How Mindfulness supports the Art of Living
Much has been made of meditation, especially Mindfulness practice, in recent years, and with good cause. Studies have continued to show conclusive evidence that meditation promotes positive life changes that affect not only mental, emotional and physical health, but that radically improve inter-personal relationships. Many therapists utilize Mindfulness in their work with clients, which Jon Kabott-Zinn, an innovator in the field, describes as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality. It wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments. If we are not fully present for many of those moments, we may not only miss what is most valuable in our lives but also fail to realize the richness and the depth of our possibilities for growth, and transformation.”
A diminished awareness of the present moment inevitably creates problems for us through our unconscious and automatic actions and behaviors, often driven by rigid beliefs, deep-seated fears and insecurities. These problems tend to build over time if they are not tended to, and can eventually leave us feeling stuck and out of touch. When that happens, we may lose confidence in our ability to redirect our energies in ways that would lead to greater satisfaction and happiness, perhaps even to greater health. Mindfulness/meditation provides a simple but powerful route for getting ourselves unstuck, back into touch with our own wisdom and vitality. It is a way to take charge of the direction and quality of our own lives, including our relationships within the family, our relationship to work and to the larger world and planet, and most fundamentally, our relationship with ourself as a person. We discover there is an Art of Living in this world.
Focusing: connecting to the “felt-sense of the body
Another important method I utilize, which is related but different than basic Mindfulness, is a psychotherapeutic process developed by psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin. It involves holding a kind of open, non-judging attention to an internal knowing which is directly experienced but is not yet in words. Focusing can, among other things, be used to help one become clear about what one feels or wants, to obtain new insights about one’s situation, and to stimulate change or healing of the situation. Focusing is set apart from other methods of inner awareness by three qualities: something called the “felt sense”, a quality of engaged accepting attention, and a researched-based technique that facilitates change.
Studies in therapy have show that the success of psychotherapy mostly lies in what the patient does inside her/himself during the therapy sessions. Specifically, that if a patient can focus inside herself with a subtle internal bodily awareness — becoming aware of a “felt sense” which contains important information— then through that attention, keys to the resolution of the problems usually arise.
Why Meditation Works in lessening Reactivity
Practicing meditation has been shown to induce changes in the body, specifically the brain and nervous system. Through meditation we can “rewire” our neural programing, the major contributor to emotional reactivity. By doing so, we can positively regulate the body’s “fight or flight” response, which is governed by the autonomic nervous system (and an organ in the brain called the amygdalla). It regulates many organs and muscles, including functions such as the heartbeat, sweating, breathing, and digestion, and does so automatically.
The autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts:
The sympathetic nervous system helps mobilize the body for action. When a person is under stress, it produces the fight-flight-freeze response: the heart rate and breathing rate go up, for example, the blood vessels narrow (restricting the flow of blood), and muscles tighten.
The parasympathetic nervous system creates what some call the “rest and digest” response. This system’s responses oppose those of the sympathetic nervous system. For example, it causes the heart rate and breathing rate to slow down, the blood vessels to dilate (improving blood flow), and activity to increase in many parts of the digestive tract.
It has become increasingly clear that meditation reduces activity in the sympathetic nervous system and increases activity in the parasympathetic nervous system. This allows for more of a “gap” between the occurrence of an event, and the body’s reaction. What we cultivate through continued meditation practice is the ability to Respond, rather than simply React.
Scientific research continues to develop sophisticated tools to learn more about what goes on in the brain and the rest of the body during meditation, and to pinpoint other diseases or conditions for which meditation might be useful.
Mindfulness and Psychotherapy
While Kat is committed to a client-centered approach with all her patients, honoring their specific needs and requests for therapy, she is hopeful of including mindfulness or focusing techniques within sessions, as an aid in helping clients discover the deepest truths about themselves. In this way, we cultivate rich, authentic lives born from connection to our Core Being, the ground of our basic Goodness. Kat has been teaching meditation for 15 years.