I had always successfully negotiated life – until about nine years ago. A career in banking followed university, and then I took a complete change of direction to begin running a church. However, about seven years into this new venture I was facing burnout. It had crept up on me out of my awareness.
One particular day I was going into Roehampton University where I was studying counselling and psychotherapy part-time and I felt as though I was falling apart. It felt as though there was nothing I could do about it. Like many men, I didn’t think I could talk about it with anyone.
Fortunately, one of the lecturers noticed and took me aside for half an hour. She knew what was going on inside me, even if I didn’t. Her mindful attention glued me back together.
This opened my eyes to the possibility of how a mindful, aware person can help another. I had come across mindfulness as a concept in secular psychology through my training, but I started to practise it.
Mindfulness saved my life; I think it might save yours, too. But what is it?
Mindfulness is the universal human capacity for awareness and attention in the present moment. It needs to be distinguished from the mindful awareness or meditative practices that help us to become more mindful in each moment. It is the centre of gravity of our ability to understand and find meaning in our lives. Every human being also has the capacity to be mindless.
Apparently, more women than men sign up for mindfulness courses, which is one reason why I am writing this article. Mindfulness has been found to help those who suffer from stress, depression, anxiety, anger, relationship difficulties, sexual difficulties and much more. It is a highly relevant way in which men can retrain their minds. It also enables us to find the creative places within, and it is being used positively in business and other activities.
As men, we still like the idea of bushcraft, the skills that Ray Mears or Bear Grylls teach us. Mindfulness is bushcraft of the soul. It is about being a tracker, someone who is aware and attentive enough to follow the tracks of real living.
What is it, though, that we are tracking, and how do we do it?
One definition identifies three key components: intention, attention and attitude.
It begins with the idea of intention. If I am suffering, for example, from recurrent depression, like many well-known sportsmen, then Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) might be recommended for me. This is very effective in treating depression. My intention in using the mindful awareness or meditative practices within MBCT would be to lift myself out of depression.
But it is not just about bringing us out of a psychologically distressed place; mindfulness can also help us find a place of inner freedom and creativity, a place where we are really alive. And so our intention in developing our own mindfulness through meditative practices might be about living life in all its fullness. Novak Djokavic uses mindfulness to help him when he plays tennis.
I am practising two tracking skills when I follow these mindful awareness practices – practices such as paying attention to my breath, a body scan, mindful eating or mindful walking. These are the key elements in the second component of mindfulness, which is about paying attention.
The first of these tracking skills is the ability to focus my attention. I focus my attention on my breath. My mind wanders. I notice what my mind wanders to – often negative, ruminative stories that automatically run my life – and switch my attention back to my breath.
Within other mindful awareness practices such as the body scan, I am also practising open awareness. Focused attention is like a narrow beam of light from a torch; open awareness is like a broad beam. If you ever watch the night sky you can practise focused attention by looking intentionally at one star, or a constellation. But you can also open your awareness to take in the whole night sky.
One of the problems with watching the night sky in London is the light pollution – that makes it difficult to see clearly. This is true of the night sky of our minds. We don’t see clearly. We think our thoughts are a direct readout of reality, but they are not. Also we are often looking at life from our thoughts, which, if they are negative and distorted, cause us psychological distress. We need to learn to look at our thoughts, observe them, track them and let them go. In this way our own inner light pollution begins to dissolve and we are able to see more clearly.
What is actually happening when we partake in these mindful awareness practices? Another way of looking at it is to say that we are shifting mental gears. We are shifting from the ‘doing’ mental gear, which is all about rational critical thinking, to the ‘being’ mental gear, which is about coming to our senses and moving to a place of awareness. We live in a culture and work environment that is often virtual, all about computer-based experience. This means we are often stuck in our heads and not really in touch with our bodies.
We are like trawlers that over-fish certain areas of the sea. We are over-fishing the ‘doing’ part of our minds, and then wonder why we no longer find creative thoughts swimming around.
The ‘doing’ mental gear is helpful for solving many problems, but it doesn’t work with afflictive thoughts and emotions like anger. How we are feeling needs to be dealt with through the ‘being’ mental gear. When we shift into the ‘being’ mental gear and focus on how we are, we find that these negative thoughts, feelings and sensations dissolve in our awareness.
The reality is that I am not my thoughts and feelings; I am bigger than they are. My thoughts and feelings are not bricks in a wall that close me in, but they are passing events in my mind. My mind is like the sky and thoughts and feelings are like clouds that come and go.
We have some beautiful chillies growing in our bathroom, and when I look at them it makes me think of different people’s reactions to these spicy plants. I am looking forward to attending an international evening soon where a range of curries from Asia and Africa will be available – all of them spiced with chilli. Some people will avoid the curries. Others will ask ‘which is the mild one?’ And some will ask, ‘Where is the really hot one?’
