Monday, February 18, 2013

A Mind like Georgia O'Keeffe

Miranda, my Mindfulness teacher, sent me an e-mail: Would I consider writing a 300-word article on Mindfulness that she and her partner could print in the newsletter for their practice--and possibly in  local newspapers to encourage business? Being a Mindfulness Evangelist, how could I refuse?

But at the same time as I'm trying to figure out how I can convey the multifaceted splendour of mindfulness in 300 words, there's another track playing, courtesy of my old friend, the Living Anachronism (LA) who writes in an e-mail,
     " for this mindfulness (which sounds to me as if it might as well be called bodyfulness, but never mind) I'd say if having a mindful mind is opposed to the imagination, then the hell with it.  And for what it's worth, if you ask me, regret about the past and anxiety about the future are hallmarks of human sanity, and neither one need detract in the slightest from appreciation and enjoyment of the present moment.
Georgia O'Keeffe's Pattern of Leaves
     "Indeed, I don't think you can experience a present moment at all except from the point of view of everything in the past that has shaped you and brought you to that moment.  Cf. Georgia O'Keefe's comment (in a recent Writer's Almanac) here: 'I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life — and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.' ..."
LA threatens further to excoriate "the idea that the past is a 'contamination' to be escaped from, and much else relating to your blog..." Possibly he didn't appreciate that I use the term "Living Anachronism" with great affection and respect.

In any case, when I think about Alzheimer's disease, I realize LA might have a point. Alzheimer's is a disease that frees you from the past. As the hippocampus of your brain becomes clogged with amyloid and tangled with tau protein, memories get progressively stripped away, working backwards in time. From the magazine article you just read, to forgetting the bacon sizzling on the burner. From the fact that your taxes were due last month, to losing track of an insurance policy purchased a year ago. From no longer knowing that you once rose to power in the Women's Institute over a decade, to the fact that your spouse has been dead for 20 years. Your daughter's name; recognition of her face; even awareness that you have a daughter. All gone--leaving only the present. An Alzheimer's researcher I interviewed once told me that families of Alzheimer's victims often say that in the late stages of the disease, their loved one may be alive, but the person is gone. If mindfulness meant effacing the past like Alzheimer's does, LA would be right. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy, much less be fumbling around for a 300-word Mindfulness Paean.

I'm not a mindfulness expert, but I'd say mindfulness doesn't erase the past, it just helps the You of this moment wrest control over the nature and extent of the past's influence. Georgia O'Keeffe must have been a naturally mindful person, as she had such firm control over her anxieties that they never interfered with doing what she wanted to do. (In general I see artists as being people who can get "lost in the present"-- wrapped up in the "flow" of what they are doing -- and, at least at those times, accomplishing one goal of mindfulness.)

Similarly, mindfulness doesn't discourage intentional planning for the future  -- but rather pushes you to a perspective that affords more room for pleasant anticipation and less for fearful anxiety. Mindfulness doesn't -- nothing really can -- prevent feelings about either past or future. But in nudging your vantage point, it opens up a bit of breathing space in your brain (what I might call "equipause"). The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course encourages you to bring self-compassion into the space. But you could just as well invite other guests--distraction, inspiration, hope, rational thought, or other intentional responses. Any desired companion instead of automatic, sometimes disabling or pathological reactions. Mindfulness makes inclusion of regret or anxiety an intentional choice.

People in meltdown from the stress of fast-paced contemporary life, or immobilized by depression, PTSD, loss, or pain are not Georgia O'Keeffes. Thinking about these conditions, I would rewrite LA's phrase: Mindful, intentional incorporation of regret about the past and anxiety about the future are hallmarks of human sanity.

Or, as an article in the HuffPost Healthy Living column says,
"mindfulness meditation works by enabling a person to have better control over brain processing of pain and emotions."
Mindful meditation practices are indeed about bringing your mind back to the present. Over. And over. And over. A "Walking Meditation," for example, urges you to focus your brain for 10 minutes or so on each sensation of every excruciatingly slow step. This and the seated meditation's focus on breathing, or the "Body Scan" are indeed "bodyfulness."

I think these practices are directed to the body because it is the most convenient and physiologically conspicuous thing our minds can focus on. Other mindful practices direct your awareness to sound -- or silence--as it arrives; or to each passing thought. To the extent possible, you just notice these without engaging--maybe without even putting words around them.  If you fall asleep or follow your imagination off into the clouds and the practice doesn't go as planned, well, that's just what your experience was. You hold yourself in the same kindly regard you would a loved one.

That's what the practices, the mindfulness meditations entail. If you're diligent, it's 20 minutes of your day. The practices may bring a wonderful island of calm. But that's not actually the point. The meditations aren't an end in themselves. The point of the exercises, I think, is strengthening your ability to control your mind constructively.

The consequences, studies find, are not suppressed imagination, but the opposite -- improved imagination and creativity. Most famously, the high-stress workplace that is Google headquarters continuously offers its employees a mindfulness course, and there is always a waiting list for places in it. Google's "Search Inside Yourself" class improves productivity, relationships, creativity, and decreases stress, conflict, absenteeism, and employee turnover. The U.S. Marines are testing Mindfulness courses as a sort of brain fitness training or mental armour to help troops "react to high-stress situations and recover more quickly from those episodes."

Fortuitously, the current mindfulness craze coincides with the rise of neuroimaging and brian mapping. This has enabled researchers to document changes in the structure and function of the brain that accompany Mindfulness training. Extraordinary and marvelous, if you ask me. As I was writing this blog, the HuffPosting I quote above led me to  a research article that exemplifies the academic marriage of behavioral psychology and neurophysiology and imaging. One of the lead authors of the study is quoted:
"We think we're the first group to propose an underlying neurophysiological mechanism that directly links the actual practice of mindful awareness of breath and body sensations to the kinds of cognitive and emotional benefits that mindfulness confers," study researcher Catherine Kerr, an assistant professor of family medicine and director of translational neuroscience for the Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown University, said..."
Using a brain mapping technique, the researchers identified changes in brain signals that develop as a person trains in Mindfulness™(or "Standardized Mindfulness,"ST-Mindfulness, as they write). Ultimately, the increased calming alpha-waves they detected may lead to changes in the structure of different parts of the brain and how and to what the brain pays attention. The abstract of the article concludes, "This enhanced regulation of somatic mind-wandering may be an important early stage of mindfulness training that leads to enhanced cognitive regulation and metacognition."

Or, in other words, the practice of bringing your mind back to the present--focused 'bodyfulness'--may ultimately improve your power to direct your thoughts, and perhaps rise above your emotions to choose how they will affect your life.

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