Mindfulness is more than the cultivation of moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness. More accurately, mindfulness organically combines cognitive stability with emotional regulation to produce a stable awareness of experience and, as such, reduces reactivity and increases openness. The question for psychotherapists is “what gets in the way of developing mindfulness and mindful awareness?”
What is frequently missing from clinical trainings teaching mindfulness is the detailed examination of internal experience and the method through which it can be deconstructed. When therapists are trained in generalities or simplistic methods they lack a depth of understanding from which they can help their clients. What is needed is the explication of a phenomenological approach to the core elements of mindfulness. This brings to light how the mindful deconstruction of experience is a best-practice model for the treatment of anxiety, and how that process of disaggregation is key to an effective approach for reassociating dissociative processes.
Mindfulness and dissociation could be said to be at the opposite polls of experience. Mindfulness potentiates organization, regulation and connection. Dissociation is a protective response taking the form of disconnection, isolation and separation. This is not a comparison of good and bad, nor the recreation of a mind-body duality. Both are relevant strategies for managing suffering: dissociation is a survival strategy arising from the context of threat, and mindfulness is a conscious strategy to eliminate the suffering of daily life.
Anxiety lives between mindfulness and dissociation. It is a defense that involves the disconnection from embodied experience. Fueled by the past, the present is lost to the future. While anxiety has a neurobiological underbelly, a best-practice, mindfulness-based treatment approach would be to:
- identify, track, and sequence the anxiety related sensations;
- consciously observe the full anxiety cycle to provide a contextualized container for its cyclic nature — beginning, middle and end;
- identify the cognitions and emotional reactions associated with the sensations;
- uncouple the association of sensations, cognitions and emotions; and,
- embrace a habit of witnessing anxiety related sensations to internalize that they are continuously changing.
These five steps provide an integrated body-mind approach for the client to disaggregate difficult sensations. It is a clinical application of somatic processing and mindful awareness derived from classical mindfulness practices. The magic of mindfulness is that it embodies the Heisenberg principle of uncertainty in human relations: the process of observation changes the observed and discovers the fundamental nature of change in all phenomena.
Traditional approaches to mindfulness practice start with the cultivation of stable awareness, what is commonly described as “concentration.” I opt not to use the word “concentration” because for most of us “concentration” implies some form of physicality and the invoking of a secondary tension pattern. Take for example the common instruction to children to “sit up straight and pay attention” as though there is any connection between the object of the minds awareness and one’s physical posture.
Using the activity of breathing as the initial object of awareness, we are taught to cultivate the capacity to hold a stable attention on the sensations of the activity of breathing. By resting our attention there we begin our orientation to awareness of our body as a body, rather than as a thinking being.
I write the “sensations of the activity of breathing” with intention. First the breath is indeed an active process and not a static object. It is only knowable through the sensations related to its activity. We feel our breath, either via the coolness of the air entering our nostrils or through the biomechanics of the musculature related to breathing. And as an activity it is both reactive and manipulative. The breath can be intentionally or unconsciously controlled, and it is reactive to both internal and external stimulation. Think a scary or delicious thought and watch it react; hear a loud sound and watch it react.
The traditional instructions are to do so with awareness of internal experience, external experience and both internal and external experience. What this means is that we pay attention to sensations originating from within our body, and from stimulus outside the body making contact with our body. Then, as we are able, we hold the awareness of both internal and external experience.
We also take notice of the conditions from which the experience arises and those in which it dissolves. While that experience arises in the present it has roots in the past and potentiality in the future. Thus we can add these three dimensions to how we cultivate our attention: past, present and future.
Stimulation of each of our five senses can be addressed from these six different dimensions to lay the foundation for working with anxiety and dissociation. Anxiety often manifests in the intense experience of a rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, increased muscular tension, rapid thoughts, an experience of disorganization, and a lack of control of the overall experience. It often feels as though our body has been hijacked by our nervous system. The combination of sensation and meaning has roots in the past, is experienced in the present and projected into the future. The experience can be disaggregated into component parts, and the meaning associated with them can be explored.
Dissociation is a disconnection from bodily experience and cognitive coherence. The past is undifferentiated from the present. Experience is split-off, fragmented, and organized in a disorganized fashion so as to protect the person from the originating emotional content. Here, rather than disaggregating the sensations and memories, a mindfulness-based approach is to re-associate the elements of those experiences into their proper place and dimension. Past and present must be organized and separated by time, flashbacks become memories of the past experienced in the present, abuse sensations become somatic memories. Fears are anticipatory future events experienced in the present.
These experiences need to be re-associated in time and space. A dead father can no longer cause harm, but before this can be realized, their death must be properly oriented to and reintegrated in time, and the dissociated memories of the abuse re-associated as events that occurred in the past.
Mindfulness is a powerful tool, but for it to have more than a blunted impact its edges must be kept sharp. Watering down the details for popular consumption does us all a disservice and reduces a well-honed training process to a collection of aphorisms and good intentions. There is a far-too-rich history offering us both an integrative framework and a set of tools through which we can explore our most intimate experiences.