Are you coming to bed?

March 31, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Recovery 

March has been National Bed Month.

For me, this is an event that I can really get into, so to speak. I have always taken a professional and personal interest in sleep quality, even more so since having a child, when life and sleep can become so disrupted that you hardly know which way is up, let alone have the energy to venture there to find your bed.

There’s a wealth of research into how quality of sleep affects us, and many an argument as to how much of it we need. But the general consensus is that poor sleep equals poor health, reduced performance and less effective coping.

In the recovery field, there is a commonly used acronym – HALT. It stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, and it’s what you are supposed to stop and assess yourself for if you are struggling with cravings. I don’t know where it originated from but I’ve found it to be of immense value, not only working in the recovery field, but relevant to my action around my own wellbeing.

Although not necessarily easy, I find the first three to be the most immediately solvable issues. Hunger, of course, can be remedied by paying attention to diet and eating regularly. Anger, can be resolved by dealing with the situation, either directly or by finding ways of letting it go – counselling, meditation or physical activity for example. Loneliness can be a huge challenge for people – but Apps like Social Mirror can be of benefit, and most communities offer social groups if you are willing and able to get out there and engage. Tiredness, I think, can be the most challenging of these issues to control.

Nightmare picThere are of course, many natural ways to improve the quality of your sleep. In recovery, the use of ‘sleep tea’, a combination of herbs such as chamomile and lavender is commonly used. Sour cherry juice has also been proffered as a proven natural way to improve sleep. Yoga and meditation is used for relaxation and to reduce anxiety. But how many of us, in recovery or elsewhere, make getting quality sleep a daily focus? If you are anything like me, sleeping is not the period of the day that I attend to the most, but it is probably what I should prioritise. Anxiety about specific events can keep me awake at night, and that is the time that a person needs sleep the most.

We see sleep problems a lot in this sector, especially in the period after people have detoxed from substances. Waiting for your body to reach a state of equilibrium again can be an arduous process, and people describe waking in a sweat following dreams where they have drunk alcohol or used drugs, when that is the exact thing they are working so hard to avoid. Often GPs will prescribe sleeping tablets, but these of course are not meant to be a long term solution, and do not serve to provide any sort of ‘sleep training’ or encourage us to think further about ourhammock-pic-resized own role in getting good sleep.

The New Economics Foundation created a list of five everyday actions that people can take to improve wellbeing. So much of our own work within Whole Person Recovery is anecdotal, but based on that, and my own experience, I would add a sixth ‘way to wellbeing’ – work to improve your sleep.

Perhaps, if we all spared thirty minutes a day to take action around our sleep – taking a warm bath before bed, meditating, writing down our thought summary of the day, or doing some active relaxation, our wakeful periods may be enhanced, and we could really focus on the other five ways.

sleeping man

Hopefully, you have managed to stay awake whilst reading this blog……………

Smartphones make us dumb


Did you see the one about Apple Maps mistakenly directing people to drive across the runway at an Alaskan Airport? The coverage provides an indication of how much we’ve outsourced our intelligence to our smartphones, and how we are likely to erode our own intelligence as a result.

An excerpt from the BBC coverage:

“They must have been persistent,” the airport’s assistant manager Angie Spear told the BBC.

“They had to enter the airport property via a motion-activated gate, and afterwards there are many signs, lights and painted markings, first warning that aircraft may share the road and then that drivers should not be there at all.

“They needed to drive over a mile with all this before reaching the runway. But the drivers disregarded all that because they were following the directions given on their iPhones.”

So here we are in 2013. We can carry in our pocket a device which can instantaneously direct us, aided by a network of satellites we’ve launched into space above our planet, between any two points on earth. When there are glitches in this remarkable system, we appear to be losing our ability to engage our auxiliary senses of navigation. We increasingly trust our smartphones, simultaneously giving our innate sensual systems less trust in connecting to our cognitive comprehension. When people put themselves in danger, we vent anger at the technological miscues they may have received. How did people drive to airports before SatNav? We expect technology to be perfect: an upgrade to our own human fallibility.

