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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Sensing Mind

(Part of an ongoing series on mindfulness.)

Sensing mind is the part of us which is pure experiencing.  We see, we hear, we feel, but we don't judge.  At the moment that we are in sensing mind, we are not judging.  We are probably not worrying.  We are probably not feeling despair.  We are just in touch with our senses.

Sometimes with patients, as I am trying to get them to focus on the present, I will ask them, "How does that chair feel?"  (I have two green wingback chairs in my office.)  Usually, the client will say that it feels soft and comfortable.  I then go on to ask them to notice other sensory stimuli in the room at that moment--the lighting, the air temperature, and so on.  When focusing on these, we are not focused on whether we will be able to pay the taxes six months from now.  We are not focused on what our lab tests will show next Friday.  We are just sensing.

I want to oversimplify a little here.  Pure sensing is direct and bypasses the emotional centers of the brain.  It is in someway a focussing process based on the occipital cortex, the auditory cortex, and the sensory motor strip of the brain.  It is not focussed on the limbic system.

What are some of the things which I might sense directly?
Blue sky
Green grass
The color red on a car or anywhere else
Yellow traffic lines
The colors of flowers
The color of my wife's eyes
The smell of roses, or of food
The taste of food or drink
The soft feeling of a chair
The feeling of acceleration in a fast car.
A cool breeze.
And so on.

Mindfulness therapy teaches people to do things, sense things, see things, etc. in a deliberate way.  All too often we lives our lives on autopilot.  We don't slow down to really taste our food or to really see our environment.

The value of sensing mind is in part how it can distract us from painful emotions.  In addition, it produces pleasure.  There is pleasure in sound, in light, in color, in contrast, in texture, in smell, in taste, and so on.  Our autopilot selves know little of this.  Our autopilot selves live in an abstract world: turn left, take care of that letter to insurance, see 9 AM patient, return telephone call, and so on, as we tick off a list of things to do.  I'm not saying that such a list may not necessary or helpful; it just produces little pleasure.  Yesterday, as I walked my dog, I saw one of the most beautiful sunsets I have seen in a long time.  It looked like the sky above the horizon was on fire.  I tried to take it all in.  I just focused on the color, and the variations of colors.  It was quite enjoyable.

Related to Sensing Mind is what I would refer to as "Aesthetic Mind." There is a major difference between just seeing colors and seeing a Renaissance Botticelli of a Madonna and Child. Much more is coming into play in the mind besides color or even color and form.  When we see or listen to something which is complex, then a whole new level of beauty is added.

Music can range from the relatively simple delights of the sensing mind (the sound of birds, or a simple but pleasant childrens' song) to something quite complex and aesthetic.  I would suggest for example, listening to Barber's Adagio for Strings as an example.  Experiencing such a piece of music goes beyond pure sensing to something more, something transcendent.  And again, there is pleasure, and there is distraction from unpleasant emotions.

Note: In addition to seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting, there are internal sense states--proprioceptive and kinesthetic sense states. I want to acknowledge that there are some situations where paying attention to stimuli, particularly internal stimuli, might actually make things worse. For example, being aware of our internal sensations (such as heart racing, stomach churning, heavy breathing) can actually heighten anxiety during panic attacks. Being aware of some external stimuli (e.g., hearing people talking) might heighten anxiety or paranoia. I will deal with this problem a little later on in a different blog.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

State of Mind: Emotional Mind

I'm going to start by talking about emotional mind.  Why?  Because that is the place where many of my patients start.  They are wrestling with depression, anxiety, or anger.

In emotional mind we are taken hostage by our limbic systems and midbrain.  We ARE our anger; we ARE our anxiety, our depression, and so on.  It has taken us over lock, stock, and barrel.  We are now thinking through a primitive part of our brain.  We can be taken hostage by our anger, by our depression, by our fear, and so on.  These are all built into us for good reason.  But many of the original primal situations from "cave man" days, which required these feeling states, are rarely present.

