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Use Mindfulness To Improve Your Life, Not Escape It

Being mindful of negative sensations helps you change for the better

Thomas Joiner, a psychologist at Florida State University, wrote a challenging piece for the Washington Post the other day. In Mindfulness Would Be Good For You. If It Weren’t So Selfish, Joiner argues that the popular press has (1) fundamentally distorted the idea of mindfulness and (2) overstated its real, though modest, benefits. Instead of being a set of techniques for actively attending to the present, it has become an excuse for a fast trip to the spa or a luxury vacation. Instead of something instantly accessible to anyone, anywhere, it has morphed into a way to spend money pampering oneself while luxuriating in virtuous asceticism.

I was reminded of Joiner the other day as I left my office for the short walk home. My brain was swirling. Classes had just started. I was behind on work, thinking about the next day’s classes, trying to nudge anxious and excited new advisees towards coherent course schedules, re-settling plants into my office, and trying to remember if I had to drive my son to work when I got home. I stepped out of the building’s shadow and the sun was just THERE. The yellow light flooded through my instinctively shuttered eyes. The warmth blanketed my skin, leaving hot and cool patches as clothing and leaves blocked and unblocked direct passage. Even the air seemed to feel different.

And that’s what I did right then. Just breathe and walk and feel the sun and the air and my body. Mindfulness.

I am going to quote directly from Joiner’s article as he explains key elements mindfulness. I have highlighted those parts of his quote that I’d like to focus on:

Although there are various definitions of mindfulness, a workable one, drawn from some of the most respected practitioners, is the nonjudgmental awareness of the richness, subtlety and variety of the present moment . . . . Mindfulness is not the same as meditation, although meditative activities and exercises are often deployed in its cultivation. Neither is it the emptying of the mind; far from it, as the emphasis is on full awareness. And it is not about savoring the moment, which would demand dwelling on the positive. True mindfulness recognizes every instant of existence, even those of great misery, as teeming and sundry. It encourages adherents to be dispassionate and nonjudgmental about all thoughts, including those like, “I am hopelessly defective.” Mindfulness wants us to pause, reflect and gain distance and perspective.

Joiner focuses his piece on the commercialism and self-indulgence that have crept into our ideas about mindfulness, as well as on its focus on the individual, rather than the individual in a social setting. In this piece, I’d like to explore four somewhat unexpected ways that mindfulness can help in stress reduction. In addition, I'd like to call attention to the cognitive component of Joiner's description of mindfulness. "Mindfulness wants us to be disapassionate and nonjudgemental about all thoughts . . . " and "Mindfulness wants us to pause, reflect, and gain distance.".

Thus mindfulness can be seen as a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for positive action to make real change in our lives and in the world. It is not just a way to escape into pleasant sensation. This is why true mindfulness can such a useful tool to deal with tough issues like chronic pain, mental illness, and social justice.

Mindfulness is multi-dimensional. I want to focus on four ways mindfulness can be used as a tool to build a better life:

  • Distraction
  • Gratitude
  • Attentiveness
  • Call to Action

Mindfulness As Distraction

When I think of 'mindfulness' the first image that comes to mind is a roomful of people sitting still and being asked to focus on their breath as it enters their mouth and fills their lungs, feeling the rise and fall of their chests. I have written about those and similar exercises in How To Relax In Five Minutes. One goal of those exercises is to still the overwhelming tangle of thoughts that can feed into anxiety by giving you just one thing to think about: your breath. It’s simple. It’s understandable. The more you attend to your breathing, the more its complexity expands: you feel the coolness under your tongue as the air comes in, the muscles tightening at the back of the skull with each breath, the tightening of your belt at your waist . . . .

Mindfulness can be useful in stilling anxiety or reducing pain because if you can focus all of your attention on one simple act, you can’t pay attention to anything else. My son has lived much of the last five years in chronic pain. One way he has learned to cope with it is by focusing all his attention on something he can cope with – e.g., breathing – so there is no room for anything else – his pain. It takes practice and discipline, but it’s extremely effective for him. Lamaze childbirth training uses similar strategies. Using mindfulness as a distraction is useful when the cause of the pain is unchangeable, so all you can do is control is your own reaction to it.

Mindfulness Also Calls Attention

A broader and more powerful aspect of mindfulness is not what it takes our attention from, but what it calls our attention to.

Smelling the Roses: My initial example of mindfulness – walking into the sunlight – was about savoring a moment. It turns out I’ve written about that a lot – in Mindfulness In The Garden most overtly. Writings about gratitude also fall into this category: e.g. Chasing Happiness Steal Joy, and Improve Your Summer By Teaching Your Children To Say ‘Thanks’.

As someone whose child is in pain all the time, I loathe people telling me I should look at the bright side or that this is all part of God’s plan. However, I also know that being mindful of small positive things can be a lifeline. I have written before of a low low low point in my own life when the fact that an elevator door opened when I pushed the button seemed like a sign from above that there was still hope left in my life. Attending to small positives can give some perspective - and throw a lifeline to us - when everything around us seems bleak.

