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Monday, 12 January 2015

Why practice mindfulness? An explanation from Buddhist psychology

Why practise mindfulness? Buddhist psychology offers many answers  to this question  and one of these answers concerns our tendency to live in a trance.  The trance happens  when we relate more to what’s going on inside our heads than to what’s happening in reality. 

Add in a tendency to act out of habit and you can see that we spend a lot of time going around in circles.

Mindfulness helps us to step out of the trance and this improves our chances of seeing the choices that are open to us in any given situation. Here is the sort of procedure involved:

First, something happens. This could be external - my phone rings as I'm on the way out the door, late for an appointment,  with my laptop and car keys in one hand and my briefcase in the other. Or the 'something' can be internal - a memory of a slighting remark a customer made today, for instance.

We then have a reaction which is made up of physical, mental and emotional associations with the event (panic and confusion as I try to talk on the phone and leave the house at the same time, anger at the slighting remark).

Often we are swept away by the reaction, as if in a trance - I answer the phone, and walk off leaving the laptop outside the door or I allow my evening to be consumed by re-runs of that slighting remark.

Mindfulness teaches us that we spend much of our day in one trance or another, daydreaming, fantasising, remembering, resenting and so on. But it also offers a way to step out of that process by calling us back to awareness again and again.
In the example, for instance, I might step out of the panic and decide that whoever is ringing will just have to leave a message on my voicemail; or I might refuse to re-run the customer's criticism through my head again and again, instead bringing my attention back to my breathing or to whatever I am physically doing right now.

This becomes easier if you practise mindfulness over time because mindfulness calms our reactivity, an effect that has been observed by neuroscientists.

In this way, the practice of mindfulness opens up a space in which we can choose our responses. In this space we have the opportunity to try out new behaviours - or (sometimes the wisest course) to opt to do nothing.

It seems to me that this opening up of that opportunity is among the main benefits of mindfulness.

I have illustrated this process in the “Circle of Reaction” on my main website. Here’s the link.

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