of mindfulness: the parable of the good and bad wolf and the power of ‘now’. They both have an underpinning factor: control.

The parable of the good and bad wolf
1. The essence of this parable is conveyed by the motto: ‘when you focus on the good the bad will fade’, thereby encouraging people to focus on good thoughts in order to banish the bad. In contrast, mindfulness involves observation of constantly changing internal and external stimuli as they arise. Jon Kabat-Zin (1994) defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally”. We can therefore infer the following:

a.
Mindfulness is an activity aiming to enhance awareness and not to diminish nor control nor change the mind.
b.
During mindfulness, thoughts may arise about both the bad and the good wolf, and this can make mindfulness emotionally painful rather than relaxing.
c.
Mindfulness implies non-judgmental observation of thoughts, which indicates that the meditator does not label good or bad, on the contrary he/she observes and accepts whatever arises as it is.

Your present is also your past and your future

We are sentient beings and as such we have frontal lobes which help us daily to plan and make decisions, helping us to survive. Some of these decisions are also based on previous experiences or memories. Some of the clients I have worked with have memorised the mantra ‘You cannot find yourself by going into the past. You can find yourself by coming into the present’ (Tolle, 1997). Some clients have also learned to not think about future. If it is true that we easily avoid or get distracted from our ‘now’, it is also true that we also tend to avoid our past and our future (thought suppression is a well know phenomenon) and that we can spend time in the present and not be really present. For example, we might be immersed in our work, and not be very focused on what we are doing, functioning on autopilot, with very little awareness about our thoughts, the way we are feeling, if we are experiencing any pleasure, if we are choosing, if we are accruing frustration, if our body is tense, et cetera. The now, therefore, is when we can make a little gap, a little mental space which allows us to be truly present. That gap/now consists of interrupting a stimulus – response to life, creating that space which enables us to embrace whatever emerges from past, present and future. The now is a way of paying attention to ourselves among these tenses. When something emerges from the past, regardless if it brings pain or suffering, we acknowledge it and we return to our breath. Or our mind can wonder about the future, it can dream too, and if so, in the here and now, we just notice whether our future is squeezing our present. Kipling (1943) put it beautifully when he said, ‘you can dream and not make dreams your master’. On the contrary often very depressed clients are unable to think about their future, they think that their future is bleak and terrifying. They state that they prefer to live in a ‘stimulus-response’ mode and not to think about or imagine their future, even being moved to tears if they are asked direct questions about their future during the session. In The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Barbery (2008) writes: ‘If you dread tomorrow it's because you don't know how to build the present, and when you don't know how to build the present, you tell yourself you can deal with it tomorrow, and it's a lost cause anyway because tomorrow always ends up being today don't you see’.

This brings us to the conclusion that paradoxically the ‘now’ also contains the past and the future. Therefore, during meditation and in the here and now, a healthy mind can be free to wander among past, present and future while remaining anchored to the present moment. If the meditator is open to creating a mental space over what could be observed, he/she will feel a sense of freedom in exploration which does not block, control or alter the content of whatever arises.
Client testimonials:

"It's been a pleasure and so helpful to analyse myself and be able to identify where I am going in life. I moved from not knowing what to do to meditation. Meditation helped me to think about Newton's laws and to identify where the chaos is. Thank you very much"

References

Barbery, M. (2008). The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Europa Editions.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.
Kipling, R., Eliot, T.S. (1943). A Choice of Kipling’s Verse, London : Faber and Faber, 1990
Tolle, E. (1997). The Power of Now. Namaste Publishing, Vancouver, B.C., Canada



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