Using Williams & Penman's book "Mindfulness: a practical guide" as a self-help resource (3rd post) - first week's practice
Last updated on 12th January 2012
Time to roll up our sleeves and start turning Williams & Penman's book's "meditation recipes" into genuinely nourishing meals. I have already written a first blog post on why we have good reason to be optimistic about the benefits we can achieve with this kind of self-help venture. The second post encouraged us to get ready for the mindfulness practice. We are now at chapter five in the book - "Mindfulness week one: waking up to the autopilot".
The chapter's a fairly brief read at just over 20 pages long. Again, see if using a simple reflection sheet to jot down your reactions when reading the chapter seems to help you get more out of the material (and it gives you brief "revision notes" that you can always refer back to later). I would also encourage you to keep a record of your practice. The 3rd column of the record notes whether you are using the book's CD (cd) or just practising on your own (ncd). If you sometimes don't use the CD (ncd), then the "dur'n" query is for you to jot down approximately how many minutes you practised for. In my experience as a teacher of these kinds of skills, people vary with some continuing to use practice CD's over many years while others prefer to listen only while they learn the structure of the meditation exercise - after that they take themselves through the sequence rather than using the recording.
Taking yourself through the exercise is likely to be fine. In fact, there are very real advantages to being able to practise without being dependent on the recording. Remember though that a large slice of the benefit is carried by improvements in the mindfulness facets Non-Judge and Non-React. Mindfulness training is certainly about practising attending to what is occurring in the present (breath, body sensation, sound, thought, etc), but crucially it is also about practising reacting to our wandering mind with patience and kindness. It's as if we're going through a kind of inner parent-child training. Our "inner child" is being taught to get better at being present rather than wandering off into the past, future or other tangles of thinking. Our "inner parent" - often even more importantly - is being taught to respond to the "inner child's" wanderings with gentleness, compassion and encouragement. The recent research paper - "Self-compassion is a better predictor than mindfulness of symptom severity and quality of life in mixed anxiety and depression" - highlights that the "inner parent" aspect of mindfulness training is likely to be more powerful than the "inner child" aspect when it comes to improving anxiety and depression. Mark Williams's recordings do a very good job of teaching our inner, often over self-critical parent by modeling great patience, warmth & understanding.
The four exercises this first week of active practice involve "The raisin exercise", "Mindful awareness of a routine daily activity", "Mindfulness of the Body and Breath meditation twice a day" and a "Habit releaser". There is space on the back as well as the front of the downloadable practice record to write about these exercises. They are well described in chapter 5 of the book. I would just add three comments that I may well return to as we go through future weeks of this mindfulness training. One is about posture. Early in the "Mindfulness of the Body and Breath meditation" recording, Mark requests that we sit "so that your posture supports your intention to be awake and aware ... dignified but comfortable, not stiff or tensed up." Posture and facial expression profoundly affect how we think, feel and act - much more so than most of us realise. There are a series of three blog posts on recent research in this fascinating area beginning with "Embodied cognition: posture & feelings". Please understand that the interactions between body and mind are very much a two way street. As we train our attention to be better at being present and our "inner parent" to be more patient, kind & encouraging, we will deeply affect the tensions in our bodies and our postures and facial expressions. Similarly, as we learn to come back repeatedly to more open, upright, relaxed postures with our faces peaceful and at ease, so we will deeply affect our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
A second brief point is about the way mindfulness training can sometimes be a bit coy and confusing over the relevance of relaxation. It is true that the key aims of this "inner parent-child training" are not about learning to be more relaxed. However, although the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommend mindfulness training as an evidence-based method of reducing depressive relapse risk, it is applied relaxation - not mindfulness - that they highlight as an evidence-based method for generalized anxiety. In my experience a good way to marry these two overlapping approaches is to encourage meditators to be aware of the state of their body and not to try to change anything ... but not to try to hold on to anything either. If we notice there is tightness, it is because at some level we are actively tensing these muscles. We don't have to do this. Once we see where we are holding tight, we can give ourselves permission to just let be, let go, not go on doing this to ourselves. So mindfulness and relaxation marry by becoming aware of physical tensions and realising that we don't have to hold tight any more, we can just be ... peaceful, quiet, at ease.
And the third comment is that coming back to our bodies is, at a core level, about coming back to ourselves. I've talked before about the great neuroscientist Antonio Damasio's emphasis on the body as central to our sense of self. I wrote about this last winter quoting Damasio saying "Of the ideas advanced in this book (Self comes to mind), none is more central than the notion that the body is a foundation of the conscious mind ... the special kind of mental images of the body produced in body-mapping structures, constitute the protoself, which foreshadows the self to be ... the body is best conceived as the rock on which the protoself is built, while the protoself is the pivot around which the conscious mind turns." And he goes on to say "I hypothesize that the first and most elementary product of the protoself is primordial feelings, which occur spontaneously and continuously whenever one is awake. They provide a direct experience of one's own living body, wordless, unadorned, and connected to nothing but sheer existence ... all feelings of emotion are complex musical variations on primordial feelings." I've been meditating regularly for forty years. A while ago I was asked what it was doing for me and I realised it was hard to know as it was something I'd done for so long. I tried stopping meditation for some weeks to see what happened. I wasn't aware of feeling any more stressed. The experience was stranger than that ... I felt as if I'd been "locked out of my house". It was good to restart the practice. Damasio's comments chime with my own subjective experience.
Good luck with this week's practice and when you're through, see next week's blog "Using Williams & Penman's book ... as a self-help resource (4th post) - second week's practice".