Acceptance, Avoidance, Attention, and Wisdom

...And Don't Forget to Breathe album coverImage via WikipediaIn this week's study group, we were delighted to have a visit from Delany Dean, Ph.D., who was in Chicago presenting her Mindfulness Based Wellness research at the APS conference. A very interesting thread of the discussion took up the issue of attention regulation and avoidance, and I'd like to explore it at greater length here.

The basic instruction for mindfulness meditation often asks the meditator to keep her attention on the breath. Inevitably, the mind will wander on some way, and will perhaps become absorbed for many minutes in some topic. When we notice this happening, we are to gently return our attention to the breath, in a non-judgmental fashion. This process may be repeated dozens of times in a meditation session.

This process is often discussed as a kind of attentional training: learning to notice when our attention has wandered to some unintended subject, and making a conscious choice to redirect our attention away from the "accidental" topic and back to the "intended" topic, the breath.

The question comes up: could mindfulness of the breath be used as a distraction from something that we would rather not think about? If we engage in conscious breathing during the day, especially in stressful or difficult experiences, are we subtly engaging in an avoidance process which is not essentially different from other avoidance activities like watching TV or smoking a cigarette. In other words, can mindfulness training help us to become very skillful at avoiding experiences we'd rather not have?

There is, in fact, a kind of attention to breathing that I call "lifeboat breathing." This is something that we might do when we have had a very challenging and nearly overwhelming experience (like a panic attack): we pay attention to our breathing as a way to exclude certain other experiences from our consciousness. In psychology, we've know about the process of Reciprocal Inhibition for decades now. Engaging in some activities or responses makes it impossible to engage in certain other activities. We cannot be tense when we relax our muscles, for instance. In difficult emotional storms, it is possible to cling to an awareness of our breathing as a way of saving ourselves from an experience that threatens to overwhelm us. Being completely focused on the breath, there really isn't room to also engage in whatever cognitive processes that were so threatening. And so, the breath becomes a temporary lifeboat in a stormy sea.

All avoidance strategies regulate awareness (they would be useless if they didn't). What differentiates mindfulness from the simple avoidance of unwanted experiences? How is mindfulness different from taking a walk or binge eating?

I personally am skeptical of the almost universally accepted idea that mindfulness can be easily defined as a way of paying attention. We say (somewhat misleadingly) that mindfulness is a way of paying attention in the present, for example. But awareness is always in the present. There is absolutely no way to be aware of the past or future. Being "in the present" does not differentiate mindfulness from any other kind of attention or any other human activity. When we say "Pay attention to present moment experience" we are speaking metaphorically, and not scientifically.

So what do we really mean when we say "I'm not in the present moment?" We mean we have become confused about the real nature of our mental processes. We are engaged in thinking (possibly about something that we are imagining as "the future") in a way that obscures the fact that we are just thinking. And so mindfulness is not "coming into the present" (we have never left the present) but coming into a different relationship with our thoughts (we understand them as thoughts and not realities).

The breath is a great help in the process of coming into a realistic understanding of what we are doing, because we very rarely get confused about our breathing. We have absolutely no interest in our past breathing, and are unlikely to become preoccupied with it. In order to pay attention to an outbreath, we have to relinquish our preoccupation with the inbreath. But in mindfulness, the point of attending to our breath is not simply to be aware of the sensations of breathing in, but to know that we are breathing in while we are doing it. And mindfulness of thinking or feeling is a process of knowing our experience to be what it is, just thinking or just feeling, as it is happening.

In mindfulness, our intention is to be open to any experience and to know it for what it is. It seems to me that the curative and liberating power of mindfulness is not the result of simply having greater control over our attention. It is deeply involved with having more wisdom and compassionate insight into the true nature of our experience.

This is a very broad and complex topic, and I don't pretend to have a complete grasp of it, but I would like to assert a few propositions about mindfulness for the purpose of continuing the discussion.

  • Mindfulness is essentially a process of reminding ourselves of the reality of our life.
  • Mindfulness is a way of developing wisdom (disengaging from our illusions) about our experience.
  • Mindfulness is more like waking from a dream than learning to pay attention to some other element of a dream.
Not very scientific, possibly, but I hope an interesting starting point for further discussion.

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Delany Dean, JD, PhD said...

This is great, Roger! You have put a lot into this post and I am very much looking forward to spending some time chewing on these concepts more. For now, I'll say that what kept arising for me as I read your post was that one of my favorite formulae for meditation instruction has nothing to do with breathing, or thoughts, or even raisins... it is just this: "Sit, knowing that you are sitting." And that really cuts through a lot of talk (and the accompanying conceptualization [words and concepts]) about such things as "attentional training."

I had a great time with your group and will look forward to talking more about all of this.

With a deep bow,


Anonymous said...

Very interesting discussion. In thinking through the question of the misuse of a mindful state as a form of avoidance, I believe the critical differentiator between relaxation exercises such as breathing retraining and mindfulness meditation is that mindfulness requires noting what took your attention away from the breath while a relaxation exercise simply encourages focusing on the breath. I think that small act of noting what arises in one's attentional field allows mindfulness to be used more as a form of exposure to all stimuli than a form of avoidance of that which is difficult to experience.
Reagrds, Debra