So much lately has appeared in both the professional and popular literature about the mindfulness movement in mental health treatment. At first glance, the term itself tends to strike people as pretty “new-agey”, “woo-woo”, or the latest fad in a desperate search for happiness. However, the ideas and activities central to mindfulness have been around for thousands of years, mostly in the East, and are being proven extremely helpful in decreasing emotional and physical disorders in recent Western scientific studies. Mindfulness itself is an umbrella term referring to being tuned into ones direct experiences in the present moment, without getting caught up in the “stream” of thoughts and feelings that actually are our commentary and “stories” about these central experiences. It often seems strange to consider that there is more to us than our thoughts and feelings, and more ways to experience ourselves and our lives.
Scientists explain that our ability to analyze, problem-solve, attend to threats, consider the future and past, all developed as survival strategies to keep us safe. Those cavemen who were the most effective at these tasks survived, and passed down their genes, and so we are self-selected as the only animals who, beyond an instinctive level, can represent future threats in our mind and plan ways to avoid or address them. These may be actual threats to our lives or safety, or perceived threats to our social status, finances, ego, relationships, career success, etc. And while this “doing” part of our brain is excellent at generating a picture of all the possible threats or failures we might experience, so that we can take steps to protect ourselves, it is not so good at recognizing that these are just PICTURES of POSSIBLE scenarios that MIGHT happen and what they COULD mean to us and to others.
Thus, the process of generating these PICTURES is directed at survival, and not at happiness. For example in many mammalian groups, such as baboon societies, it is critical to a male’s health and well-being to be the “alpha” male, and so there developed a demand for the mind to make constant comparisons to peers and to superiors in an effort to “close the gap” between current and potential/optimal status. This awareness is very helpful to survival, prompting constant striving, but, in humans, it also entails constant dissatisfaction with our present self and life.
In current times, this striving takes the form of wanting to be the prettiest, the wealthiest, the most popular, the smartest—a need to “succeed” at cultural games we can never truly win. Who can ever really be the “best,” how can that be universally defined, and what happens to our self-concept if someone “better” comes along? Yet, we maintain the fantasy that we can achieve enough success or accolades to sustain eternal confidence, and to avoid the painful experiences of self-doubt, sadness, suffering, or fear. And when we find we are not above these very human experiences, we tend to assume we’ve done something wrong because we’re not always happy, and often turn to other ways of modifying our feelings, such as distracting ourselves with substances or with work or with a myriad of other compulsive behaviors.
The truth is, though, that neither achievement nor distraction strategies permanently eliminate hard feelings and experiences, and many such responses bring secondary problems that turn out to cause more suffering than the feelings themselves. The “doing” mind is simply not developed to make us happy or above hard experiences—it can help us survive but not insulate us from all threats or pain. In fact, nothing really can, and so actual contentment and equanimity must be approached in a different way. A mindful perspective allows us to see the “doing” mind’s creations as just crude hammered-together representations, aimed at changing a situation to make it more advantageous to our survival (but not necessarily our happiness), and thus we don’t have to buy into it as reality or at least the only reality. Instead, we can work on stepping back from our frantic attempts to identify and address all possible bad scenarios, and, instead, come to see and settle into the actual in-the-moment world of experiences and not thoughts about these experiences.
**Come back to read the next installment of What’s all this “mindfulness” stuff about!
This post was authored by Sharon Cannon, PhD