Do you ever feel as though your brain has a mind of its own? 

It seems as though, in a world where we control so little, we should at least be able to manage the contents of our own brains.  And yet, strangely, this isn’t always possible. Thinking is such a natural and necessary function that it becomes difficult to turn off, even when we want nothing more than a little peace and quiet. But I’m sure you’ve had moments when you wanted nothing more than to pry open your own skull, tear out that squishy pink insubordinate and then smack it, just to get it to shut up for five seconds. 

For what it’s worth, and speaking as an OCD sufferer, I’m sympathetic. In my book, Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, I reflect on a lifetime driven to the brink of insanity by the perpetual-motion machine hidden in my skull. 

For someone with OCD, a little thinking is never as good as a lot of thinking.  Any kind of problem or setback I encountered, my brain lunged and worried like a pit bull:  Was I completely safe?  Was I doing the right thing?  And, was I happy, really happy, right now?  In a world of constant danger and disappointment, I somehow became convinced that something was wrong unless every second felt like Free Ice Cream Day, sex, and watching a new episode of NBC’s Community all at the same time.  So I've spent most of my years, not enjoying life, but trying to control my consciousness and my environment – and ironically inviting extreme anxiety and frustration as a result. 

Some of this may sound familiar, and I imagine a lot of you are aware of and frustrated by this kind of circuitous thinking.  So what if I told you I could help you to quiet your mind?  To once and for all silence your fidgety noggin and experience a sense of peace so profound that you spontaneously levitate and radiate a halo of pure understanding

Well, I can’t, but Andy Puddicombe might be able to help you out. 

A former Buddhist monk, Puddicombe is the founder of the Headspace organization and the author of Get Some Headspace: How Mindfulness can Change Your Life in Ten Minutes a Day.  Puddicombe’s approach to mindfulness and meditation is accessible and pragmatic, focusing on straightforward meditation practice with practical results.  I’ve dabbled in mindfulness meditation for years as a component of my therapy for OCD, and I promise it really does help: it allows you to reexamine old habits of mind, to come to peace both with life’s disappointments and with your own nattering brain. 

I recently had the opportunity to ask Puddicombe about his approach: 

In Get Some Headspace, you describe students who complain they are “tired of obsessive thinking or consistently acting in a way that is causing themselves or others harm.”  Reading that description, I can’t help but think of my OCD, which exaggerates my fears and anxieties, and drags me into repetitive thinking as I try to protect myself.  Does this sound like something that you or your students have experienced? 

Most definitely, in fact I think most people experience this to a lesser or greater degree at some stage in their life. Obviously it doesn’t always manifest as strongly as OCD, but simply over-thinking something or always reacting in the same way to an emotional trigger can become tiring over time. 

How does mindfulness help with this sort of anxiety and worry? 

Mindfulness helps in many different ways. Firstly, it lessens the identification with the feeling itself. By this I mean that we recognize there is ‘anxiety present’, rather than experiencing that as “I am anxious”. This is due to the increased sense of clarity and awareness and the result of a decrease in intensity of emotion. Secondly, the familiarization of mindfulness enhances our ability to recognize thoughts as something impermanent, transient and intangible. This in turn allows us to take them less seriously, to not get so caught up in them. But along with these changes come some very tangible physical benefits too, in which the brain is less active in the areas associated with anxiety, and more active in the areas associated with contentment. Likewise, the delicate balance of hormones in the body is maintained or regained, bringing about a greater feeling of wellbeing. 

You draw from both traditional spiritual practices and cutting-edge research on behavioral psychology and neuroscience.  Do you think science and spirituality offer different but complementary insights on mindfulness?  Or are they two ways of exploring the same truth? 

I would say that we are essentially exploring the same truth. By this I mean there is only one truth, but there are many ways of talking about it, relating to it, investigating it, experiencing it, and explaining it. Science offers some fascinating insights into the mind, many of which have encouraged individuals to set off on their own journey of discovery. Equally, there are many who follow a spiritual path who have been inspired by these scientific discoveries, almost seeing it as confirmation of what they always knew in themselves. 

There are, however, a couple of key distinctions to make. The first is that of motivation. What are we seeking from the investigation into mindfulness? Many in science would argue that we are seeking a ‘cure’ or a ‘treatment’ for physiological ills, especially those associated with stress. However, for those who are following a spiritual path, it is more likely that they are seeking understanding, clarity or transformation of some kind. So the motivation is key to the experience. I think this is especially true when mindfulness branches off into training in empathy and compassion towards self and other. 

The other distinction to make is that whilst neuroscientists are quite confident in stating that the ‘process drives the structure’ of the brain, they have yet to understand the origins of consciousness. In this sense there is some differentiation between understanding that which is tangible and that which is intangible. 

Personally I think both are incredibly valuable and there is much that the two worlds can learn from each other. 

NEXT TIME: In Part 2 of Try to Keep an Open Mind, Wortmann and Puddicombe discuss mindfulness, modernity, and professional clowning. 

 Copyright, Andy Puddicombe and Fletcher Wortmann, 2012.

Andy Puddicombe, author of Get Some Headspace 

Fletcher Wortmann, author of Triggered:  A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

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