There is a broader danger associated with the ubiquity of smartphone use. We withdraw from engaging with the places we are in and the people with whom we share them. Mobile technology enables local disconnectedness through providing a ubiquitous connection to everyone we know (and many we don’t), regardless of where we are (or where they are) in the world. As a result, our other communication skills become degraded. Smartphone users are constantly interrupted and distracted, less present in the place and the moment something that a recent Apple ad celebrates. We are unable to switch off – indeed the more technology enables us to work flexibly the more anxious we are to demonstrate to our work colleagues that we are not slacking, as the latest RSA Animate explores.

Comedian Lewis CK recently noted that constant connectivity spares us from the emptiness and sadness (and subsequent tranquillity and happiness) that we find when faced with overcoming periods of being alone. Taking notice of the world around us is one of the five “ways to well-being”.

Just walked into my neighbours house by accident while texting. I only noticed when someone called out and I looked up and saw it wasn’t my flat. Christ. - From Facebook, 26/9/13

With a phone in hand, we are less likely practice mindfulness (recognising our thoughts and feelings). And inter-personal communication skills are at risk of deteriorating as we avoid talking with neighbours or chitchatting with shopkeepers.

As Richard Sennett argues, learning to cooperate with different people, outside of your regular networks, is a key rite of passage to adulthood and civility and is contagious in a population. If that sounds too pretentious, then even on a basic level we’ve got to connect the dots: listening to others talk is the most important aspect of learning in early years. My fear is that the rising rates of social isolation, autism and technology penetration are inter-related. On the tube these days it’s becoming rude not to look at your smartphone: we can’t tolerate the gaze of fellow passengers.

I’m not saying we should give up this powerful technology. Many technological applications support local connectedness (such as Streetbank), while other applications support our offline social well-being (such as the RSA’s social mirror). SatNav gives people the confidence to navigate and explore, and mobile phone cameras empower citizen journalists across the world, but we need to know its OK to switch off and unplug. Smartphone adoption may be the most rapid technology adoption of all time – 45% of under-11s in the UK regularly use a smartphone or tablet. We need to understand the implications for public and inter-personal engagement, fast.

Consider those moments where you pause and think to yourself “this is what life is all about”. Its likely you’ll be mentally present. Think of your favourite streets, parks, squares, or bus routes. We can be entertained us for hours watching what Jane Jacobs calls the “sidewalk ballet”: an urban, social, public experience. At the height of our powers of human perception we can learn silently, discretely admiring the athleticism of streetballers and joggers, the daring of skateboarders, and the technique of a street performer. We develop visual literacy to comprehend the age of our buildings, the fashions of different generations, and the processes which clean our streets. Taking a walk, sitting on a bench or at a cafe, we guess the age of a passing infant, the profession of their parent, or simply where someone got those shoes. And we can mindread, discerning the causes of the argument between two lovers and enjoy from the deduction of awkward body language between two people that this must be a first date.

This role (sometimes termed the “flaneur” – the strolling observer) is a somewhat romantic and privileged notion, but we need to protect the time and space for activity which develops our social skills: reading other people’s faces, body language, tone of voice and emotional signals. Indeed our most skilled public servants – social workers, police officers, nurses, school teachers – recognise that inter-personal intelligence is essential in co-producing desirable outcomes, especially with vulnerable people with barriers to verbal or written communication.

The time each of us has to engage with our surroundings is precious, and the design of the spaces which surround us are often disengaging. Several initiatives have shown that often space the looks like public space is not: subject to surveillance, regulation and restrictions on use and participation. A true public space might include a shared institutional setting where we experience a base feeling of equality because we’re all accessing the same thing.

No doubt we will develop better maps, location-based apps and global 3G coverage, but we need to engage in real places to support the development of our capabilities as social creatures.

Jonathan Schifferes is a Senior Researcher in the Public Service 2020 and Connected Communities team (and does use his smartphone for Twitter).

Narrative feeds the self

July 26, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

“As words and thought are eased out of the mind, so the self weakens. There is no narrative to feed it…Like ghosts, angels, gods, ‘self’, it turns out, is an idea we invented, a story we tell ourselves. It needs language to survive. The words create meaning, the meaning purpose, the purpose narrative. But here, for a little while, there is no story, no rhetoric, no deceit. Here is silence and acceptance; the pleasure of a space that need not be imbued with meaning. Intensely aware, of the flesh, the breath, the blood, consciousness allows the ‘I’ to slip away.”

