by Tim Burnett
Mindfulness researchers agree that mindfulness training has three key major components: attention, intention, and attitude.
The attitude mindfulness practice invites us to bring forward, and helps us to strengthen over time, is described in various ways by mindfulness researchers and also by Buddhist teachers.
Jon Kabat-Zinn in this common definition of mindfulness talks about an attitude of attending "non-judgmentally" to experience.
Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally. (Kabat-Zinn 1994).
And Shauna Shapiro and Linda Carlson go with "open, accepting, and discerning."
[Mindfulness is] the awareness that arises through intentionally attending in an open, accepting, and discerning way to whatever is arising in the present moment (Shapiro & Carlson, 2009).
It's easy for us to scoff a little I think. "So I'm just supposedto accept everything?" Aren't there plenty of things are not acceptable happening in our world?
Indeed there are. But remember that mindfulness is a process of zooming in more closely and carefully examining how our minds and hearts meet each moment of experience. And at that point of contact, mindfulness movement suggests that negative reactivity just doesn't serve us.
In a really fascinating (and pretty readable for our us lay people) 2011 paper (see link at end), emotions researchers Eric Garland, Susan Gaylord and Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina suggest that the way mindfulness training can help is that it can set us up for a helpful "upward spiral" of positive reappraisal of what's challenging or stressing us out.
They suggest that there is a different way of looking at the aspects of our life and world that seem unacceptable to us. It's a 6-step model that I think is worth examining.
Steps 1 & 2 - Stress Appraisal & Decentering.
In this model, when we encounter a stress, rather than freezing up or being inflamed with our resistance and unhappiness with the situation, we mindfully take an inner step back. We find a little space just like in the famous quotation that's attributed to Victor Frankl:
Between stimulus and response there's a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Doing otherwise risks destructive anxiety, rumination and/or depression.
Garland and his colleagues use the psychological term "decentering" for this. Getting the anxious "me" out of the center of the situation. Being able to label the emotion is helpful here. Decentering is a process of perspective-taking that allows states of mindfulness to arise. We are more able to feel non-judgmental, open and accepting if we don't feel overwhelmed and internally "too close" to the problem. We need a little space. Decentering is the mental ninja move that helps make that possible.
Steps 3 & 4 - Mindfulness & Attentional Broadening. It's well known - by all of us as well as the field of psychology - that when we're stressed, our perception narrows. We get a kind of tunnel vision. It's hard to think straight. Fewer options occur to us. That's a visceral feeling of being trapped in our head and our fears. Paralyzed. Do you know this feeling?
The neat thing is the opposite is also true. With the support of decentering and mindfulness we can broaden our attention even under stress and that's the next step in this model. Attentional Broadening opens us up to more options and possibilities in how we relate to the situation and gives us access to our inner resources and opens us up.
Steps 5 & 6 - Positive Reappraisal, Positive Emotions & Decreased Stress. With this broader, more open perspective we can see, not just good options for coping, but that there may actually be something essentially good here, something of value. We may realize there's an opportunity here for growth and learning. We may be thankful - gratitude can arise - that an issue we'd been previously blind to has come to our attention so we can do something about it.
The paper makes a compelling case both theoretically and from the research data that mindfulness helps us not just get better at coping with difficulty but that mindfulness supports the mind to find ways to turn difficulty into benefit. That mindfulness training strengthens this dynamic attitude that can turn disasters into opportunities, at least some of the time -- an amazing kind of inner alchemy that the judgmental side of us may well scoff at, at first.
A Life of Appreciation. My own experience over years of practice is that over time these kinds of processes don't just lead to wiser coping skills under stress. It isn't just a kind of mechanical process. Gradually we cultivate an attitude of appreciation that pervades everything.
Of course, we’ll still have problems and concerns and bad days, but our foundational orientation really can shift from suspicion and concern to appreciation. And it's not a dumb appreciation, at least I hope not! Our faculties are keen and alert. And in fact, we have more resources available, as a raft of research and personal experience attests, when we aren't worried about things all the time. We can meet even difficult situations more intelligently from a standpoint of appreciation.
I think the Buddhist teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche expresses this beautifully. Here he uses the Buddhist term "buddhanature" to describe the same skillful approach to challenge.
It might seem that appreciation has no place in a world with so many challenges. These days we are constantly reminded of our problems. Depression and anxiety are on the rise, climate change is creating disasters all over the world, and big changes in society are bringing to light so many things that have been in the shadows for many generations.
How could we possibly talk about appreciation when we are confronted with such massive challenges?
Appreciation isn’t positive thinking. It’s not wishing things to be better than they really are. Appreciation is taking the time to notice what’s already here, what we have right now in this very moment. This capacity gives us the inner strength to work with our suffering in a skillful way, and to stay connected to each other as we do.
There are so many qualities that we don’t give ourselves credit for. As the Buddha discovered, our minds are naturally clear and aware. Our hearts are naturally open and compassionate. Each of us has tremendous wisdom. Although we don’t always recognize it, this buddhanature is always with us.
Every single day we do countless things that express this buddhanature—small acts of compassion, moments of insight and understanding. These things are so common that we don’t even notice them.
Recognizing these qualities is like discovering a treasure that’s been buried right beneath our feet. What we discover might feel new and fresh, but it’s our discovery that is new, not the qualities themselves.
This discovery of our own buddhanature is the solution to the problems we face. It gives us the confidence, the compassion, and the wisdom to deal with our own challenges and the suffering of the world with an open heart and a clear mind.
When we make appreciation the foundation of our practice, every moment is filled with possibility.
Excerpted from "You Already Have What You’re Looking For" by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, Lion's Roar Magazine, January 30, 2019.
I urge you to consider this: on a moment by moment basis is it possible, when difficulty arises, to take a little step back, breathe a moment, invite your awareness to broaden in some way, and see what possibilities are available? There might be some real value in even the most difficult situation.
And then zoom out and look at the patterns in your life. Is it possible to cultivate an attitude of appreciation and gratitude that pervades everything? So much has been given to us. Doesn't the world need us to appreciate those gifts and reflect that appreciation right back to a world that, as Martha Postlewaite says, "is so worth of rescue?"*Tim
*Read the full poem Clearing by Martha Postlewaite
Download the Garland et. al. article HERE.