Mindfulness to deal with burnout?

 

I usually don’t write about mainstream psychology here since it’s covered well many other places. But the topic of burnout has been on my mind lately as I have helped with a thesis on the topic and it illustrates a more general point.

In the mindfulness world, mindfulness is sometimes promoted as an antidote to burnout. And that’s true enough. It can certainly help individuals to be more resilient and reduce the chances of burnout.

At the same time, mindfulness is an individual solution to a more systemic problem. In most cases of workplace burnout, the problems lies with the structures and the system. It has to do with how the business is organized and operated. It has to do with the owner and management.

And beyond that, it has to do with how we have organized ourselves collectively. It has to do with our current social and economic system, and especially the very obvious downsides to neoliberalism.

Beyond that again, it has to do with our most basic worldview. We currently have a worldview that separates humans from nature, values the material over the immaterial, the human over rest of life, and too often values profit over people.

As individuals we function in a larger social and ecological system, and that’s where most of the causes and solutions to burnout – and a range of other apparently individual problems – lie.

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Pitfalls of meditation

 

As different forms of meditation practice become more popular in the west, there is also a growing awareness of the possible pitfalls of meditation.

Here are a few:

We may be guided – either by ourselves or through a teacher – by misguided ideas. This may lead us to inadvertently practice or reinforce something unhelpful.

We may open up to various transcendent states and experiences and not know how to navigate them.

We may open up a Pandora’s Box of unprocessed psychological material.

In general, we may enter certain areas of the path or landscape without good guidance. Areas that are not fruitful. Or areas that are confusing, disorienting, and sometimes scary or overwhelming. That’s why it’s important to have access to a guide who understands and knows the terrain well from their own experience. Unfortunately, that’s often not

Unfortunately, many teachers – including many who have a formal training within a certain tradition – have a very limited skillset and experience. If anything slightly out of the ordinary happens, they may not know how to guide the student through it.

And fortunately, there are people out there who have this experience and the necessary skillset. What I have seen is that these are often people who are not bound by any one tradition. They may have training and experience from one or more tradition. But they also know and understand that the terrain we are exploring is far wider than any tradition typically covers, and that the pointers and skills needed to navigate is found in many different traditions and also outside of any tradition.

Of course, I am biased. The previous paragraph describes my own path and background, and the background of those who have guided me, so that’s naturally what I am more familiar with and inclined to see as helpful.

Misunderstanding “living in the moment”

 

There are several valid criticisms of mindfulness:

  • It’s a very broad term and it’s used in many different ways. That means that, in itself, it doesn’t mean much.
  • It’s only one element of any serious self-exploration. It needs to be combined with a range of other forms of exploration. For instance different forms of inquiry, heart-centered practices, body inclusive practices, attention to how we live our life, psychological healing, relationship work including our relationship to ourselves, others, society, our planet, and life, and a study of other people’s experiences.
  • It can open up a pandora’s box of unprocessed materials and disorienting transpersonal experiences, and not all mindfulness teachers are experienced enough to guide their students through whatever terrain is opened up.

One argument against mindfulness that I sometimes encounter, and most recently this morning, is a straw man argument and not valid. It’s when people say: “We can’t just live in the present. We need to plan ahead and learn from the past. That’s our strength as human beings.”

That’s all true. And mindfulness allows us to use that ability with more skill and avoid some of its inherent pitfalls.

Mindfulness helps us change our relationship to thoughts. It helps us see that our thoughts – including thoughts about the future, past, and present – happen here and now. They, in themselves, are not the future, past, or present. And mindfulness combined with a simple form of inquiry helps us see that thoughts are made up of imaginations (words, images) and sensations. They are not what they appear to represent.

And that, in turn, creates room for us to relate to these thoughts more intentionally. It helps us recognize thoughts as thoughts. It helps us be less caught up in them. It helps us avoid taking them as anything more than thoughts. It helps us hold them more lightly and recognize then for what they are….. questions about the world.

We not only are able to “live in the present” while using thoughts as tools. We do so all of the time. The only difference is whether we are caught up in our thoughts and take them as real and infallible assumptions about the world, or recognize them as thoughts and questions about the world.

In either case, thoughts help us learn from the past, explore possibilities about the future, and form working assumptions about the present. Without mindfulness, it’s easy for us to take thoughts to be more than they are. And with, we can use them more skillfully as very helpful and essential tools.

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Mindful & Mindfull

 

I don’t usually use the word mindfulness. Mainly because I prefer the word noticing, and also because I often am more interested in other aspects of the exploration.

The way I understand mindfulness is noticing.

A noticing of content of experience, which can be differentiated into sensory experiences and imagination (mental representations of sensory experiences, words).

A noticing of how sensory experiences (and especially sensations) and imaginations come together to create experiences that seem real, solid, and substantial. A noticing how how this sense of reality dissolves when we do the forms of noticing described here.

A noticing of space outside and inside of this content of experience.