Sometimes our thoughts and feelings can be a bit like a red-hot chilli – something we try and avoid. However, mindfulness faces, tastes and dissolves the thoughts and feelings we try to avoid. And a bit like eating curry, the more we do this, our tolerance to the more painful thoughts and feelings increases. As we are exposed to the taste of curries, we can begin to experiment with hotter ones. As we are exposed to the taste of our sharper thoughts and feelings, we can tolerate more and more painful ones, rather than avoid them. By facing them and tasting them, the amazing truth is that they begin to dissolve and lose their afflictive power in our lives.
This brings us to the third component of mindfulness. We have looked at the intention behind using the mindful awareness practices. I might use mindfulness for health, to come out of depression, anxiety or stress. I might use it to find a creative place within. I might use it for spiritual reasons, to come into an awareness of God’s presence.
We have looked at the second component which is about attention – learning both to focus our attention and open our awareness.
The third component is about our attitude towards ourselves. It is about paying attention to ourselves in a compassionate, non-judgemental way.
Very often we are critical and judgmental towards our inner self – we beat ourselves up, often automatically and out of our awareness. Stuck in the ‘doing’ mental gear, we see the gap between where we are and where we want to be and try to bridge the gap with ruminative thinking. This ruminative thinking often comes with conditional goals – ‘I will only be happy if I never have a depressed thought.’
This is where we come to the question of change, of transformation. The mindful awareness practices, like attending to your breath, move us from the ‘doing’ mental gear to ‘being’, from critical thinking to awareness. But they also bring about change for the better in the structure and activity in our brains. Neuroscientific research shows that the part of our brain that is responsible for compassion, empathy and relational attunement is enhanced both in activity and structure. The part of our brain responsible for our fight and flight response becomes less hypersensitive.
This can be illustrated with a metaphor. At one time fishermen (generally men) would go out in their boats (‘doing’ mental gear). When they came back they would sit down to mend and stretch their nets (‘being’ mental gear) because in the sea-water the nets would shrink and break, and things would snag on them.
Many men no longer work with their hands, but even if we do, our most important tool is the net of our minds. When we go out into our competitive stressful work environment, these nets shrink, through stress, fear, anger. Ruminative negative patterns of thinking snag in the nets of our minds. Just like the fishermen of old, we need to stop each day and attend to the nets of our minds. We need to re-stretch them through mindful awareness practices; we need to unsnag ourselves from the negative ruminative patterns. The nets of our minds are the most important tool we have.
Mindfulness is also like a muscle. Like all muscles, it needs training and exercise; without that it loses its strength and shrinks.
If you are suffering from stress or are close to burnout, signing up for a mindfulness course is a great first step. For more clinical conditions such as depression we also need to refer ourselves to our doctor to obtain help, but make sure you mention mindfulness as part of that. However, it is not just about mindfulness for health; many of us have untapped creative capabilities which mindfulness can unlock. This can transform our working life and our personal life.
Mindfulness is increasing exponentially in mental health, in the worlds of education, work and many other areas. The centre of gravity of awareness and attention was discovered very early on in all the faith traditions, and they will all have their own version of being mindful. The world of cognitive psychology and neuroscience is now confirming, exploring and adding its own versions of mindfulness. It is the new social phenomenon that is not going away. Men should be part of it.
How do we enter the doorway of the present moment? One of the ways is by answering a riddle, says contemplative writer Martin Laird.
One of the riddles he sets is this, ‘What do thoughts and feelings appear in?’ (‘Into The Silent Land’, p.80). When I ask people that question, many people can’t answer it. The answer Martin Laird gives, based on his study of Christian contemplative writers is that our thoughts and feelings appear in awareness (p.88).
Now this is affirmed by cognitive psychology and neuroscience. J. Mark G. Williams and Jon Kabat-Zinn summarize this beautifully in their introduction in the book ‘Mindfulness: Diverse Perspectives on its Meaning, Origins and Applications,’ jointly edited by them.
They define mindfulness as awareness, ‘an entirely different and one might say, larger capacity than thought, since any and all thought and emotion can be held in awareness.’ (p.15) This is something we need to become aware of. But as they go on to say, ‘While we get a great deal of training in our education systems in thinking of all kinds, we have almost no exposure to the cultivation of intimacy with that other innate capacity of ours that we call awareness.’ (p.15)
This is why people struggle to answer the riddle, ‘what do thoughts and feelings appear in?’ Williams and Kabat-Zinn go on to say, ‘Awareness is virtually transparent to us. We tend to be unaware of our awareness. We so easily take it for granted.’ (p.15) And yet it is one of our most important innate capacities.
As they conclude, ‘It rarely occurs to us that it is possible to systematically explore and refine our relationship to awareness itself, or that it can be ‘inhabited’.’ (p.15) Mindfulness is awareness but mindful practices can help us systematically ‘explore and refine our relationship to awareness’ so that it can be ‘inhabited.’