In respect to such things as “emotional regulation”, impulse control, distractibility and the like, some people say “it’s just human nature.. I don’t believe I really can control it……”

Well, in fact we are regulating and “controlling” our so called human nature all the time. It is of our nature to be able to do this as we have developed the capacity for “self awareness” which is currently thought to be a unique quality of humans. Without this capacity for self-regulation and awareness we would simply be eating off others’ plates just because we’re hungry or doing all sorts of other things in response to the threat / reward systems encoded in older regions of our brain.

What has happened is that our social structures, which are learned and change over time, dictate, how we “need” to exercise self-regulatory capacity. In other words the old brain faculty of moving away from threat and towards reward are modified by new brain learning to be far removed from the their evolutionary mandate of helping us survive in a “tribal” society.  In such a society, a greater percentage of our perceived threats were existential rather than psychologically installed through our involvement in social and cultural institutions with their languages and practices.

Once these learnings are installed, our mind travels again and again down the mental highways which are compelled by them. In the same way as we are able to walk automatically without being aware of any “memories of how to do it being accessed” thought processes arising from sensory stimuli then become automatic, assumptions subconsciously held become “truths” which are never questioned and through these our “subjective experience” of the phenomenal world is created (by us). It’s like “rules of engagement”. If x occurs, I will think, feel and then do y. Totally automatic. If you look at me like this then I will assume that. And if I assume that then I must behave like this. All driven by stories about what we need to survive, thrive and be happy, most of which are not, in any absolute sense, true.

The root of many of our psychological disorders are grounded in the “learned” expectations resulting from these early inputs. We become “wounded” or “traumatised” when our emerging sense of self / safety is “violated” or undermined. We become gripped by guilt or shame when we make mistakes, miss out on promotions, upset others or in other ways don’t conform to some expectations installed by our parents, families, friends or whatever society we live in.

Such is nature of the “spaghetti” in the mind which cannot be untangled using the usual thought processes. The practices resulting in the cultivation of mindfulness (“mindfulness practices”) bring awareness to all of this. This awareness gradually softens the spaghetti until it, simply, unravels. We then are able to see clearly and make more skilful choices relative to our genuine, authentic goals and we can be integral to who we are at our essential core.

There has been much written in recent years dealing with the neuroscience of meditation, particularly the practice of what has become known as “mindfulness meditation “. I myself, given my scientific orientation, am personally inspired by this work and the recent science certainly does inspire people to get in to the practice. Despite all the recent literature dealing with the scientific benefits of practice, there has not been enough attention to what happens over time with an individual’s “subjective experience” of the world. For some, a knowledge of what happens subjectively will also inspire practice. It is certainly this which causes people to remain engaged with the practice over time. The science might inspire people to begin practice and their experience, among other things with respect to the development of insight leading to a sense of well-being, calm-under-fire and resilience, will keep them at it. …

It is my opinion that many meditation texts (and teachers) over complicate what is essentially a very simple set of practices. When this happens, we can set our students up for “failure” (in the sense that they give up, thinking that they can’t “do the practice” as it’s “supposed” to be done! The practices are, in fact, simple if we just allow the experience to unfold on its own, without “wanting” things to happen, and bring our awareness to the unfolding experience as it happens, allowing it all in, including the difficulties that may arise (more on these in later articles). Challenges arise when we “try” too hard. As an example, for some, relaxation is impossible by “trying” to relax, in the same way as falling asleep is impossible when we “try” to sleep. Rather than trying to relax, simply cultivate a mental strategy of “surrender”. I like Alan Wallace’s phrase “allow yourself to surrender muscles to gravity”. Don’t “try”, simply allow. Then the unfolding of the “spaghetti in the mind” will occur naturally. Trying simply tightens it more!

