An early 21st century word in the news recently is selfie. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as follows:
‘a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.’
It is often perceived to be narcissistic, a photo taken with the lens of the ego. But it is not a new phenomenon, it is an outer reflection of something that happens internally all the time. We are constantly taking ‘selfies’ in our minds. But we don’t just take them with the lens of the ego.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a mindfulness incorporating therapy talks about cognitive fusion, where we look at life from our thoughts. Each thought can be a little selfie. Here are some examples from Steven C. Hayes book Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life (p.57):
- I am so depressed
- I am so anxious
- I am so tired of being in constant pain
The problem with this as Steven Hayes points out is ‘Cognitive fusion means you are taking these statements as literal truths and, eventually you begin to believe that you, in fact, are your pain.’ (p.57).
The antidote is to look at your thoughts rather than look at life from your thoughts. This is cognitive defusion. If we look at our thoughts and say ‘I am having the feeling of sadness’ (p.75), this is a more accurate picture of reality than the fused selfie ‘I am sad.’
As we step back and observe our thoughts we disarm them and they begin to dissolve. This is part of being mindful. The central insight of mindfulness, from the perspective of secular psychology, Buddhism or Christianity is the realisation that I am not my thoughts, that I am bigger than my thoughts, that my thoughts are just passing events in the mind.
So we can say the following:
- mindfulness is not a selfie taken through the lens of ego it is a reperceiving of the self taken through the lens of awareness
- mindfulness is not a selfie taken through the lens of self-hatred it is a reperceiving of the self taken through the lens of mindful compassion
- mindfulness is not a selfie taken through the lens of anxiety it is a reperceiving of the self taken through the lens of cognitive defusion
Our culture’s current preoccupation with selfies is a sign that we need mindfulness and mindful awareness practices.
The tree of mindfulness research and therapies is growing rapidly. It is hard to keep up-to-date with all the developments as they happen. But we can start somewhere. Important work is being done to arrive at consensus on such matters as defining mindfulness, and I’ll come back to that another time. In the meantime here are some definitions.
Mindfulness means different things. It is only fully understood by examining its historical situatedness. Mindfulness within most Western clinical practice has Buddhist roots, although it is not exclusive to Buddhist thought. Mindfulness in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) has a different topography deriving from Christian contemplative practices and Zen Buddhism (Lynch & Bronner, 2006).
Kabat-Zinn pioneered the use of mindfulness through Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) defining it as “the way of awareness” (2008, p. 19). Brantley, also an MBSR practitioner, calls mindfulness a “basic human quality” (2007, p. 4). It is a human quality based on inner capacities for relaxation, paying attention, awareness, and insight (Brantley, 2007). Brantley further defines mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, nonjudgmentally, and with a welcoming and allowing attitude. It means turning towards present-moment experience rather than away from it” (2007, p. 5).
Mindfulness meditation is different from other meditative techniques (Brantley, 2007). Brantley states that “Mindfulness is an awareness that is not thinking” (2007, p. 52). This is underlined by meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg who says “Mindfulness is often likened to a mirror; it simply reflects what is there. It is not a process of thinking; it is preconceptual, before thought”.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) talks about shifting mental gears from Doing to Being: ‘Mindful awareness -or mindfulness – spontaneously arises out of this Being mode when we learn to pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment, to things as they actually are’ (Mark Williams & Danny Penman, Mindfulness: a practical guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World (p.35).
Mindfulness in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) is defined as “learning to see your thoughts in a new way” (Hayes, 2005, p. 6). Mindfulness in DBT is defined as “a state or quality of awareness that involves keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality” (Lynch & Bronner, 2006, p. 218).
Mindfulness as a universal human capacity needs to be distinguished from the meditative or mindful awareness practices that cultivate mindfulness, like paying attention to your breath, eating a raisin (or chocolate) mindfully etc. Most of these mindful awareness practices are ‘reality-focused’, they have no religous or spiritual component.
In the Being mode we learn to see differently, ‘It’s a different way of knowing that allows you to see how your mind tends to distort ‘reality’ ‘ (Williams & Penman, p. 35). These four treatments, MBSR, MBCT, ACT and DBT are the four main therapies out of many that are now incorporating mindfulness or are based on mindfulness.
I am also interested in mindfulness as it appears in Christianity, as well as in Buddhism. A very good introduction to mindfulness within psychology is Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. This is especially true because if mindfulness is to be truly understood, I think it needs to be practiced – and this book helps you do that, as well as understand your mind.
Mindfulness needs to be understood and practiced and reflected upon. Christians need to engage with it as they have some important distinctives to talk about, including mindfulness of God.
Here are some other books that I have referred to, or will refer to.
Baer, R. A., (2006). Mindfulness-based treatment approaches. Burlington: Academic Press.
Baer, R. A., & Krietemeyer, J. (2006). Overview of mindfulness and acceptance-based treatment approaches. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches (pp. 3–27). Burlington: Academic Press.
Brantley, J. (2007). Calming your anxious mind. California: Harbinger Publications Inc.
Dahl, J., & Lundgren, T. (2006). Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) in the treatment of chronic pain. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches (pp. 285–305). Burlington: Academic Press.
Hayes, S.C. (2005) Get out of your mind and into your life: The new acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland: Harbinger Publications Inc.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2008). Full catastrophe living. London: Piatkus Books.
Lynch, T. R., & Bronner, L. L. (2006). Mindfulness and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT): application with depressed older adults with personality disorders. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches (pp. 217–236). Burlington: Academic Press.
Segal, Z., Williams, M., & Teasdale, J., (2002). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression. London, The Guilford Press.