Dr. Valerie Rice: Mindfulness Meditation: Moments in Time

WORK: mindfulness

It always amazes me how quickly buzzwords change and the next greatest health-craze is announced. However, rather than dismissing something just because it sounds ‘new’ would be a mistake, as medicine is a work in progress, never finished, and ever discovering answers to posed questions.

Mindfulness, especially combined with the word ‘meditation’ may seem that way to some people, simply a new buzzword. Yet, it is an ancient practice – meditating – and religions around the world contain and encourage various forms of meditation. The rosary, prayer (especially contemplative prayer), journeying among indigenous populations, and being fully present during traditional Japanese tea ceremonies are forms of ‘meditation’.

In fact, while not ‘ancient’ by some measures, I am reminded of my first practices of Occupational Therapy in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Two of the client groups I worked with were active duty military who were involved in substance abuse (drugs and alcohol, primarily) and active duty military who were seen in psychiatry for psychosocial disorders. I ran a number of group interventions for them including basic communications (some had never even been in a restaurant of any kind), assertiveness training, stress management, recreation facilitation, getting to know yourself, life skills, and others! Each group lasted for six to eight weeks and one of the techniques I used (for some groups) was guided meditation. During these meditations, we went to an imagined beautiful location of our minds’ choosing and let our troubles float way in a basket attached to balloons filled with helium. We journeyed down fictional stairs moving with each step into a physical state of deep relaxation.

I also guided these soldiers in a Chakra clearing meditations, to improve their:

  • connection with themselves and their basic roots (first Chakra),
  • creativity (second Chakra),
  • sense of self and selfmastery (third Chakra),
  • hearts, hurts, and human compassion (fourth Chakra),
  • throats and communications (saying things they wish they hadn’t, and not saying things they wish they had [fifth Chakra]),
  • intuition and ‘just knowing’ certain things (sixth Chakra), and finally the
  • the harmonizing of their physical being with their spiritual being (the seventh Chakra)

I did not necessarily believe in Chakras – I really understood little about them.  However, I saw a meditative opportunity for service members to be guided through a meditation that helped them recognize and clear away cobwebs of remorse, while recognizing and encouraging their innate talents.

So here we come, almost full circle to my current health-related human factors/ergonomics research which, in part, involves investigating the impact of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) on soldier readiness in terms of neurocognitive performance (cognitive readiness) and resilience, stress, anxiety, fear-of-failure, etc. (psychosocial and emotional readiness).  

Is this different or the ‘same old thing with a different name’? Will people be excited and interested in exploring these waves of publications and touted beneficial effects or yawn and say ‘yeah, yeah, we’ve done this before?

I can tell you from experience that this is different. In fact, each system of meditation is slightly different from other methods. Mindfulness Meditation (as in MBSR) is derived from Buddhist roots and Vipassana Meditation. Jon Kabatt-Zinn (2013), as well as others who ‘went to find themselves’ in the 60’s and 70’s, did find themselves in this form of meditation that teaches a person to develop what I call Internal Situation Awareness, as well as external situation awareness.

During mindfulness meditation, the student learns, slowly, to be still mind and body by focusing their attention on the physical sensations of their own breath, their body while still and their body while moving (interoception, exteroception, proprioception, and kinesthesia), and what they hear and see. The interoceptors provide information from our internal bodies, such as our organs, while the exteroceptors gather information external to the body, such as sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste – the five senses. Proprioceptors inform us about movement, gathering data from receptors in our joints, muscles, tendons, and skin. Proprioception and kinesthesia are often used interchangeably, yet kinesthesia places a greater emphasis on motion.  Kinesthesia allows us to perceive the itchiness of a mosquito bite and move our fingers to that spot to scratch it (not that scratching is a good idea!). 

By focusing on sensations, students learn to stay in the present moment.  A person cannot be in the past or the future when focusing attention on their immediate sensations, it brings you right to the here and now.

Learning to be mindful occurs over time. The process is not quick. It is easy and simple to do, and yet it can be one of the hardest things a person can ever do…and one of the most rewarding.

Over time, students get to the point where they are similarly aware of what they feel emotionally, what memories remain that may have been buried, and what is hidden in the closets of their minds – both positive and negative. Most importantly, they learn to recognize if these thoughts, emotions and memories have (or have not) been resolved. If not resolved, they can begin the process, in the smallest present moment, one moment at a time, if that is what they can handle. If they can manage, perhaps they ‘sit with’ the thoughts, emotions, or memories, peeling back the layers to discover what is underneath for as long as they choose. The memories may be too raw, too painful, to spend but a moment or too with them. The process is gentle for they can spend as short a time, or as long a time to spend with “what comes up” as they choose.

By this time, they will have already learned to control where their mind goes during MBSR or other mindfulness training. They will have learned to direct their minds as they wish, no longer confined to entrapment in a mind that goes here and there, willy-nilly, all over the place, uncontrolled by the ‘owner’ of that mind! This jumping and bouncing around of the mind is  referred to as monkey mind by meditation teachers. Class attendees will have been working on how to control this during the early part of their training, during their focus on their senses. But now, they learn to experience internal situation awareness and discover how it impacts their behavior, moods, interactions with others, their performance….well, what doesn’t it impact?

Individuals who continue with mindfulness training will begin to see themselves more clearly through this process. It is almost as if they become their own psychotherapists, by first becoming aware. Yet, it doesn’t stop there.

During MBSR training, and some other forms of mindfulness training, with each week of training come new themes. Each theme, or underlying concept, addresses a part of daily life. For example, themes may address how you think about yourself, stress (what it is and what your own pattern of dealing with stress has been and might be!), eating, responsibility, and more. Mindfulness training allows the student to look into themselves and consider ‘the stuff of life’ and whether their own life exhibits their beliefs, values, and core being.

“Yikes! I signed up for stress management! I thought we’d be listening to music and relaxing! Or maybe you’d teach us traditional stress management where you told us how to use diversion and recreation and sleep to help us!

Not everyone is thrilled with facing themselves by looking directly into their life mirror. Perhaps they did not realize that mindfulness couldn’t be learned, dealt with, and over in a week. Never did they think, that mindfulness is a way of life, a way of perceiving the world, a way of interacting with everything and everyone.

This is big. This is different. This is digging deep into who you are and perhaps who you want to be, but are not…yet.

I hope you will join me in this new series on mindfulness, where we will examine what mindfulness is, what it does, and what research is revealing. I have confidence that you, as readers, will ask questions or suggest a focus within the topic of mindfulness that you are particularly interested in. Finally, I trust you will read with an open mind, not necessarily condemning, and not automatically jumping onboard, until you’ve heard more or practiced on your own.

In the next Mindfulness Meditation: Moments in Time, I will address mindfulness and pain. I do hope you will join in. Please share your thoughts and questions to start our conversation in this blog.