Noticing the contact with a sense object (initially, the breath) followed by the noticing of the initial feeling tone unhooks us from being subject to the continuous chatter of the “midstream” (what scientists call the “default network”). By default, our conditioned (almost hard wired) patterns or habits of mind will race us past the various doors that awareness allows us to walk through. I often speak about these habits as the “autopilot superhighway” of our habitual reactions. The opportunities and choices that we often miss but which Mindfulness brings to us I refer to as the “exit signs”. Once on the highway these exits are often not available to us and we miss them. We are then “in the grip” of our hidden patterns, goals and commitments being subject to our deeply held beliefs and assumptions about how things are. These are proven to be very unreliable.

As an example of how this works, imagine you are trying to cultivate the skill of “listening”, but have a habit of talking too much or interrupting people (in my coaching work I find this a very common topic). You may have been on a communication skills workshop and may have been given feedback that this is a development opportunity for you. You therefore have the “skill” and probably the “will” to make the change. The problem is that you forget, in the moment when you need to choose, to practice controlling the impulse to interrupt, that there is now an opportunity to practice this. You have already blurted out your interruption before you even noticed the chance to reserve your speech. You have missed the exit sign off the highway to the new behavioural road (which, for a while, is a very minor road which needs to be widened with use (practice) so it becomes more noticeable as you approach it)..

Mindfulness gradually enhances our connection with both what is in our experience in a moment (e.g. “I am feeling that I want to interrupt”) and at the same time enhances our peripheral awareness of our various authentic goals (“I wish to show up as a patient leader who allows others to speak”) so that we can make a conscious choice and practice an alternative way of thinking and behaving.

So what happens, subjectively, as we practice?

At the beginning, we simply focus our attention on our breathing. With full awareness we simply observe breathing following the full passage of each in-breath and each out-breath. Noticing what happens in between the in and out-breaths. This is not “thinking about” or visualising the breath, it’s simply being aware of it. Noticing that we are breathing (I quite like the metaphor “entering the current of the breathing”). Bringing this awareness to the breath, we will notice it calming over time. Sometimes a few minutes, sometimes (much) longer. But whether the breath calms or whether it doesn’t, we simply notice the breath. Neither wanting it to calm nor not wanting. Just noticing the breath exactly as it is! Breath by breath.

There will be difficulties. These fall into 5 broad categories. Such things as distractions, regrets, boredom, anxiety, body sensations etc which I will cover in later chapters. The only goal, which is easier said than done, is to notice these. When we do, we are, at that moment, able to escort our attention back to the breath, refraining, as best we can, from judging the experience or ourselves, simply noticing, non-reactively, and redirecting attention. Sometimes it can help to say, softly, to oneself, e.g. “Ah – there’s thinking”, or, “there’s discomfort” or, even, “there’s thinking about discomfort” .. just before redirecting attention back to the breath. Cultivating the mental attitude of “non-reactivity” or “impulse control”, we just, simply, watch. Sitting with absolute stillness, like a mountain. Calm, present and grounded.

Once we settle into the practice, over time we will become better able to bring awareness to these difficulties or “hindrances” as they arise. As we continue to practice, a number of realisations or “noticing” will naturally occur, on their own, over time. You don’t need to do anything, these noticing simply unfold on their own and along with them, comes insight. It is the “doing mind” that is the most common thing that gets in the way of these openings or insights occurring. That problem solving mind that uis always striving, wanting things to be different from the way they are. Resisting what is!. As difficult as this is to accept given the conditioning of the modern world, the practice of mindfulness is not the time to be goal oriented. The promised benefits of practice accrue to those who can learn simply to “trust the process” , without and allow what is to “just be”, without the resistance which sets up impulses and immediate reactions. Just being the witness of your experience is the practice!

How much time these “realisations” take purely depends on he individual, how disciplined she is and how well she is able to notice and work with the “difficulties” described above, more of which I will say in later postings.