- Tim Parks, Teach us to Sit Still, p 330-331.

For those who want to know more, I recommend an essay by Tim Parks in today’s Aeon magazine.


Why climate change is like a headache in the pelvis.

July 25, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

“The main curriculum of your life. No sooner had I read that phrase than I kept repeating it, mulling it over. I saw at once that, far more than the time itself, the hour count, what was at stake here was a major principle. Instead of taking my work with me to hospital waiting rooms, dealing with my troubles as if I was getting the car fixed, my eye on my watch and my hand on my wallet, I would have to accept a radical shift of priorities. The pain must be allowed to come on board and take equal status beside my writing, beside my family, as part of the core curriculum.” - Tim Parks, Teach us to Sit Still, p160

Climate change is about much more than words, but words matter. In this respect, leaving aside the important victory to keep climate change on the national curriculum, there is a much deeper sense in which climate change needs to become part of ‘the main curriculum’ of everybody’s lives.

This declaration is ultimately just a form of words, but these particular words may help to reframe the necessary gestalt shift, so that we start to go way beyond ‘raising awareness’ or ‘engagement’ on the issue, which hasn’t really helped sufficiently to shift inertia. Here is where this idea of ‘main curriculum’ comes from, and why it might matter:

 ”‘We strongly advise sufferers,’ wise went on, ‘to accept these pains as part of the main curriculum of their lives.’ The main curriculum!” 

Almost three years ago I read Tim Parks’s wonderful non-fiction book: Teach us to Sit Still, in preparation for him speaking at an RSA event on mindfulness. The book is a darkly humorous and profound examination of a particularly embarrassing medical condition, and an improbable journey back to health, eventually through meditation. The turning point in his recovery is when he stops trying to wish the problem away as an extraneous irritant (‘an inconvenient truth’) and really faces up to it as an enduring challenge that needed his steadfast time and attention. What was striking for me is that a particular form of words helped to make this shift.

In the following section Parks is at one of the many clinics he attended, looking for something to take the persistent pain away, and he recounts listening to a Dr Wise, author of A Headache in the Pelvis as follows:


Tim Parks, Teach us to Sit Still, p 159:

“‘Many of our patients are simply too busy to dedicate themselves to our treatment’, Wise and Anderson observed. ‘These people, men and women, were not yet suffering enough. They still saw their pains as an irritating waste of time, a distraction to put behind them as quickly as possible. Hence they were drawn to accounts of their illness that saw a rapid solutions in drugs, or in surgical operation. No personal energies need be expended. It could be paid for. Hopefully by the State.’

This described my thinking, at least until very recently, with ominous accuracy.

“We strongly advise sufferers,” wise went on, “to accept these pains as part of the main curriculum of their lives.”

The main curriculum!

Would I have to stop referring to my pains as stupid?

Wise’s position, a little pious-sounding to my ear, was that this chronic and worsening condition was trying to tell me something about myself, about the way I had been living, and I was supposed to listen. I would have to give my pains the time of day.”


This perspective is powerful because one of the main aspects of the climate change challenge is how to bring more attention to the urgency of the issue, and what prevents that is precisely the kind of “hoping it will go away” attitude that many take to irritating health issues that are not yet causing enough suffering to be heeded.

The climate challenge calls for unprecedented political, social, economic and technological innovation and we probably need to consume less, but the speed and effectiveness of such solutions ultimately depend upon what the population thinks and cares about on a regular basis. That point is not self-evidently true, but one tangible way to think about it is that investment decisions and political will on climate change are currently shaped by vested interests that civil society needs to be mobilised to challenge.

A big part of this challenge is to find ways to make climate change ‘run through’ people’s lives. (The literal meaning of curriculum is to run the course, as in curriculum vitae- the course of my life). We need to link concerns about climate change more closely to the experiences and values that ‘run through’ people’s lives, including their work, their families, their health and their homes. How do we do that? It’s not easy, but The Social Brain Centre has precise figures on the nature of the challenge and plans to pilot solutions that we’ll share in a forthcoming report).

