Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness by Susan Smalley, PhD, and Diana Winston (DeCapo Press), reviewed by Steve Gladis.
Overview: This is a book about the science and art of mindfulness written by a scientist and an artist, of sorts. The authors are colleagues at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) www.marc.ucla.ed. Early on, the authors give a definition, “Mindfulness may be thought of as a state of consciousness, one characterized by attention to the present experience with a stance of open curiosity.” Mindful Awareness Practices (MAP) describe meditation and relaxation techniques in this book. “Mindfulness changes your relationship with life.” How? In this book, the authors describe what mindfulness does and why it works (the science) and how to do it (the art). For example, science has demonstrated that mindfulness reduces stress and chronic pain; it fortifies our ability to cope with painful events, fear, greed and anger; it improves attention and positive emotions (like happiness and compassion); and it improves interpersonal skills, creativity, and performance at work, school, and play.
- What is Mindfulness? Mindfulness is like the seat belt of mental health protecting us from anxiety, depression and pain. Research demonstrates that mindfulness changes our brain—our immune system (toward healing), our brain activity (toward calming), our emotions (toward lessening depression and anxiety and toward happiness). Neuroplasticity means that the brain changes, and mindfulness practice affects neuroplasticity. Mindfulness helps quell “reactivity” or knee-jerk responses to stimuli that produce stress. Instead, mindfulness helps you respond with a “kind attitude” and compassion toward yourself, others and the present experience.
- Getting Started: Change is difficult, but mindful meditation helps. Habits are ingrained and automatic. Four steps to change habits (like starting to meditate): 1. Take simple steps—make it easy; 2. Create a supportive environment—hang out with supporters, not naysayers; 3. Motivate people with evidence and practice positive self-talk; 4. Repeat, repeat, repeat! Mindfulness increases attention in just 5 days with 20 minutes a day. Postures for mindful meditation include lying down, sitting in a chair, sitting on the floor or on a cushion. Free meditations: www.marc.ucla.edu. Meditative breathing helps asthma and heart patients, lowers blood pressure, and reduces anxiety. Indeed, breath is the foundation for calming the mind. Focusing on an anchor spot—like the nostrils, abdomen, or chest—helps you concentrate on your breathing. As you breathe, the mind wanders. Bringing your mind back to the breath is the fundamental practice of meditation.
- Mindful Movement: Becoming more attuned to your body can help heal it and prevent disease by strengthening the immune system. Mindfulness and weight loss studies show reductions in binge eating. Furthermore, trying to suppress thoughts about eating or attempting to avoid certain foods only increases our engagement with them. However, with mindfulness, you note its presence and then let it go. Faster rates of healing and resistance to disease were found to correlate with meditation. Moving meditations like t’ai chi, walking, and yoga increase self-awareness. “The body is the doorway to mindfulness.”
- Working with Physical Pain: In biology, pain indicates danger and makes us retreat from it for self-preservation. We don’t feel pain when we’re unconscious—as with anesthesia. We feel pain through 3 systems: sensory, response, and evaluation systems. We sense pain somewhere in the body which gets referred to the spinal column, then to the brain—which then triggers a defense mechanism to inhibit pain. Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that we become solely an ‘observer’ of the pain, which separates the pain from any story we might attach to it. This “delinking” separates the sensation from the story. “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” Some techniques: Breathe into the pain, practice mindful distraction, use kindness and compassion toward caring for the pain.
- Feeling Bad: Emotions (fear, anxiety, sadness, happiness, joy) are biological reactions to danger and competition. Our emotional brain circuits are much older than our rational brain and so override our thinking many times. Mindfulness develops the pause between emotion and action. The fear response is evolutionary and protects us from threats. Anxiety is fear when no reasonable threat exists—the amygdala is on overdrive. Mindful breathing helps to put the brakes on the amygdala—which can act as the gas pedal for our brain. For the anxious person both cognitive reappraisal and suppression work. Reappraisal works best. Assume the best and move on is a good philosophy. “Mindfulness can be a key to learning how to relate to emotions in healthy and useful ways.” Use RAIN to control the emotions: Recognition (cognitive labeling)—Acceptance—Investigation (explore the emotion)—Non-Identification (my emotions are not me).
- Feeling Good and Finding Happiness: We catch happiness from others, and it arises from the fulfillment of living a meaningful life—one with purpose, values, efficacy, and self-worth. Mindfulness increases our feelings of well-being and happiness and opens up our capacity for intuition and problem solving. The brain does this through “coherence” or pulling parts of the brain together (synchronicity) like a symphony conductor. Self-compassion leads to happiness and has 3 components: kindness, mindfulness, and awareness of our connection to humanity.
- Paying Attention and Stressful Thinking: Our time and attention are the best things we can give another person. There are three kinds of attention: alerting (preparing to react); orientating (directing attention to someone or something); and conflict attention (paying attention when distractions interfere). Conflict attention is critical to self-regulation. Concentration and mindfulness go hand in hand, whether focusing on your breath or on an object. Often, we worry about many things that never happen. Symbolic language developed 77,000 years ago and with it the prefrontal cortex (PFC) grew to accommodate abstract thinking. The PFC is the master architect—shifting attention, adjusting, and suppressing. The PFC functions to move us toward our goals—to plan, organize, and execute. Mindfulness allows us to see things in their conceptual bareness—as they are, not with our stories attached that can narrow them with a kind of prejudice. Meditation keeps us from getting on the train of cascading thoughts (often negative ones) by focusing and staying in the moment. Don’t Believe Everything You Think! Focus on the body, not the story the mind is telling you.
- Mindfulness in Action: Mindful communication leads to better decision making. Mindful dyads seek information, have a positive perspective, see multiple perspectives, can describe their thoughts and feelings, acknowledge partner’s communication, use participative language, and demonstrate turn-taking (Jackie Krieger, Western Michigan University). “Better than/less than” thinking is the source for evil in society. Note the Stanford Prison Study where “guards” treated “prisoners” cruelly due to this kind of thinking. Mindfulness helps us overcome this bias. Mindfulness in Schools: Studies in schools in India, Britain, and the US (New York, Arizona, California) demonstrate that more mindful students perform, test and behave better in class, and exhibit less anxiety and stress. Teaching mindful practices to students from kindergarten through college enhances well-being.