Emotional reasoning is not advanced.  It is very instinctual and primitive.  It does not think rationally.  It may generate thoughts, e.g., "I'm going to fail this test," but the thoughts are not being generated logically.  The thoughts are being generated by the emotion, or more accurately, the thoughts are being generated by the emotional part of the brain.  They are thoughts in bondage to emotion, rather than emotions being subservient to logical thinking.

The experience of strong emotion is somewhat like a spasm.  Indeed, panic attacks have been likened to an anxiety spasm.  When we become enraged, we don't want to be calmed down.  In fact, telling someone who is enraged to calm down may be a sure way to make them angrier.  They don't want to calm down.  They often want to take out their rage on someone or on something. 

When we are in a panic state, we may not want to stay in a panic state, but we may feel absolutely frozen and stuck in it.

When we are mired in depression, we may want to get out of it, but we can be constantly bombarded by more and more negative thoughts which seem to prevent escape.  Even the thought of getting help may be batted down with a negative thought that "getting treatment won't help; my case is hopeless."

Emotions lead to negative thoughts, which lead to more painful emotions, which lead to more negative thoughts, and so on.  In negative emotional states, it is easier to remember incidences of shame and failure from our past.  It is harder to remember positive events from our past when we are depressed, and it is harder to anticipate positive events in our future.

When we are engaged in emotional mind, we believe that we are being realistic.  There is a feeling of certainty which comes from our emotions.   If we are angry, we believe that we are justified in our anger.  If we are panicked, we are sure that there is catastrophic danger.  If we are depressed, we believe that we are only being realistic.  Emotional mind does not want to "yield the floor" to other aspects of mind.  It does not want to admit to other possible ways of looking at situations.

Of course, not all emotions are negative.  There are very positive emotions, and joy is a positive aspect of mental health.  Joy does not coexist well with anger, depression, or anxiety.  Enhancing joy in our lives is one way of dealing with our negative emotions.  I have not included a mental state of "joyful mind,"  although that would certainly make sense.  It would make sense because we know that it exists.  We know that it is distinct from our negative emotions.  It is also relativelydistinct from our logical mind state and our observing mind state, although I would tend to associate it somewhat with sensing mind.  I will write more about joy in the blog on sensing mind.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Mindfulness: Wise Mind and Monkey Mind

Traditional mindfulness concepts include about "monkey mind" and "wise mind."  I cannot pretend to understand all that is meant by these two terms because my training is in cognitive therapy and not mindfulness therapy.

However, I believe that "monkey mind" involves much of the ceaseless, annoying chatter which can bubble up in our brains when we try to achieve calm, deliberative silence.  (Think of the jabber of monkeys in the trees.)  Wise mind is a compassionate, observing mind which can learn to ignore monkey mind.  There.  That ends my knowledge about the concepts.

However, in my work with clients I have come to understand that there are at more important states of mind that my clients need to understand--probably several more.  But let's start with the most important four.

First of all, there is emotional mind.  This state of mind occurs when we are dominated by our emotions: sadness, anger, grief, fear, panic, anxiety, jealousy, envy, and so on.  It is not all bad.  Grief is normal.  In fact, most emotions have some important place in life.  However, many patients consult with me because they are overwhelmed by their emotions and they need some new way of coping with them.  They want an alternative to emotional mind.

Emotional mind is probably associated most with the limbic system.  This is the midbrain, sometimes called reptilian brain.

What are the other three types of mind which can compete with "emotional mind?" They are observing mind, logical mind, and sensing mind.  Each of these provides an alternative to being submerged in our emotions.

Let's start here with observing mind.  This would most likely be associated with the pre-frontal cortex.  It is associated with the executive function of self-awareness.  When we are in the state of observing mind, we are aware of what is going on within us.  We can observe, in a somewhat detached way.  We can become aware that our anger is rising, or that we are feeling panicky.  We can be aware of our negative thinking, and we can watch it come and go.  We can see how our negative thinking is producing painful feelings, and vic versa.  We can also detach ourselves from our emotions.  When we are observing them, they do not have to stick to us.  They are simply clouds passing in the sky.  They come, and they go. 

