Posted by: cg00n | January 28, 2011

Mindfulness vs. Depression & Anxiety: 1/4

This is  the first episode of a four-part series covering an eight-week course I took last autumn. The other 3 episodes:

The official title of the course was:

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy
Preventing Relapse from Recurrent Depression and Anxiety

and the course text book was:

Henepola Gunaratana, Bhante. Mindfulness in Plain English. ISBN 978-0-8617-1321-9 (also available online)

For more reading on the subject check out the References tab and look for the Books section towards the bottom of the page.

Week 1 – Automatic Pilot.

We spend much of our life in auto-pilot mode.  Certain stimuli are likely to provoke specific reactions without involving any thought or awareness.  By becoming aware of our thoughts, feeling and body sensations from moment to moment we can exercise choice when reacting to things.  This is the purpose of mindfulness, meditation and awareness.  Mindfulness means paying attention:

  • on purpose
  • to what is happening right now
  • non-judgmentally

This first session introduced the practice of simply sitting quietly and paying attention to breathing.  Every time a thought comes up, notice it and return to the breath.  Most people are surprised at just how many unbidden thoughts show up:  it can be a constant stream.

Breath is only one thing to which one can bring mindfulness.  An exercise we did involved taking a raisin and really making a meal of it.  You start by handling the raisin, feeling the texture and observing the wrinkled skin; sniffing at it and licking it.  After a few minutes put the raisin on the tongue and savour it, again feeling the texture and rolling it around the mouth for a while.  When you finally bite into it do it slowly, noticing how it feels on the teeth and how the taste and texture change.

Next we tried a form of meditation called a body scan.  This is mostly an exercise in extreme relaxation and involves bringing your attention to each part of your body in sequence, usually starting at the toes and working up.  It helps to have someone talk you through this although eventually you get used to flying solo.

One of the things to notice during meditation is any judgments you may be making about the process itself, such as:

  • I’m no good at this – I keep drifting off in thought
  • this is pointless – it isn’t doing any good
  • this is so peaceful!  I could do this all day
  • the last time I did this is was so peaceful but it doesn’t feel so good this time

Ideally one should have no expectations about what will happen when you meditate and you should not take your own judgments seriously:  just let them go as you would any other thought.

Becoming sleepy is a very common problem, especially during the body scan which is often done lying down.  It is a good idea, therefore, to meditate when you are wide awake and to regard sleepiness as a kind of judgment along the lines of “this is boring”.

Homework:

  • body scan daily
  • raisin exercise
  • read chapter 4: Attitude

Week 2 – Dealing with Barriers.

Automatic judgments tend to pull us away from what is happening in the present moment.  We evaluate our experience as being “good”, “bad”, “not good enough” or whatever and wonder how it might be different.  Thus we lose the ability consciously to choose what action to take.  The body scan involves practicing just noticing how our body feels, being aware of it without judgment.  There is no goal for the meditation and no “right way” to feel during the process.

Meditation is a skillful means of dealing with mental issues.  Stages of progress in acquiring such skills are as follows:

/ unskilled skilled
unaware 1 4
aware 2 3

You start off unskilled and unaware of your thoughts, feelings and primary motivations.  The first step is to become aware of what is really going on, all the auto-pilot stuff etc..  Using this awareness you can start changing the way you react to things.  After a while this becomes so automatic that you can let go of the conscious awareness and let your auto-pilot get on with the job.

In conjunction with mindfulness of breath meditation one can practice various contemplations.  Once you have established your awareness of your breath you move it (very gently) to a statement of some kind, such as:

I have a body and I value my body.  I experience the sensations of my body through different conditions of health and sickness, activity and rest, vigour and tiredness.  My body is a precious instrument of experience and interaction in the world and so I treat it well and seek to keep it in good health.  My body affects and expresses who I am but it is not myself.  I have a body and I am more than my body.

Once again, it helps to have someone speak this statement as you meditate.  You take it in as deeply as you can, letting the words go and resting your mind on the meaning.  The idea is to let it sort of sink in to your subconscious.  We were introduced to four such contemplations during this session.

A situation plus our interpretation of it results in a feeling state, consisting of thoughts, bodily sensations and emotions.   What we are trying to do is to be aware of the interpretation as it happens and employ skillful means to deal with the feeling state.  For example, I may be in pain but a large part of my experience is my interpretation of this, my judgment of it.   It is also helpful to try to make the mental distinction between you, the observer and you, the continuity of “self”.  English does not really provide a good vocabulary for thinking about this.

Finally, we were enjoined to re-read Chapter 4 of the text (Attitude)  frequently.

Homework:

  • practice body scan or breathing daily & keep record
  • choose small daily activity to perform mindfully (e.g. brushing teeth)
  • record pleasant events as you notice them
  • read chapter 10: Dealing with Problems

Next episode: weeks 3 & 4

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Responses

  1. Interesting. We used the breathing and body scan exercise at university, following a yoga routine, as part of our warm-up ritual to get in touch with our bodies before starting an acting class. It helped to get rid of the stresses and distractions from life outside the theatre classroom. That room was a haven for all of us.

    DW

  2. Just wanted you to know that I have found your synopsis so useful (and much more readable than any of the meditation books!) that I am now giving out the link to your blog to people who would benefit from it.

    • I am flattered! It is good to hear that people occasionally find my ramblings to be of some value.


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