Given the scale and urgency of the climate change challenge we need new forms of language as much as we need new technologies and new policies. With this in mind, I humbly submit that we need to start thinking of how we can make climate change part of ‘the main curriculum’ of our lives.

Dr Jonathan Rowson can be followed on Twitter at @jonathan_rowson

Paying attention with poetry

March 21, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

It’s World Poetry Day.

As an English Literature undergraduate, I spent many a happy hour absorbed in the modernist poetry of William Carlos Williams. More or less a celebrity in his native USA, he’s relatively unknown here.

Image via

His poems often convey a certain haecceitasthe quality of ‘thisness’ – capturing something very particular. In the Social Brain Centre, we’re interested in the importance of attention, and one of the possibilities offered by Carlos Williams’ poetry is to focus attention very acutely. In a way, I think his poems illustrate mindfulness in action. It’s especially clear in these two of his most famous poems:

The Red Wheel Barrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in

the icebox
and which
you were probably

for breakfast
Forgive me

they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Why your self needs its stuff

April 25, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

What is all this stuff? Books, chairs, clothes, cutlery, bags, shoes, shelves, kitchens, computers, bracelets, shoes…what’s it all for?

Julian Baggini whose RSA event I chaired a few months back… recently penned a thoughtful and amusing piece in The Independent: Is Osborne’s Dad worth a £19,000 desk? The article explores how we use our ‘stuff’ to make sense of ourselves:

“A good desk is a kind of proof that you take your writing seriously, and hence, by implication, are a serious writer. A decent computer monitor might be just as important, of course, but such technology is not the preserve of the person of letters, and so cannot provide the same kind of psychological support.”

Lest you think this is a politically motivated attack disguised as a casual philosophical insight, the point goes to the heart of many of our most pressing challenges. In a previous post on the madness of economic growth in the context of climate change I made a passing reference to Tim Jackson’s phrase ‘the social logic of consumption’. The basic idea is that, increasingly, we are what we buy. Through our consumption patterns we tell stories to ourselves about ourselves, and try to convey those stories to the people around us. It is not so much that we need status symbols to fuel our egos, but rather we need to surround ourselves with material objects to give our egos function and form. It is not that our objects are inherently meaningful, but rather through the process of identifying with them we make them so.

As with anything psychologically insightful, the Buddhist’s are way ahead of the game.  In Buddhist epistemology, ‘rupas’ are those objects we use to reinforce our sense of self: “We commonly impose distortion on to the object world. We take it as implying ourselves, and in the process create self-material in relation to it. . . . We see in the object signs that lead us to construe a self, and from this create a sense of self. We can say that the object is an indicator of that self. The object is called a rupa” (Caroline Brazier 2003, 62).

Of course in Buddhism this construction of a self is, at the very least, something to be aware of, and usually considered somewhat problematic because it can lead to various forms of maladaptive attachment, and this viewpoint is largely shared by many aspects of modern cognitive science. In addition to Baggini’s reappraisal of Hume’s bundle theory of the self in the talk above, I would strongly encourage readers to take a look at the work of Francisco Varela who combines cognitive science, buddhism and continental philosophy to give a deliciously rich theory of self and consciousness.

Changes in our fundamental processes of consumption, self-creation, and social comparison are not going to happen overnight. However, the link between the social logic of consumption that is the engine of capitalism – driving economic growth, and the Buddhist insight that our selves are in some ways nothing but these things that we identify with and attach to, are closely linked. One thing that might follow, as was suggested by my colleague Egidijus Gecius in a previous post and in many other sources (and as is the mission underpinning the Garrison Institute in New York State) is that sooner or later you realise that the problems can be understood and, with practice, even experienced, as manifestations of our wayward minds.

And the more that insight sinks in, the more you feel the most productive place to work for social change is at the level of the mind. I was reminded of this while chairing the Matthew Johnstone event on meditation here last week. At the end, I felt moved to say to the audience that the Social Brain Centre is keen to develop work in this area. There are lots of people out there teaching meditation in various forms, and we are keen to start thinking about how to make meditation more mainstream, and socially supported. I would like it to become normal, in the literal sense of being a conventional social norm. What that might look like I am not yet sure, but examples include: meditation on the primary and secondary curricula, a meditation room in every major office building, doctors regularly subscribing meditation on the NHS. All of these things already exist in nascent form, but we haven’t reached a tipping point, and meditation is still viewed by many, wrongly, as a somewhat fringe activity.

