The everyday situation for most people includes some periods when the mind appears to be focused and clear. However, much of our daily consciousness can be characterized as not really functioning optimally in this regard. The state of affairs of our minds is usually fragmented, or ‘spaced out’, except during relatively brief periods of deliberate focus.
This common state of not being in touch with both our external and inner worlds has consequences for both the quality of our lives, and those around us. Often our daily experiences appear to pass by only dimly noticed, and because of this, we sometimes get the feeling that our lives are rushing past with little involvement on our part. Inner states such as mood changes appear to be on us with no warning.
Sometimes we catch ourselves in the middle of an action sequence with little awareness of what we are doing. Often we eat our meals without noticing the tastes of food or the bodily signals regarding appropriate calorie needs. In our interactions with others, we may find ourselves behaving or speaking impulsively in a mindless kind of way. When we do notice the contents of our minds, we typically find an ‘inner dialogue’ in which we are continuously judging how we and others are measuring up to our standards. It is as if we are continuously broadcasting ‘news updates’ on how we are doing, in relation to a set of assumptions outside of awareness. And what of the ‘news’? Often, it is bad news. Is there another way of living our lives?
Mindfulness, a practice having a several thousand year history, addresses these aspects of the human condition. To put it simply, Mindfulness is the practice of intentionally paying attention to things as they are in the present moment without judging. Another way of putting this, is purposefully paying attention to how things actually are, rather than how we want them to be. How is this a useful way to see things? Often, our reactions to events involve automatic, or knee jerk reactions, and the initiation of a habitual pattern of thoughts and emotions. Because of the automatic nature of this series of mind events, we tend to get stuck in a limited number of ways of dealing with things, and thus suffer in our ability to effectively assess the complexities of situations, as well as our capacity to adapt to new situations. Furthermore, by reacting in an automatic habitual manner, we lose the opportunity to learn more adaptive alternate ways of behaving. A hallmark of the healthy brain and mind is the capacity to respond appropriately and effectively to a wide range of situations. Mindfulness practice facilitates this flexibility of functioning.
Mindfulness has been employed as central component of a number of modern schools of psychotherapy (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy). In developing the skills of Mindfulness, most of these therapies suggest a meditation practice as useful. However, little attention appears to be given to developing Mindfulness skills in any of these therapies, almost as if the assumption is made that Mindfulness is available to the untrained individual and just needs to be applied. The truth of the matter is quite different. Mindfulness is a mental skill, not unlike many complex skill sets, which requires both dedication and practice. A meditation practice is invaluable in developing mindfulness, but often appears to be a ‘hit or miss’ strategy for most people. Research has shown that what is assumed to be ‘meditation’ by the person beginning such a practice, is in fact, often the mind being lost in an endless stream of thoughts. Sometimes, when the ‘no thought’ state is experienced while ‘meditating’, the person takes this as a sign of progress. Oftentimes, this absence of thinking is actually a dullness and drifting of the mind, with the volume of the inner dialogue ‘turned down’, rather than the crisp, one pointed focus of true meditation. So, what can the modern world offer the individual desiring to develop Mindfulness skills?
Biofeedback Mindfulness Training (BMT) is a practice developed by the author to facilitate more reliable and effective learning of Mindfulness skills. This process includes a number of steps and strategies. First, the person is coached on learning ‘quieting’ skills with computer assisted software designed to measure and facilitate change in those physiological functions associated with bodily arousal, ranging from deep relaxation to a highly active state. This first step often includes training in proper breathing and the ability to reduce muscular tension. As the individual becomes more proficient in reducing signs of the ‘fight or flight’ response pattern, the main part of the BMT training begins – EEG Biofeedback, or Neurofeedback. Using Neurofeedback technology, the person learns Mindfulness skills with the help of a ‘window’ into mind-brain functioning. Being able to see the quality of attention represented on a computer screen, the person is able to more directly practice Mindfulness with the degree of focus required for effective learning. In contrast to the traditional ‘hit-or-miss’ method of attempting to learn Mindfulness by attempting to steady one’s attention, BMT gives the person a clear view of the brain’s functioning as the Mindful state of attention is developed, and thus reduces the likelihood getting lost on this Inner Journey.