This year’s Men’s MOT Week is in aid of the wonderful work at CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably). Here, one of their writers, Fabio Zucchelli, explains how a little mindfulness can go a long way!
As a veteran sufferer of depression I have clocked up more therapy hours than most. The gamut of therapies I’ve undertaken has included Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Psychodynamic therapy, Cognitive Analytical Therapy, and Solution-focussed therapy where the therapist is trained to ask ‘and what do you need to do in order to make that happen?’ to every utterance you make.
Each form of traditional psychological therapy has its merits, and different people buy into different approaches. One thing that has clearly emerged though, is that the main determining factor for the effectiveness of any therapy is the quality of the therapeutic relationship. So to a certain extent it’s kind of irrelevant which form is adopted, you just need a good therapist or at least one who doesn’t remind you of your mother.
One approach that largely manages to circumvent this issue is mindfulness. Many proponents of mindfulness don’t even like to think of it as a ‘therapy’, and having explored the concept in some depth now, it’s quite clear why. Unlike other approaches, a core understanding of the theory and application of mindfulness can be garnered without the need to turn up every week to meet a mental professional for an hour at a time. It can simply be thought of as a brain training programme, although it’s not currently available on Nintendo DS as far as I’m aware.
So what is mindfulness?
It’s a form of meditation essentially. If you’re now thinking ‘Ah bloody hell, I was worried he’d say that’ then worry not, I am not currently levitating as I write this. Mindfulness, although extracted from Buddhist roots, is by no means necessarily a spiritual instrument (in the religious sense of the word). The cognitive mechanisms underlying the usefulness of mindful techniques have now been identified so clearly as to entirely demystify the concept.
Basically, mindfulness works by introducing a completely novel mindset. It is one we already possess, but lays largely dormant, underused like the calf muscles of a top-heavy body builder, having been overwhelmed by another mode of thinking, or overused like the wrist muscles of a teenage boy. The mental process we are so accustomed to is the problem solving, critical thinking mode, or in mindfulness vernacular, the doing mode. It’s a mode we adopt because it is so useful for so many things in our life. For instance, in the simple task of muting the sound on TV, we utilise the doing mode; we have a target- namely avoiding Colin Murray’s MOTD2 nonsense – and engage ourselves in achieving it. The alternative is the Being mode, where we directly experience something without an internal cloud of thoughts completely taking over, analysing, planning, remembering or solving something. If these types of thoughts don’t sound particularly familiar, this is hardly surprising, as they’ve become so automatic for us all that we no longer notice them.
Mindfulness is about cultivating a greater awareness of our surroundings, thoughts, feelings and behaviour, and developing an ability to relate to them directly, and without judgement, so that we gain a greater sense of control over pretty much everything we do. Pretty ambitious right? It really is, and from personal experience, I can tell you it’s a pretty challenging endeavour.
The same misguided use of the doing mode applies to when we encounter internal problems rather than external, real life issues. If we start to feel sad, for example, we automatically latch on to the emotion and try to solve it. This works for practical problems but actually only serves to exacerbate negative feelings, as rumination or brooding – which is just internal problem solving- seeks answers that usually do not exist. They are a mirage, but the mind is so instinctively drawn to the idea of there being a solution to the problem of feeling sad that we get sucked in and end up dwelling for longer. If we’ve experienced long periods of sadness or depression in the past, a series of unhelpful memories and thoughts that relate to the mood are automatically recruited and we slip into the depressed neurological groove. Not a good place to be.
Taking it Seriously
So, by learning to see thoughts as mental events that come and go by their own accord if left unscrutinised, rather than signals that something is wrong that we need to fix, in theory we can prevent such slides into darkness from happening. Now, I’ve been using mindfulness for a while, have fully bought into the theory of the model, and believe strongly in the usefulness of its application, but it is hard work. I still ruminate a lot, over think things and generally allow the automatic pilot of the doing mode to take control even when it’s massively unhelpful. Importantly though, I have genuinely enhanced my awareness and as a result can make better, less reactive decisions. I can savour moments with pure enjoyment and can often stop thoughts from clicking my brain into a depressive groove by simply acknowledging them and without taking them too seriously before moving on.
Developing mindfulness takes a hell of a lot of practice, and it can be really quite frustrating at times. Often the doing mode’s natural prominence tells you that sitting still for 10 minutes concentrating on your breath when you could be emailing your boss about something really important is just a total waste of time. If you can persist though, things do start to make sense and in a totally non-cheesy way, it can completely open your eyes in a refreshing, beautiful way. Right, I can see I’ve lost you…
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