Coming back to the breath, as it were, it seems I started with material objects and ended with meditation.


Or should that be Om?


Addendum: At lunchtime Matthew Taylor mentioned an RSA event on sustainable consumption featuring two people who had given away virtually all their stuff, and an anthropologist who studied how people related to their stuff. The anthropologist shared his finding that, based on his years of research, the main conclusion was that those who liked their stuff were happier than those who didn’t. Somebody in the audience apparently then asked, in the context of an event on sustainability, a question that Matthew considered to be one of the best ever in an RSA event:

“So are you saying we should we should care more about our stuff or less?”

The case for caring less is that we would therefore buy less of it, which is better for the environment. The case for caring more, which Matthew had more sympathy for, was that if you really care about your stuff you look after it, and are more likely to reuse and repair it…which might be even more important.


Re: The Understandable Madness of Economic Growth

March 27, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poorBelieve me, honey, rich is better.” This ‘brilliant insight’ by Sophie Tucker is one thing that came to my mind reading Jonathan Rowson’s blog about a major economic/environmental conundrum. We are running out of planet due to our exploding consumption but we don’t yet have an economic model that would be stable without this on-going explosion. Yet, I believe, the real challenge here is not a technical one but an adaptive one. Most likely we will have to go to being somewhat poor again eventually.

The technical challenge

As Tim Jackson put it, in our quest to save the planet we do have a major technical problem – finding an economic model which is stable without economic growth. However, it strikes me how little effort has been made to find it. After I read his brilliant book Prosperity Without Growth in 2010 I was hoping that after a respected economist had dared to voice such a ‘heresy’ against economic growth, at least some governments would start throwing money at finding a sustainable economic model. The reason why so little effort has been made to solve it probably lies in the fact we collectively are reluctant to accept the implications of ‘de-growth’ on our everyday lives. It’s not easy to get excited about buying less or traveling less. Thus, the real challenge seems to be an adaptive one. If we can’t adapt to becoming comfortable with reducing our consumption levels, then there won’t be enough political support to give money to those who believe in economic ‘de-growth’.

The adaptive challenge

That is why I am so interested in finding ways to encourage people to be more adaptable. Mindfulness is one thing has allowed me to cut my own consumption dramatically and yet live an even richer life. General research on mindfulness supports the notion that it allows people to become more comfortable with challenges such as that of reducing consumption. This however, is not enough to appeal to the majority of the population and we need to keep looking for ways to face various adaptive challenges.

Return to poverty

You may very well hate me for saying this but I am almost convinced that the currently high living standards in the West are just a temporary anomaly in world history. The Western world has been able to enjoy this period of enormous economic prosperity mostly because it has mostly been alone in such prosperity. Westerners have been able to use their wealth to buy disproportionate amounts of natural resources while they have still been in abundance. Now that much of the developing world is catching up and is joining us in the bidding game for natural resources, prices will inevitably continue rising. This will make things we buy more expensive squeezing our current living standards. Also, if the trend of the developing world catching up continues, there will be fewer and fewer people willing to produce iPhones and other goods for meagre wages, which will push prices up even more.

So coming back to Sophie Tucker’s ‘insight’ I believe most of us will have to shift to becoming somewhat poorer eventually. This will be a very difficult transition period. The higher we rise economically, the more painful that fall will be.

Return to prosperity

However, as Tim Jackson explains it, prosperity does not need to be limited to economic terms. There is an abundance of psychological research showing that economic prosperity is one among many things that correlates with a sense of wellbeing. Other sources of prosperity include the quality of our relationships, safety and vibrancy of our communities, a sense of autonomy, a sense of competence, and mental health. My hope is that once we become more adaptive and flexible we may be able to turn some our attention away from material prosperity to wider prosperity.

What do financial bubbles and the human mind have in common?