A noticing of all as awareness.

A noticing of the emptiness all of that happens within and as.

And so on.

There is another way of understanding mindfulness which I like. Mind-full = noticing the mind “full” of presence. The whole field of experience is already and always presence. (Or awareness, or awake space, or emptiness allowing all of this.) And as we notice this, the “center of gravity” can shift from being caught in content of experience to this “context” of all experience. We may even notice this presence as what we are. Content of experience is presence. (And there is an emptiness which all this happens within and as, which all also and more fundamentally is.)

Viktor Frankl: In that space is our power to choose our response

 

frankl

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

– Viktor Emil Frankl

This is, of course, an essential part of mindfulness.

Notice the stimulus, notice the (automatic) response. Notice how my mind creates its experience of the stimulus. Notice the associations. Notice the response.

The more noticing and the more noticing of the space its all happening within, the more space there is to relate to both more intentionally.

Why mindfulness?

 

Mindfulness is a word that’s currently used to mean a lot of different things.

I tend to understand it as noticing content of experience. The content of experience that’s here now, whether it’s  sensory experiences and imaginations of sensory experiences (aka mental images, sounds and images making up words, sounds, taste, smell, sensations).

Why would we do that? I can find a few different reasons:

I get to notice how sensory experiences and imagination combine. For instance, I get to see how sensations combine with imagination to lend this imagination a sense of solidity and reality, and how imagination gives a sense of meaning to sensations.

It helps me shift from thinking to noticing thought. It helps me shift out from being caught in thinking. More precisely, it helps attention shift out of being caught in the content of stories and instead notice that these are imaginations and stories.

It helps me relate to all this in a more intentional way. For instance, I can more intentionally relate to my own reactivity (velcro, beliefs, identifications). It gives me a little more space to recognize that I can relate to my own experience and reactions in a more intentional way. I don’t have to automatically act on whatever is triggered in me.

It helps me notice that what’s here is already noticed and already allowed. This content of experience is already noticed and allowed, and noticing this helps shift the “center of gravity” to that noticing and allowing already here. It’s already built into experience.

It helps me notice what’s here, so I can take it to inquiry and explore it further.

To me, mindfulness is just one aspect of this exploration. In one way, it’s a helpful stepping stone to further exploration. In another way, it’s an essential element of any exploration of our experience, reality, and who and what we are.

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Mindfulness of form, and form as awareness

 

I went to a talk at Spirit Rock tonight, and the teacher mentioned that it doesn’t matter so much what the attention is on as long as we are aware of what it’s on.

It reminded me of bi-directional attention, which has been interesting to me since the initial opening.

Attention can be on something within content, within form, an image, a word, sensations, taste, smell and so on.

Attention can also be on awareness itself. It can be on content of experience as awareness itself.

It’s not really bi-directional. I notice I wrote that since that’s how I thought of it back then.

Now, it’s more just a noticing of form, and awareness as – or making up, or constituting – that form. I can feel a sensation. Notice the space within and around it. And notice it all as awareness. And the same with an image. A word. A sound. Taste. Smell.

I can also explore what seems the most as “me” or “I”, and notice that too as sensations, images, perhaps words. Feel the sensations. Look at the images, words. Notice the space within and around it. Rest with it. Notice all as awareness. Rest with it.

This is a form of mindfulness that makes sense of me.

Mindfulness?

 

Mindfulness has been very popular the last few years, both as practice (for a wider audience) and as a topic of research.

I rarely use the word, partly because I don’t know exactly what it refers to, and partly because other terms seem more specific and cover what I wish to talk about.

Taken literally, mindfulness may mean being mindful of – or bring attention to – something, for instance the breath or dynamics of the mind or how we behave in daily life.

To me, it makes more sense to divide it up into (a) training a more stable attention, for instance through bringing attention to the sensations of the breath, or movements, or even an image. (b) Natural rest, shifting attention – or center of gravity, what I take myself to be – to that which already allows and is the field of experience, as it is now. And (d) inquiry, a natural curiosity into immediate experience, whether it’s a belief, trying to find an identity or threat or command, or a separate self, or something else.

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Mindfulness, including of doer and observer

 

Something simple about mindfulness….

In mindfulness practice, I can notice what is happening in the different sense fields. Sensations. Sights. Sounds. Smell. Taste. Mental field activity. 

And included here is noticing the doer and observer. What is it that appears to be doing this practice? What is it that appears to be observing? For me, I find a set of sensations in the head area, and a set of images in the mental field. The doer and observer too is content of awareness, just as any other content of awareness. 

In this way, mindfulness practice shifts into and includes atma vichara, self-inquiry, and becomes even more inclusive and helpful. 

If the doer and observer is left out, mindfulness practice may only reinforce an unconcious (pre-conscious) identification with the doer/observer gestalts. When the doer and observer is included in what is noticed, they may be found to be content of awareness just as anything else, and identification may release out of them. 

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