Friday, December 10, 2010

Minding the Mind

Meditation and mindfulness practices, popular among Eastern religions, are increasingly being adopted by moden pscyhotherapy as a legitimate technique for treating a wide variety of mental disorders. Noted therapist Dr Dan Siegel writes about it eloquently in his books, Mindsight and The Mindful Therapist.

While meditation is a general term to refer to a wide variety of mental cultivation practices from many cultures and religions, mindfulness, as it is normally used in Buddhist literature refers to to the practice of being aware of one's thoughts, feelings and sensations and this need not necessarily be done in a sitting position. The ability to intentionally pay attention to the thoughts and processes in our minds is a valuable skill that allows us to observe and modify our behaviour and even physiology to prevent 'dis-ease'.

Restlessness, reactivity and agitation are natural tendencies of our minds. Pyschologists also tell us that, 80 percent of the time we operate using our unconscious minds (example, when we are driving our car), so our reactions to sense stimulus are usually automatic. The unconscious brain is a more powerful computer compared to the conscious one. Nature designed it in such a way because of a very good reason: if we are to process every sensory input conscously, we'll be completely overwhelmed--we will not be able to do the things that come to us naturally such as walking and talking.

If our unconscious mind runs the show most of the time, are we simply not replaying back responses we've consciously or unconsciously programmed into our minds? We have been programmed since we were young by our experiences of pain and pleasure. Efficient though the unconscious mind is, sometimes it traps us into habitual patterns of behaviour that could be harmful to us. The world around us changes rapidly, but we are mentally not capable of dealing with rapid change. Our minds continue to run old programs. And when old programs are not able to process new inputs, then stress and anxiety sets in.

A person suffering from anxiety disorder is often trapped in a downward spiral of negative thoughts and emotions. The person is not able to snap out of this state because he or she does not have the ability to disassociate the mind from its processes. Mindfulness practices help us to strengthen our mental muscles; we are not trashed about by the stormy seas of thoughts and emotions. In most miindfulness practices, we learn to observe the arisal of thoughts and gently label them; worry, hesitant, anxious, longing...

These random thoughts are the background noise that comes to the forefront whenever we sit down quietly to meditate. The meditator takes note of them, labels them if necessary, and allow them to come and go. No force is necessary. We do not fight nor resist them. They will come and go like waves lapping on the shore. When this is done often enough, we carry this mindful habit into our daily lives, and it helps us keep an inner island of calm amidst the chaos of everyday activity.

I would say, mindfulness is the most important skill that any healthy individual would need in today's world, where we are constantly assaulted by an overload of sensory input and information. Dr Siegel calls it 'brain hygiene'--a necessary skill to ensure the healthy functioning or the brain, as one of the most important organs in our body. The mind does not have total control of its output, because out of biological necessity we do most of our things unconsciously. But using the practice of mindfulness, we deliberately observe our mental output, and this very act itself generates a modifying input that is fed back into the brain. Only in this way, mental stability and control can be achieved.

So be mindful, lest your own thoughts might lead you astray!