Brain Sense

How your brain makes sense of your senses.

Mindfulness for a Mindless Age

Can doing less help us do more?

I once wrote a science fiction story about an alien who crash-landed her space craft near a mining town in the Old West. A decidedly arachnoid creature in both structure and temperament, my space-invader heroine had some redeeming qualities that served her well for her initial survival and for her longer-term encounters with the locals. Some of her faculties were obvious—eight legs can be an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on the situation—but some were hidden: matters of the mind, so to speak. Among the most powerful and most useful to her—given her devastating injuries after the crash—was the ability to ease her pain by wrapping herself in it.

That may seem a strange notion to us, but it was second nature to her. She could hurt less if she embraced her hurt—made it part of herself, gave it its due as an equal, not a force of domination. There was a real-life inspiration for that story: at the time I wrote it, I was experiencing considerable physical pain. I found that by curling up inside my pain—treating it like a blanket I could wrap around myself—I could ease its intensity. How and why that method works remains a mystery to me to this day, but it did work well then, and I continue to call upon it sometimes now when my back aches or my feet are killing me.

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I recently read a book that prompted me to recall my “pain-wrapping” strategy. The book is The Mindful Manifesto, and it was sent to me by one of its authors, Ed Halliwell. In writing the book, Halliwell collaborated with first author Dr. Jonty Heaversedge in an attempt to define mindfulness and to provide a rationale for its cultivation in the modern world, where most of us are so caught up in the immediate that we neglect the truly important. While rushing from one task to another, being mindful of anything beyond our next pressing obligation seems more fantasy than alien invader spiders. Although the book suggests numerous techniques for developing greater mindfulness—among them, notably, meditation—it is more of a “why-to” than a “how-to.” There are therapeutic benefits to be attained from cultivating greater mindfulness, these authors assert, among them (I’m inferring) the pain relief I experience from my pain-wrapping technique.

If you are new to this idea of mindfulness—certainly, I am—you will probably seek a definition first. Mindfulness, say authors H and H, is difficult to define. It has to be experienced. Still, they take a stab by defining mindfulness as a state of receptive, open, nonjudgmental awareness: “the direct experience of things, free from our preconceived ideas about them…Mindfulness means observing things just as they are—our thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and what’s happening in the world around us…clearly, openly, and without bias….Mindfulness means leaning into life (even when it’s painful), approaching experiences with interest, curiosity, and courage (pages 13-15).

If you’ve read this far and didn’t let a thousand other things distract you, you may well be thinking, “I’m too busy making things better to take time out for mindfulness.” Well, that’s the point. Say H and H:

But what if all this striving to make things better is actually part of the problem? What if our compulsive habit of doing is actually part of the reason we are so miserable. What if, rather than needing to take more action, we need to take less. What if we don’t need technology to speed up, but ourselves to slow down? (page 4)

H and H support their argument by pointing to research that shows how mindfulness can relieve stress, anxiety, and depression. It can strengthen the immune system, speed healing, and (as I experienced) help relieve severe pain. Mindfulness is used in treating substance abuse and eating disorders, and it’s a powerful tool for anger management. Finally, it can improve relationships so that we deal in a more satisfying way with family, friends, and co-workers. The book draws upon the results of a number of scientific studies that affirm those conclusions.

What I like about this book is that it doesn’t overextend its reach. It doesn’t promise that you’ll lose twenty pounds in ten days or banish your mother-in-law problems in three easy steps. But it does promise a metamorphosis more meaningful and ultimately more powerful. We can change life by changing how we live it. My fictional alien did that. She healed her injuries and made friends with some decidedly grizzly curmudgeons. In so doing, she left this world a little better than she found it. Heaversedge and Halliwell have done the same with this book. I recommend it.

For more information:

Read Part II of this column "Growing More Mindful of Mindfulness."

Dr. Jonty Heaversedge and Ed Halliwell. The Mindful Manifesto: How Doing Less and Noticing More Can Help Us Thrive in a Stressed-Out World. New York: Hay House, 2012.

Illustration Credit:

"Alien Spider Minuo" opening image by Sara Marie Elliott. 

 

 

 

 

 

Faith Brynie, Ph.D, is a scientific and medical writer. She is the author of Brain Sense (Amacom, 2009).

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