March 21, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Before I studied psychology, I also had a chance of working for an investment bank. One thing that the two areas have in common is inherent instability of the ‘systems’ that they deal with: financial markets and the mind. George Soros claims that this insight into workings of markets allowed him to become a billionaire. He calls it reflexivity. Luckily, unlike with markets, there is a practical solution how to deal with this conundrum of the mind.

In financial markets this reflexivity manifests in on-going volatility of prices and even in bubbles and crashes. Financial bubbles will keep expanding as long as most people believe prices will keep going up. Thinking about stock prices affects prices and prices affect what we think about them. These price levels inevitably affect companies and economies. It’s a self-reinforcing inherently unstable system that again and again will spiral up and down depending on the prevalent ‘thinking’ of the time. Hence, bull or bear markets.

Another loop of reflexivity is inside the mind.  Nobel Prize winning psychologist D. Kahneman in his latest book describes how thinking affects how we feel and vice versa. If you are in a low mood, thoughts reminding about the failures of your day and of your life will keep coming back much more often. Searching for evidence that your life is better than your mood suggests is will be an uphill battle. In fact, the thinking mind is not a good tool in such case because it has been affected by the very unpleasant feeling you are trying to think your way out of. This inherent self-reinforcing capacity makes the ‘system’ inherently unstable. Just like in financial markets, spirals are bound to form.

Interestingly, even though depressions do not occur very often, both in the mind and in economies they occur mainly due to this reflexive mechanism that allows negative spirals to form. Very sadly, in today’s increasingly fast and complex world human depression is on the rise. The WHO predicts it will be the 2nd most common global burden of disease by 2020. I would also argue that the on-going likelihood of economic depressions is also on the rise too, mainly due to continuously increasing complexity and pace in the system.

Helping the economy sounds like too daunting of a task but luckily we can help our minds. What’s a potential solution here? Rational, left brain thinking is not well-designed to jump out of the spiral because it is a part of the spiral. What can be done is training the habit of mindfulness. Mindfulness includes training attention, not the rational left brain thinking but rather general awareness, to jump out of vicious circles as soon as a spiral has been spotted.

If it is true that the mind is an inherently unstable system, then it would be affecting almost all aspects of our lives, including our moods, relationships with spouses and children, and our performance at work. Is there any evidence that these areas are improved by mindfulness?

In fact, yes. A 2010 report by Mental Health Foundation building on a rapidly expanding body of literature suggests that mindfulness improves all of the above. The evidence is strongest for the effectiveness of reducing mood swings, anxiety, stress, preventing depression, improving attention, and a sense of well-being. Moreover, mindfulness not only changes brain activity but seems to physically change the wiring of the brain.

Although mindfulness can be learned in many ways, one increasingly popular approach in the UK is taking an 8-week MBCT course. It various forms are gaining popularity mostly thanks to the University of Oxford. I am doing one such course myself now and can only highly recommend it.

Mindfulness as becoming the ‘whisperer’ of J. Haidt’s elephant

March 13, 2012 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I find the metaphor of an elephant and a rider, which has been used by psychologist Jonathan Haidt and embraced by Mathew Taylor, to be especially useful in thinking about the mind. This is how J. Haidt describes it:

The mind is divided in many ways, but the division that really matters is between conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. These two parts are like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement.

The rider

I would like to extend Haidt’s proposition by suggesting that since the rider is the one who has to train the elephant, the rider needs to be trained first on how to train the elephant. First, he needs to be taught how to become attuned to his elephant, how to become increasingly aware what is boiling inside its head and what can be anticipated from the powerful animal. Cultivating awareness through mindfulness is cultivating this attunement.

It is also crucial for the rider to learn how to become the ‘whisperer’ of the elephant. The rider will never be in full control of the animal but can learn to befriend it, and to expand its influence over it. As this process of befriending develops, the relationship between rider and elephant gradually shifts from one of misunderstanding, frustration and even antagonism, to one of patience and gentleness. Even when the elephant throws a tantrum sometimes, the rider will not react to this frantically but will calmly and skilfully do what is best. The experienced rider becomes skilled at knowing when to opt for firm discipline, and when simple, calm patience is required.