The benefits of following the sequential practices of mindfulness unfold inexorably for those who practice with discipline and without “short cutting”. For most, especially those who are used to a very busy “always-on” lifestyle where there is always something to do or to strive for, it can take some time before the “doing mind” begins to calm and attention to “what is” (initially the sensations of the breath) sharpens and stabilises. Whatever your current “default” state of mind, whether calm or “skittish”, whether focused or distractible, the promised benefits will accrue steadily and inexorably to those who persist with the practice over the course of days, months and years, weaving the practice into daily life as a regular “mental hygiene” activity and noticing the opportunities to practice while moving in dual life and work (see later article on “Life as a Practice”).

For most, the first thing one will notice is attention deepening and a greater ability to engage and then sustain the attention on whatever is needed (while in practice and while in life generally). Once this has happened in formal practice, attention can be allowed to expand naturally to include the whole body and the myriad sensations that arise therein. We then bring attention to these sensations, breathing with the whole body, and noticing what arises in the somatic field with non reactive, non resisting, curious, clear, attention.

With this, the whole body calms and settles into its “natural state” of effortless ease. Once we notice the feelings in the body, we then begin to notice our automatic mental reactions to those feelings. We also begin to notices the feelings in the body associated with distractions, including thoughts arising. We notice patterns of resistance, of “wanting” and “not wanting”. We notice how the automatic label of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral leads, almost immediately, to thoughts and emotions, which themselves often lead to an automatic cascade of other thoughts and emotions (feelings in the body), until a whole “experience” is created. This noticing leads us, naturally, into an exploration of the mind, which creates or manufactures all these reactions based in its habits and patterns.

Continuing our practice, the mind becomes ever more clear, sharp and attentive. We are able to engage and better sustain attention at will to whatever “object of attention” we would like to. We are able to do this without experiencing boredom and dullness or its opposite, excitation and distraction. These are all, simply, experiences to be observed with curiosity. The mind had now become a sharper instrument which we are able to turn inward, able to look at the mind and the phenomena arising within with clear attention. These mental phenomena are now seen in high resolution and the causes and conditions preceding such phenomena are revealed. We come to know that the habitual patterns of reaction of our mind to phenomena arising are due to our individual conditioning. Due to repeated mental habits, stories and assumptions we are carrying about the way the world is which get strengthened each time our mind travels the same path.

We see the relationship between these conditioned patterns and our “subjective experience” (i.e. the way life “feels” to us in a particular moment). We come to know that our stories, assumptions and conditioning are, just, that. We see, for ourselves, that these are not, in any absolute sense, true. With such knowing begins the process of perspective taking, wisdom and, ultimately, freedom from the patterns that “have us” in their grip.

Initially such knowing is transient. One might call these fleeting moments “glimpses of freedom”. With continuing practice and awareness, this knowing become more integrated across more contexts of life. The glimpses begin to merge into each other and familiar situations and patterns begin to be seen in new, liberating, ways. We better notice our reactive patterns and can introduce choice of reaction borne out of curiosity and awareness (particularly of that very experience). Challenging previously fixed assumptions and stories, we begin to see that we are not our emotions, that rather than “being angry” we, instead, recognise that we are having a physiological experience. We know that this experience is impermanent, like everything else, and that it will pass.

More choice of reaction becomes evident and contentment and well being naturally increase. At work, we find we are becoming kinder, more patient and skilful with our emotions, judgments and reactions to others and to situations arising. We better see what we can control and what we need to accept and let be. With the burden of rumination and projection released, we find have time to focus on what we can really influence, right here, right now. We are, simply, more present.

At the same time, there becomes more and more connection to what life is “up to” with us. Clarity arises about what it is one is committed to and one is able to hold this in attention for more “moments of choice”. There arises a more powerful and sustained connection with how it is one would like to “show up” in various different contexts and roles of life, becoming more aware of “leakage” and more able to choose responses when leakage occurs (respond rather than react).

At the same time, with a greater sense of ease, creativity is enhanced. With an uncluttered and “quiet” mind wthe “whispers” coming from subconscious creative processes can be better heard.

With continued practice, there is a realisation that the mind, then, no longer “has you”! you are, finally, free! The master of your mind!

Good luck with your practice.