When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing today, I realised that it was missing the true significance of what I was writing about. I thought I could finish re-writing it in time, but it needs far more thought so I’m having to delay it by weeks rather than days. In order to focus on the re-write, I’m having to re-publish posts that relate to it either directly or indirectly. This first sequence is about my struggles with practising mindfulness: this is first part of the sixth post.
The much earlier post on interconnectedness included a declaration of intent – I was going to seek a deeper understanding of the concept both by reading and by the practice of mindfulness, amongst other things.
Last time I shared how hard I was finding the Exploring Difficulties exercise. ‘Why were you so surprised?’ I hear you ask. I’m just hopelessly optimistic, I suppose.
The core problem, as I explained, was that I was finding it tough to park a problem on the work bench of my mind and then focus on the effects it was triggering in my body. I recalled that I am kinaesthetic rather than visual or auditory in my processing and remembered my last successful attempt at using breathing to connect with memories that seemed to be stored kinaesthetically.
I was considering looking again at the ACT version of this exercise where they use the analogy of standing on a bridge and watching the cars of thought pass beneath. This led me to go back and explore the whole ACT model again more carefully for the first time since I retired and recorded my enthusiasm for it on this blog.
As I did so it occurred to me that my problem with Exploring Difficulties may not be so much in me as in the fact that the method was not appropriate for my issues. The penny dropped that it shared its key characteristics with models of therapy used for treating PTSD, for example Eye Movement Desensitisation (EMDR):
Phase III Assessment
During phase III, the therapist will ask the client to visualize an image that represents the disturbing event. Along with it, the client will describe a thought or negative cognition (NC) associated with the image. The client will be asked to develop a positive cognition (PC) to be associated with the same image that is desired in place of the negative one. The client is asked how strongly he or she believes in the negative and positive cognitions to be true. The client is also asked to identify where in the body he or she is sensing discomfort.
Phase IV Desensitization
At this time, when the client is focused on the negative cognition as well as the disturbing image together, the therapist begins the bilateral gestures and requests the client to follow the gestures with their eyes. This process continues until the client no longer feels as strongly about the negative cognition in conjunction with the image.
The elements in common are the summoning up to consciousness of the troubling experience combined with a distractor activity that helps induce greater calm in the presence of the stress stimulus. This allegedly works well for those with readily accessible and strongly negative emotions connected with a clear experience. It may be, I reassured myself, that I had already done enough effective work on the troubling situations I was using to have defused them reasonably successfully.
Swaddled in this comforting assumption, I felt released to re-explore ACT quite freely.
There was much there to intrigue me but I homed in on one particular exercise in which we are asked to experience ourselves as the observer of our thoughts rather than, as in the Disidentification exercise I’ve mentioned before, simply learning to tell ourselves that we are not our thoughts, feelings etc.
I found it moving to read about the idea of experiencing my ‘observing self’ and, to my surprise, tears were in my eyes as I started to practice it at the dimpled-glass garden table in the afternoon sunshine, simply staring at the parasol pole and becoming clearly aware that I am not what I observe in the external world. Not too difficult that, of course.
I then moved from object to object on the table – my notebook, pen, stylus, highlighter pen, iPad – to reinforce the same sense of separation before closing my eyes and trying to achieve the same awareness in relation to my sensations. This was relatively easy – the sense data from my body seemed to parallel the stimuli from my eyes.
My thoughts and feelings, however, were a very different matter. This was far more difficult and a sense of separation was only imperfectly achieved for fleeting moments.
It left me with a sense that there are objects and sensations that are very easily experienced as out there somehow. Then there seems to be a window or lens, of thought and feeling fused, through which I experience everything else and from which it is very hard to separate any kind of observing self.
The closest I can get is to imagine I am a mirror in which all this is reflected. It is still hard even then for me as mirror not to be entangled with what is reflected in that mirror. I have written intellectually about the mirror analogy many times, and am crystal clear it describes one aspect of the nature of consciousness very well. I have used it in conversation and in writing so often I thought I thoroughly understood it.
However, when the ACT book challenged me to experience the separation between mirror and the reflections in the mirror, I couldn’t or at least not for long and not strongly. I’m sure there are many of you out there wondering why I am making such a meal of what seems a doddle to you. All I can say is that I am telling it as best as I can as I am experiencing it, and nobody could be more surprised than I am that this simple idea is so difficult to put into practice.
I sense that until I can more consistently and more clearly experience the split between the mirror of my consciousness and what is reflected in it, I am not going to make much progress with mindfulness, so I’m going to work on that.
I will complete the issues raised at this point with a second post tomorrow which will fully explain the raindrops idea.