Then there is logical mind.  This is the part of the mind which is trained the most by cognitive therapy.  If I fear that I am going to lose my job because the boss has been in a bad mood recently, my logical mind can realize that I am personalizing my boss's behavior and seeing it as aimed toward me.  Logical mind can realize that there is a very low rate of people being let go.  Logical mind can think about all of the written counseling procedures and safeguards which have to be accomplished before someone can be let go.

Finally, there is sensing mind.  No matter what I think may happen tomorrow, I am currently sitting at my computer.  I can feel the chair beneath me.  This morning, from where I was sitting, I could look up and see the colored spot lights.  Then later, I noticed the blue sky, and even the yellow stripes on the road.  My center shifted from logic and from emotions to heightening my awareness of what was coming in through my senses.  I became aware that I was hardly aware of the colors around me and that it was actually quite enjoyable to look at the colors of the world, even the man made world.

When we are submerged in emotional mind, these other three states of mind offer us alternatives.  We can observe the coming and going of our thoughts and feelings.  We can logically challenge any irrational negative thoughts which lead to the negative feelings.  Or we can simply focus on our senses and enjoy the world around us.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Mindfulness Concept #4: Detachment and Acceptance

This is a hard concept for people in the Western world.  We are very attached to our things.  We are attached to our goals.  We want what we want.  To be detached might be seen as some as apathetic, or even lazy or against progress. 

Detachment need not be any of these things.  Instead, it can be an acceptance of what is, coupled with a deliberate use of our wills to change what is into something more acceptable.

One problem is that often we assume that anything that isn't the way we want it, it needs to be changed.  This creates a lot of "targets" for change. 

Another problem when we don't detach is that we become burdened by many negative feelings during the day.

Albert Ellis wrote about this issue from a cognitive therapy point of view in his book, Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy:

Irrational Idea No. 5: The idea that human happiness is externally caused and that people have little or no ability to control their sorrows or disturbances. In contrast to this, Ellis argues the following:
  • Unless we are being physically or economically assaulted, other people actually have little power over us unless we tell ourselves that they do.
  • If we tell ourselves that we can't stand a situation, that is nonsense.  Unless we are being assaulted or deprivied of a necessity, then we can stand it.
  • It is difficult in our society for people to believe that they can actually change their emotional reactions to situations mainly because they rarely choose to do so and thus have little practice at it.
  • We may go from believing that something might reasonably be upsetting to believing that it should be upsetting, which would probably guarantee that it would be upsetting.
Detachment does not have to mean not caring.  It can mean instead an awareness that just because something is not the way we would very much want it to be, does not have to create a causal link, (imagine an iron chain of links, from the external event to our internal emotions).  We can choose to unlink the chain.  We can detach strong feelings from it.

The image of the teflon frying pan has been used by one teacher of mindfulness.  Someone can throw something at us, or life can throw something at us, and we can imagine holding up the teflon frying pan, almost like a suit of armor.  The messy substance being thrown hits the pan but does not stick to it.  It slides off.  In the same way, we can detach from unpleasant circumstances to a degree.  We can imagine holding up the frying pan and letting the "yuck" slide off onto the ground, leaving us unharmed.  It doesn't stick to us.  We are thus detached in a way, just like the teflon stays detached from the grime.  We can go on with the rest of the day with the same new feeling that hopefully we woke up with.  The ability to detach can give us some peace.

The opposite is to imagine an old worn out frying pan.  Everything sticks to it.  Perhaps overnight it was in the dishwasher, and it is clean.  But then each hour, or maybe even every minute, something gets thrown at us, and part of those situations stick to the frying pan, so that we quickly are carrying quite a bit of messy feelings with us throughout the day.