Attending to Negative Sensations: Paying attention to the positive now does not mean ignoring the negative. Mindfulness also tells you to PAY ATTENTION to things that make you feel bad. It is a call for action. For example, it took me weeks after we moved to a new job to figure out why I felt so lousy in the late afternoon. I was going to lunch every day with my husband. We were eating out. Truth be told, I was just eating too much. Not a lot too much – a regular restaurant meal. But too much for ME. Becoming more mindful of what I was eating and stopping when I was full led to a healthy change in my life as well as much more comfortable afternoons.

Mindfulness as a Call To Action: Focusing on the Negative

Albert Bandura’s theory of social learning argues that we engage in behaviors when we think they will help us reach a desired goal. You can see that in my story about over-eating. I needed to focus on the fact that I felt full to realize that I was eating too much. What pushed me to focus on changing behaviors was attending to the fact that I was suddenly feeling bloated and ill every afternoon. Mindfulness was a call to action.

Similarly, in Taking Control of the Little Things, I talk about being mindful of the fact that your hands hurt and your eyes are watering and your legs are in pain. Those symptoms tell you to attend to the causes for the pain: the fact that you're working on your computer at a desk designed for writing with a fountain pen. You need to make a change.

Healthy pain is useful. Functional pain tells us that we are experiencing tissue damage and we should take action to stop it. Low level pain is easy to ignore. It becomes particularly easy when it is chronic and not that bad. A lot of pain fades into the background - it nags at us but doesn't hit us over the head. I once did serious damage to my lower leg (still in evidence18 years later) by ignoring the fact that my calf hurt every single day at work because I was pressing it against a cross-piece in my desk. Mindfulness helps us by focusing on what is wrong – the physical sensations that are hurtful. Walking home from work the other day, besides that wonderful sun, I also recognized a problem in my hip, congestion in my lungs, and a sharp pain between my shoulder blades that told me I wasn’t sitting properly at my desk. Again. There are things I needed to fix.

Being mindful of what hurts us is the first step that gets us to change our lives for the better.

Social Mindfulness. We can also be mindful, as Joiner points out, in our interactions with others. When we are in the moment, we feel how others react to us. I sense my students’ confusion or anxiety or excitement. That makes me a better instructor because it helps me respond to their needs and not just my own.

We can be mindful of injustice. We can pay attention to how monuments we have walked by our whole lives are celebrating things we individually and as a society, have come to recognize as wrong.

And here is where Joiner’s message and my own come together. Paying attention to what is happening gets you out of your own head and helps you attend to what is happening in the real world. It allows you to think and to judge. That allows you to act for change more effectively.

This type of authentic mindfulness is a long way from a trip to the spa.


American Chronic Pain Association
Source: American Chronic Pain Association

September is National Pain Awareness Month. New guidelines for coping with chronic pain developed in response to the growing awareness of the prevalence of chronic pain in society, the cost it has on both individual lives and in terms of lost labor for our society, and in response to the growing opioid crisis, encourage the use of mindfulness as a tool for reducing pain.

As someone who spends a lot of time on social media sites focusing on chronic pain (my son suffered from severe near-constant migraines) I can tell you that the response from many in the pain community has been . . . . let’s just say scatological.

Part of this is, I think, from the not ill-founded notion that doctors are telling people in pain that their pain is all in their head. I get that. I get the whole fury at that. You're in real pain by caused by a real medical issue and need real help. As I said earlier, I watched my son spend days and weeks and years in so much pain he can barely speak and I get that.

However, I want to testify that mindfulness has helped his pain in real concrete ways. It has helped him breathe through pain when nothing else would help. Being physically relaxed makes it easier to bear extreme pain because it doesn't add muscle tension to the pain you've already got. Reframing the pain and focusing on something else - anything else - makes the experience more bearable than thinking about the pain. Just like you can unpack the experience of breathing and be mindful of it, you can unpack pain and feel all of its nuances in exquisite detail. Anything that takes your mind off of that is good.

But, as I tried to say here, mindfulness can also help you find the causes for your pain. My son has systematically knocked down causes for his pain through mindfulness. He figured out a source of chronic inflammation in his neck that was treatable. He identified another trigger for facial neuralgia by attending to exactly where the pain was located. They fixed it. He identified particular sensations that were triggering pain and - more importantly - sensations he was ignoring that were triggering cascading pain reactions. He stopped doing those things. In other words, mindfulness also helped him pay attention to aspects of the pain that helped him minimize it and find a cause. That's important, because pain feeds on itself. It moves from functional pain telling you about tissue damage, and becomes a disease of the nervous system that serves no function at all.

People in pain are used to having their pain dismissed and minimized. But I would argue that mindfulness can be a useful tool to fight against pain. Don't dismiss it out of hand. In the best of circumstances it takes a long time to find and treat chronic pain. While you're fighting for a real cure, it has been my experience that mindfulness can help you cope and help you get there faster. It's a tough skill to master, but worth learning.

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