With mindfulness we learn to be awake to life through our senses. The alternative to being awake is to be lost in rumination.
One of the great plays to come out of the Theatre of the Absurd is called Krapp’s Last Tape. The protagonist spends all his time listening to the tapes he has made of himself, including the ones he has made of himself listening to himself. This is a nice parody of the human tendency to ruminate endlessly. Ruminating while bored, ruminating while walking, while tooth-brushing, even sometimes while eating our favorite dessert.
The thing about ruminating is that it can feel so critically important while we are lost in it. There’s some gratification to daydream-ruminating while we’re walking a familiar route…. if we stopped we might feel the boredom of walking the same sidewalk for the 1000th time. If we stopped ruminating we would lose the excitement coming from imagining whatever we are imagining. There’s some anxiety reduction with worry-ruminating because we can create the belief that by keeping worries in mind we are reducing the risk of their actually happening. After all, as Mark Twain said, ” I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”
In the mindfulness-based therapies we call this tendency to ruminate ‘living on automatic pilot.’ We think of mindfulness as its opposite…. a kind of awareness in which we notice what is going on around us, and in us. Now, until we think about it, most of us would say we already are aware of what is going on. We notice the Don’t Walk sign as we are walking, for example. Our minds are well trained to notice the essentials. We need to be exposed to the wonder of being aware of experience to really know what we are missing.
Want to try? Pick up a tasty piece of food, and eat it really slowly. Try taking a few breaths while you contemplate taking a bite, another few breaths while you chew it, and a final few after, while you just let yourself be aware of what that was like. Probably you will get the idea. If not, please meet with a trained psychotherapist, because great treasures await you when you discover how much more there is to life than what you are experiencing.
A lot of mindfulness happens in the body first. But we ruminate our way through a lot of life with awareness lost in the mind, living from the neck up, without much body awareness. There are many doors to mindfulness, but some get complicated, pretty quickly. For example, starting to learn mindfulness through the eyes or ears can quickly bring to mind stories and emotions that just return us to rumination. Using the eyes and the ears to learn mindfulness can be helpful, but only after some more basic skills have been learned. The door that has proven to offer the largest first-time enrichment of experience is the body door…. using the body scan.
There’s a lot of evidence to support this. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program has been researched for 30 years, and the first building block of all the classes, over all the years, is the body scan. The body scan is our first-level training in increasing body awareness, and mindfulness…. of taking us outside our heads and into our experience of life. While MBSR is helpful in many ways, it was the work of Zindel Segal, Mark Williams and John Teasdale published in 2002 that brought these methods directly into the world of mental health, with the publication of their landmark book, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression. They built on the MBSR model and improved it so much that MBCT is now the model on which other mental health treatments are being built. For our purposes, it is important to note that in MBCT the body scan remains the building block for learning mindfulness, for coming out of rumination or automatic pilot and into direct experience of life as it unfolds.
Body Scan for Psychotherapy Consumers
The body scan is particularly helpful for people who come to psychotherapy. Steven Hayes wrote a seminal article in which he showed that a great amount of mental struggles come from pushing away experience, the opposite of mindfulness. Thus mindfulness, the acceptance of experience, is increasingly used in mental health treatments. And the body scan is the door to beginning mindfulness.
Body Scan for Psychotherapists
We psychotherapists do a lot of listening. While listening we like to think over what we’re hearing, to plan a response, even if that is ‘no response.’
We psychotherapists also are human. We tend to listen with our minds. We analyze with our minds, we speak from thoughts that form in our minds. In the process, we often are unaware of our bodies; we might think our bodies are nothing more than a distraction to our listening and understanding the client. So, much of the therapy day is spent in this kind of listening through the mind.
Listening with the mind can get complicated. Even the mind of a highly trained psychotherapist is still the mind of a human being. In our minds we make associations and interpretations, certain thoughts evoke emotions, counter-transference can come to life.
Our minds seems to be pure listening machines, but our minds are continuously impacted by our bodies. If we have indigestion, that has some effect on our listening. If we need a bathroom break…. same thing. If we are worried about something going on in our own lives, that may be reflected in body tension, and that tension may effect the way we hear our clients. Assuming we are not being conscious of our bodies.
When we psychotherapists do practice the body scan, and increase our ability to be aware of our own bodies, we can notice the kinds of things that come up in our bodies than can interfere with active, neutral listening. We can then adjust our listening to take stock of that. Then we can have a better ability to accurately hear our clients.
In sum, given that our bodies effect our listening, when we have our own body awareness we can filter out the inaccuracies that different body sensations can evoke.
Mindfulness is best learned from experience.
I urge everyone to learn this from experience, rather than reading this and dropping it. Try doing the body scan daily for a week or two. Then, practice tuning in to your body sensations from time to time, in therapy, out of therapy, during stressed moments, during pleasurable moments. Learn for yourself what it is like to know Your Body better.
There is a CD with a recorded body scan meditation in the back of the book The Mindful Way Through Depression.