The elephant

As time goes on and as one’s practice of mindfulness improves the ‘elephant’ (i.e. the automatic/implicit processes) starts gradually changing. The elephant becomes less frantic, more predictable, more willing to be ‘whispered’ by the rider. It throws its tantrums less and less often. The rider does not need as much willpower to control the animal now since the big creature is more willing to be led by the rider.

Limitations of relying on theory

Teaching people what the latest scientific findings reveal about the mind is definitely a desirable thing to do, but in my understanding it has its limitations. Using the same analogy, I would compare it to teaching the rider the theory of riding. He would be given a PowerPoint presentation about elephants and riding: what the elephants are like, what mistakes there are likely to make, what can be done, when they can and cannot be trusted, etc.

This lecturing would be good to learn more about elephants in general but would tell very little or nothing about the particular elephant that you are riding. – We all have unique personalities, don’t we? But even more importantly, it would not teach the practical skills that are gained through experience of actually riding an elephant. The deep learning needed to tune in to your own elephant and to befriend it can only be achieved through deep listening and deep practice. Mindfulness is the only deep practice that I am aware of. As with teaching people how to drive cars, we don’t expect them to become skilled drivers after only having taught them the theory.

For these reasons I believe mindfulness – which enables us to gradually achieve the attunement and ‘whispering’ that I’ve described – is an essential tool for changing our automatic processes and closing the gap between who we are who we want to become.

Obstacles to Mindfulness as a Key to a Healthier Society

March 13, 2012 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Before I launch my series on how, in my view, mindfulness is a very powerful tool for closing what the RSA calls the ‘social aspiration gap’, I want to bring some perspective. I want to list the main reasons why mindfulness – if it is actually as great as I will argue it is – is not so popular yet:

It can be difficult, especially initially. It draws you out of your comfort zone.

It is terribly boring. – Again initially, and especially for people who are accustomed to constant stimulation.

It requires discipline, which eventually will be attained through getting established in the practice, so it’s a bit of a ‘catch 22’ situation.

It can be quite frustrating to find out how little one is in control of one’s attention. The mind will wonder off again and again. This is particularly frustrating if one has incorrect expectations, such as relaxing or eliminating all thought. Such expectations are likely to engender the opposite result, since frustration with the inevitability of thinking will kick in.

It can be a disorienting experience. In his Divided Brain speech at the RSA Iain McGilchrist described how in the Western world people commonly base their sense of identity on the ‘voice’ in the brain’s left hemisphere, the ‘speaker’ of thoughts. During meditation this voice will keep chattering. – Yet meditation invites us to cease identifying ourselves with this voice and its thoughts. So naturally, the question “If am not my thoughts, who am I?” will arise, and this can be an unsettling experience.

Also, uncomfortable thoughts which are normally buried under our day to day ‘busy-ness’ will rise to the surface and this can be quite unsettling too.

It will not work if one aims to get somewhere, to achieve some special state. It is a very paradoxical thing. With mindfulness, you can only get somewhere by not striving to get somewhere, so the usual framework of ‘doing’ and ‘striving’ must be dropped. It feels unnatural and like a really ‘productive’ waste of time for the ‘doers’ among us.

We generally do not have a culture that supports or reinforces it. To the contrary, following our usual reactions, ‘moaning’ and lack of acceptance of the inevitable provides so much to share with other fellow beings. We also tend to be less comfortable with practices of religious origins. There is no easy way around it. Yes, mindfulness – even though it is secular in nature – was ‘invented’ within Buddhism, and possibly by Buddha himself.

With mindfulness, you can’t measure your progress in numbers. It is quite a problem in a culture that seeks to measure almost everything. There is some real truth in the saying ‘what gets measured, gets done.’

It’s not a quick fix. For substantial results to start appearing, it may take 8 weeks of around 30 minutes a day.

It requires slowing down. The busier and the more frantic we are, the more we react out of habit in the same automatic ways and not out of choice. This franticness is the opposite of mindfulness.

It does not really work if you use just ‘a bit’ of mindfulness. We like to put things into our schedules moving from one thing to another. Mindfulness is a way of being in the world, not a way of spending a 30 minute slot reserved in your busy schedule.

I have struggled with all of the above myself and still do to a certain extent after two years of practice. Probably most of us will in similar ways.

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