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Common principles in mindfulness interventions

Prof Chris Goto-Jones discusses in this video what are the foundational common principles of mindfulness interventions.
So as we’ve seen throughout this module, there are quite a few different programs of secular mindfulness intervention designed to address different clinical, therapeutic or positive psychological needs. They each have their own distinctive characteristics and focus on their own particular population. But, they also share some foundational common principles. In this session today, by way of summary, we’re going to take a moment to clarify what those principles might be. Now, I’d like to acknowledge at the outset the help of James Carmody of the University of Massachusetts Medical School for some of the work on clarifying these principles. We might label them as first, recognizing that our everyday experiences are made up of numerous experiential components.
Second, recognize that we can change the emotional force of an experience by controlling where we place our attention. Third, recognizing the beneficial possibilities of a de-centred, metacognitive standpoint from which to act. We’re going to look at each of these in turn today. So the first of these principles concerns the nature of experience itself, that is, in our everyday lives we tend to encounter experiences as though their full complexity and multi-dimensionality are basic to them. In particular, we accept as self-evident that all our experiences involve a unity of sensations, emotional tones, thoughts, and so on.
So when someone we know passes us on the street without acknowledging our presence, this experience seems to mean an inextricable combination of wait and gasping, guilt and worry, puzzling for reasons and planning for follow up actions. But mindfulness intervention suggest that this kind of complexity of experience is actually not basic at all. Mindfulness training is concerned with cultivating an experiential recognition that all our experiences which we have assumed to have a unified quality are actually constructed and conditioned by cycles of association and signification into which we’ve been immersed for most of our lives. That is, they’re not unities but compounds. Our everyday experiences should be recognized as comprising multiple components which we should be able to unpick.
Hence mindfulness interventions invite us to entertain a place of bare or direct or pure experience that lies somewhere prior to that complex constellations of thoughts and motions and sensations. This conceit, that there is a pure form of experience that can be felt by any of us at any time and that this pure experience is importantly unsullied by our preconceptions and preconditioned judgments, is vital to mindfulness in general. This type of experience is what we usually mean when we use phrases like beginner’s mind, open or non-judgmental awareness, or when we say things like, pure experience has no meaning at all. And we’ll pick up on these ideas in the next module.
So instead of allowing ourselves automatically to unify our immediate experience of walking down the street on a sunny afternoon with perhaps wandering thoughts about how we might have insulted someone in the past, or perhaps how typical it is to discover that this person doesn’t like us anymore, or perhaps the heavy, sinking feeling of resignation and sadness that settles into our stomach. Mindfulness training invites us to recognize that the sensations of the sun on our skin, the street beneath our feet and the sight of somebody walking past are of a different and more direct order than the judgments, explanations and emotions that follow so rapidly afterward.
Indeed, rather than being caught in the direct experience, these modifiers actually modify our reactions to the experience. They’re a conditioned attempt to construct them into meaningful compounds in our minds. This brings us neatly to the second basic principle of mindfulness interventions, which is something like that the insight of the felt emotional quality of an experience is not a feature of the experience itself, but instead is a kind of arousal that emerges from our experience to it.
The idea that our emotional arousal, whether positive, negative or neutral emerges from our interaction with experiences, rather than being contained in the experiences themselves opens a space for us to make some skillful choices about how we might regulate our emotional condition by deliberately bringing our attention to specific sensations and experiences. While we’re walking home, how would it be to rest our attention on the sensation of the sun in our skin here and now, rather than on our anger about an insult or offense that took place last week. In concrete terms, both MBSR and MBCT make use of the process of inviting our attention onto or into the breath as the site of an experience that’s usually arousal neutral.
We might also think of making use of particular postures or places or scents in this way. Hence, mindfulness interventions train us in the capacity to regulate our emotional state through correctly intentioned and disciplined regulation of our attention. Mindfulness training enables us to become increasingly skillful in the recognition of rumination, wandering, and negative, or even positive, emotional arousal associated with specific experiences and then to make a deliberate choice to place our attention elsewhere such as on our breath and hence create a greater sense of calm, ease, or well-being.
One of the important consequences of this principle is that it works to change the emotional quality of an experience without requiring us to avoid the experience itself and without taking us away from that experience. That is, mindfulness is not aversive, but open. We should be able to continue to perform any activities that are typical of our daily lives and to take pleasure in these activities that once caused stress, anxiety, or pain. Indeed, we remain or return to being firmly embedded in the present moment. In other words, this principle works towards the establishment of a more spacious and permissive locus of being.
And this idea of spaciousness leads us into the third principle, which we might consider as the cultivation of a metacognitive standpoint or a stance of meta awareness. And all that is meant by this rather intimidating phrase is that mindfulness interventions train us to take a step back from our experiences into a wider space in which we can be more aware of the way we encounter, process, and experience those experiences. In this wider space, we have more room to consider and decide where we would like to place our attention. The more expansive view gives us more information, keeps us open to other positive clues in the environment that we might otherwise miss if we remain stuck in a narrower site.
Some people talk about this as the cultivation of the observing self. That’s a version of you who’s able to observe how you interact with and experience the world, rather in a manner of a generously compassionate, gently curious friend who might advise you on how to proceed. Psychologists often refer to this as a process of decentering, in order to flag the way that involves the intention to displace the experiential subject, that’s the you who experiences things in the world, from the center of the locus of your being.
The you who is experiencing debilitating stress or anxiety sitting in a waiting room before a job interview is not the center of your being but just a projection of you that you can watch, advise, and guide from this more spacious position. This decentered location enables a kind of receptiveness, flexibility, and open awareness that seems impossible to the you who is constricted, narrowed, and rigid with stress and anxiety. Hence, this is a much wiser standpoint from which to deploy your attention, formulate your intentions, and make decisions. Just as we have noted in the particular cases of MBSR and MBCT, it’s also worth noting some concerns about these common principles.
In particular, the cultivation of a meta-culmative or de-centered standpoint for the self can itself be a disturbing or uncomfortable experience for people. For many the discomfort is temporary as they acclimatize to the training. But in a very rare case, in rare cases, this discomfort can become associated with a form of dissociative disorder which requires careful professional therapeutic attention. And again the risks of this, although relatively small in general populations, are another factor in the consideration of the responsibility of instructors of mindfulness interventions. In fact, scientists know rather little about how or why this happens, and very little about what kinds of populations are at greater risk than others.
These are amongst the various reasons for ensuring that mindfulness instructors are suitably qualified and experienced, whatever that turns out to mean. Conversely, for some, this decentered sense of self can actually become a source of pleasure or even intoxication in its own right. The feeling of observing ourselves from without can sometimes be accompanied by a sense of euphoria and freedom. These kinds of experiences during secular mindfulness intervention often lead participants make inquiries about more spiritual, philosophical, or existential issues. So, It’s now time leave the empirical sciences behind us and to move on to the next module in which we’ll explore precisely the spiritual, philosophical, and existential implications of mindfulness.

In this video, I discuss the foundational common principles of mindfulness interventions.

What are your thoughts on these common principles and the concerns that accompany them?

Leiden University

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Demystifying Mindfulness

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