Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What’s the Buzz about Mindfulness?

In America, mindfulness has been a buzz word since the 80’s and it is just as strong now as it was when it first appeared on the scene. Usually, a buzz word’s life span is pretty short. There is no doubt that mindfulness has staying power. Even though mindfulness has only been in the USA for a few decades, it has fascinated cultures around the world for thousands of years. Currently, there are a group of scientists who are trying to understand what exactly it is about mindfulness that makes people feel so good. The purpose of this essay is define and draw a distinction between mindfulness and meditation. 

Mindfulness is a good term because it implies that people can control their bodily drives by applying their mind in a particular way. It shares many qualities with self-regulation, and all people need that kind of reassurance. In fact, many human pursuits attempt to impose some type of regulatory principle over the body’s “evil” defaults of carelessness and selfishness. In Eastern mindfulness practices, there is a place for the mind to share in the internal regulation of bodily functions not just simply behavior modification. Unfortunately, many people confuse the terms mindfulness and meditation. They are often used synonymously but there are major differences. Mindfulness has been defined many ways. The most common definition is by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who defines mindfulness “as paying attention in a particular way on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Ellen Langer and Herbert Benson were some of the first people to explore this phenomenon. In her 1974 bestselling book “Mindfulness,” she gives us many related phrases like “being open to process.” Later in her 2000 paper on the construct of mindfulness, Langer states her definition this way: “The concept of mindfulness can be best understood as the process of drawing novel distinctions.” Herbert Benson went a different route. He looked at the physiological measures of meditation and found that meditation lowers the heart rate. He called this process the “relaxation response” (Benson & Wallace, 1972). Langer’s and Kabat-Zinn’s definitions make similar points. Langer’s “process of drawing novel distinctions” and Zinn’s “paying attention to things we ordinarily never give a moment’s notice to” propose that the mechanism of action within mindfulness is a cognitive one, while Benson relies more on physiological correlations. 

As you can see, there is still a lot of confusion surrounding the definition of mindfulness. It is a relatively new concept to the West and there are many components to mindfulness. In fact, mindfulness is such a broad term that it maybe impossible to truly define. One important point to bring up is that there are two meanings to mindfulness. First and foremost, it refers to a state of being in which one is being very careful and focusing attention on the task at hand while still keeping the mind open to new possibilities (my definition). Secondly, when many people use the term they actually mean meditation. Meditation is defined as a technique for self-induced manipulation of awareness. When the definition says, “technique,” it is referring to any activity such as, walking, sitting, moving, doing the dishes, and even lying down; really any action that requires intense focus with the intended purpose of altering consciousness.  So when athletes mention “being in the zone” they are talking about a special moment when then are deeply focused and all actions seem effortless and coordinated. My definition of meditation is a category of techniques that build self regulatory awareness over the mind and body, while maintaining a mind open to new possibilities.   

While teaching Tai Chi for the past 7 years, I became interested in how Tai Chi could develop a type of control over the body’s movements. One could control the distribution of weight from one part of their body to another. This more subtle level of control is a skill and it takes time to develop which is rather useful when one has an injury. If the front of one’s knee has a strain, that person could redistribute the weight towards the muscles in back of their knee and avoid re-injuring the front. The interesting element here is that people can intentionally regulate which part of the body received the majority of force or weight. Based on my experience and research in mindfulness meditation, it appears to me that meditation is the same technique of dispersion that is done with the body, only applied to the mind. It has been demonstrated in psychology that people often focus on a small portion of reality when speaking about it in the past tense. That theory is called, focalism. If mindfulness allows a person the ability to shift the attention to other aspects and broaden or enrich the person’s perception of reality in the present moment, then it is a similar tool as Tai Chi. 

I believe that shifting attention happens because of the sensory systems of the brain. Humans have five sensory systems, an optical, auditory, olfactory, gustatory and finally, somatosensory or touch. It is here in the very order that these senses are listed in every scientific text published, is also where our problem begins. Our culture is so visually and auditorily oriented that we suppress or ignore the other senses. When we have a problem we deal with it in our limited ways. This happens so many times we develop a repetitive motion injury of the mind. Our thinking becomes fixated on a narrow set of information and then we have trouble seeing beyond our problem or obstacle. We remain inside a small box. Mindfulness allows an opportunity for the other senses to contribute to our perception of the moment. We feel things emotionally and physically, we also hear things from outside this narrow margin of reality that our cognitive resources confine us to. Mindfulness opens up that door to other possibilities. It brings us outside that proverbial box. Also, we have to mention other possible senses that are not yet recognized scientifically. Although, this might make some scientists wince it is important to understand that things like, x-rays and wireless were science fiction, not too long ago. So that wince could slow the advancement of science. We must remain open to the possibility of other senses if we are to discover them. 

