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The cognitive practices of mindfulness

In this video, Craig Hassed introduces the ‘Big Four’ cognitive aspects of mindfulness.
CRAIG HASSED: In this part of the programme, we’re going to be exploring in more depth what we’ve already touched on I think in various ways previously. And these are what I like to call “the big four” cognitive aspects of mindfulness. So what are these big four about then? Well, perception relates to when we’re unmindful, we often perceive stressors that aren’t even there, in our imagination. So there it is.
It’s 3:00 o’clock in the morning and we’re catastrophising about what might or might not happen tomorrow, living a hundred catastrophes in our mind that aren’t actually happening, when the present moment reality is that we’re lying on a comfortable mattress, head on a soft pillow, under a very warm blanket. So that perception, if we’re not mindful, we take the imaginary stressors to be real. And the body faithfully translates that into fight or flight. And that really doesn’t help us at all. Or maybe we perceive something that is there. But we perceive it out of all perspective and proportion. So, as we say, to make a mountain out of a molehill.
So this is a distortion of perception that’s based on being unmindful, what we project onto situations that may not actually be there at all. And, of course, the other main problem is that if we’re not mindful, we don’t perceive what is there that may desperately need our attention. So mindfulness can help us to notice when we’re doing this, when we’re imagining and catastrophising. And to just come back, and wait a sec, let’s get back in touch with present moment reality. The next bit has to do with acceptance. Now, we might be experiencing something that we enjoy and we find pleasant. And it’s easy to accept those things.
But, of course, there are things that happen in our life that perhaps are not so easy or not so pleasant. But mindfulness can teach us to be more accepting of the fact that, at this moment, this is a present moment reality. So the attitude that we take to things can have a big effect. So, for example, we’re experiencing a wave of anxiety about maybe presenting something in public. And if we experience that anxiety or anticipation, and we get reactive to it, we don’t want to feel it, we want it to go away, we’re getting judgmental and critical of it, then what we actually do is fixate our attention on it. And then it starts to escalate.
We take the anxiety to another level. And paradoxically, if we can learn to notice, say, anxiety, or physical discomfort, or anything else we find uncomfortable, but to be more accepting of it, to soften our attitude to it, to just notice, well, that’s there and it’s all right to be human. So that accepting attitude can help us to notice it, but for the attention not to fixate on it. And therefore it may not, necessarily, escalate in the same way as it normally would. In fact, it may subside in terms of its intrusiveness. The next has to do with letting go or nonattachment.
So thoughts, and feelings, and sensations, and experiences, and possessions, and all these sorts of things in our life are coming and going. They’re transient. They’re there for a time and they come and they go. But we often get attached to these things. We get, in a sense, identified with them. So as we say, it’s a different thing to consider an opinion, as to hold an opinion; or to experience fear, as opposed to be in the grips of fear. So when we get attached to these things, then they start to have a lot more influence. So can mindfulness teach us, again, to be able to notice these changing experiences, but without so much attachment to it?
To observe the thoughts, let them come and go? To allow the feelings to come and go, to allow possessions to come and go? So, nonattachment. And the fourth has to do with presence of mind, learning to be in the present moment. Because, very often, we’re living in a future that hasn’t happened or we’re living a past that’s already come and gone. Now, some people say, well, what about planning and preparation? Now, we can be mindful and plan and prepare for the future. That’s an important part of living a life effectively. Or we could reflect on a past experience and learn from it. Now, that’s useful. That’s actually a mindful thing to do.
But living the future before it’s happened or reliving the past after it’s come and gone, that’s a different thing. That often makes us feel bad. And it totally distracts us from the present moment. And one of the things that worry does, that often gets a lot of attention, is that it masquerades as something useful. So a lot of what we call planning and preparation is actually just worrying about the future. And that’ll be associated with stress more often than not. So can we plan and prepare in the present moment, if that’s what we’re doing, then fine. And then having done the planning and preparation, put that down.
And then engage with the next thing that we need to do, rather than continuing to brood and worry about that event. So presence of mind, learning to be more present. And if it’s even in the mundane things of just enjoying the simple pleasures of life, like having a shower or eating and tasting the food that we’re eating, is just as important in terms of presence of mind, as it is to be present in those moments that really do seem to matter. And then in exam or in the middle of the presentation. These kinds of aspects, cognitive aspects of mindfulness, are actually being developed in our ability to practise mindfulness meditation. They’re developing on a very subtle level.
But one of the other aspects about being mindful, too, is that sometimes we may find themselves making a mistake or a wrong choice. And we may, if we mindful notice the things that influence that choice. And if we can look at that mistake in a mindful way, we’ve got the opportunity to learn from it. And being mindful means accepting, OK, a mistake was made. And to notice, to actually pay attention, what can I learn from that? And if we can learn something from that, rather than just get engaged in a repetitive cycle of self-criticism, then that learning can be useful.
And it can take, to like use an alchemy term, turn lead into gold, by taking a bad experience and making it into a very valuable learning experience. So even our mistakes need to be responded to in a mindful way. Developing this sort of self-compassion and a spirit of inquiry is very conducive to being mindful. And I hope that you’re adopting that kind of approach as you explore mindfulness in your own life. So mindfulness meditation, if we practise that in a chair, day by day, that’ll help us to develop these cognitive abilities. That is, sitting down, practicing meditation, the mind goes into a dream world. Oops. Just see the imagination for what it is.
And just come back, for example, to the breath. If we experience something while we’re practicing meditation, frustration or fear, then cultivate acceptance and non-reactivity to it. When a thought comes into the mind or a feeling, and we get attached to it, just remembering letting go, just let it go. Just let it come. Let it go. It’s not a criticism that it’s there. It’s just learning to notice it and just be less attached to it by standing back and just simply observing it. And then when we’re sitting down and the mind goes off into the future, or into the past, using the breath, or the body, for example, as an anchor to come back to the present moment.
So if we practise mindfulness meditation on a regular basis, it certainly makes all of this a lot easier to bring into our day-to-day life, at the times when we really need it.

Watch Craig introduce the ‘big four’ cognitive aspects of mindfulness (perception, acceptance, non-attachment and presence of mind) and discuss how the formal practice of mindfulness meditation can help us to cultivate them.

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