Finally, we could sum up that mindfulness is a large umbrella term that entails many components—for example, some type of “special awareness,” an internal sensory awareness with an external cognitive lens that allows out-of-the-box thinking. There is also a relaxation component and some physiological skills as well, such as posture and breathing; these components of mindfulness work together to assist in regulating these powerful biological determinants. Meditations have a different focus, referring to a specific means, where as mindfulness is a general state of being; a tactics vs. strategy kind of thing, meditation being the tactic and mindfulness being the overall strategy. With meditation, one could be more cognitive in nature while another is more physical. There are many components of a meditation practice, such as breathing, posture, relaxation, and usually a lecture giving instructions on how to deal with thoughts, especially emotionally-charged ones but they are focused. In mindfulness anything could be done mindfully from throwing out the garbage to painting a wall to sitting in a temple in front of a statue of the Buddha. The meditation would be called throwing out the garbage meditation, or painting wall meditation if of course they were performed mindfully. So here we are, meditation is the vehicle with the aim of achieving a state of being called mindfulness. 

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A New Art

When I graduated high school in 1983, there was this sudden pressure to do something. One either had to get a job or go to school or something. I got a job at a grocery and thought for a while about what would be the best position in society for me.

Being 18, I wanted the "job" with the most freedom. My parents had a friend who was a struggling artist and he had this really open-minded perspective on life. So I chose to become an artist. My parents were not too happy with this decision but they knew I wasn’t going to change my mind that easily.

I started drawing everything I could. I eventually went to a college for art. I was as passionate about art as anyone had ever seen. I specialized in painting and sculpting. I had even carved totem poles for a motel in Taos, NM.

As I explored art, I was continually amazed at the artist’s calling for pushing limits of what art is. One of my artist role models is Joseph Beuys, a German performance artist who really broke new ground. He was an artist in the academy before WWII doing representational themes in paintings, drawings and sculptures. Then he was called to serve in Hitler’s army as an fighter pilot. He was shot down a few times. The last brought him closest to death. He was shot down and was found by a tribe of people who saved his life by putting him into a felt cocoon surrounded by fat. When the war was over he knew standard academy painting would never be able to externalize his past experiences. He began doing elaborate performances, which set his career off and changed the art world.

After 12 solid years in the art world, I had a profound experience during a martial arts class. We were asked to make 100 Japanese sword cuts with a wooden Katana called a Bokken. I can’t remember what number I was on but I got myself into a state. Then all of a sudden a black passageway opened up and I felt hyper-aware. That experience of an altered reality changed my perception of the world. Art itself seemed pale and utterly cheap from that moment on. I tried to paint that experience for the next few years with some feelings reminiscent of that first experience but it wasn’t until I started doing T’ai Chi and Qi Gong that I was able to get back to that place.

Once this new method of altering my consciousness began my art production slowed to a trickle. I found that Qi Gong and T’ai Chi could replace and surpass any internal feelings that my art was able to do.

My next step was to share that feeling with others. After becoming relatively proficient in some Tai Chi and Qi Gong forms, I felt comfortable enough to teach other people. But I seemed to keep bumping into some obstacles. Many people in society viewed these forms as either, stale and static or just for old people.

So my next challenge was how to change the way society viewed these activities. I went back to school and completed my bachelor's degree in psychology. Studying social psychology it becomes abundantly clear that people have many preconceived notions that are informed not from direct sensory experience but from socio-cultural norms they learn. Many people in society relegate art to a painting or a sculpture that is executed by “artists.”

T’ai Chi and Qi Gong are really not considered as anything more than an exercise for older adults who are in need of assistance. Even martial artists have been patronized by being Asian-philes who break boards and shout like cavemen. Our society has these narrow perceptions of what all these things are. Our whole society is compartmentalized so much that you would think nature is as well. Compartmentalization is a major flaw in our highly industrialized society. The problem is those of us in the West have to name everything, which seems harmless but limits the object once it is named.

Even fellow artists often ask if I still paint or make art. There is no possibility in their minds that the act of performing Tai Chi is the creation of art. Art to me has now become that amazing feeling when my body seems to open up and glide on the earth's crust weightless and painless and ready!