Mindfulness is in the news and on people’s minds, but I hear some confusion about whether it is about intellectual awareness or something more emotional or even spiritual. In my view, the answer is that mindfulness is both, but each aspect serves a different purpose. One is, indeed, about conscious awareness and the other is emotional and spiritual. Both are essential for achieving serenity.
At least in the Western world, the goal of mindfulness is to heal distressing emotions. For this to happen, they first have to be in our conscious awareness. This principle is clear from the healing of trauma. It is only when feelings are accessible to conscious awareness that they heal. As long as they stay buried our feelings don’t change. Even when they are in the twilight zone where we have a vague awareness but have not consciously focused on them, feelings don’t heal. We have to feel them and be aware of our feeling. Traditional healing for trauma starts with telling another person. In the telling, we become aware and begin to feel. In exposure therapy, the same thing happens. Exposure to reminders of the trauma brings feelings to conscious awareness where they can heal.
The reason probably has to do with brain circuits. Healing happens when the group of neurons (neural network) representing that specific pain or fear is activated at the same time as there is activation of neural networks representing peace and safety. The two networks become welded together as one. The process was first described in 1949 by Donald Hebb with his famous words, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” When feelings are not in our conscious awareness, presumably the groups of neurons that represent them are not firing, or at least not the ones that need to be joined with those that represent safety.
Wikipedia defines mindfulness as “the calm awareness of one’s body functions, feelings, content of consciousness, or consciousness itself.” Thus, part of mindfulness is conscious awareness. To achieve this part, we need to focus on what is going on in our mind. This is what drives descriptions of mindfulness in a more intellectual direction. Becoming aware of our own mental processes is about focusing our conscious intellectual attention. This is what leads to those descriptions of mindfulness that sound more like seeking intellectual awareness.
The Emotional and Spiritual Aspect
But the other part is the healing itself. In order for distressing feelings to heal to the point where they no longer overwhelm us or trigger our primitive brain into a fight/flight reaction another condition must be met. As described above, for healing to take place, we have not only to feel our distress but simultaneously to find a feeling of calm and safety. Doing that has nothing to do with intellect and everything to do with feelings and spirituality.
What I have found in working with trauma survivors is that the sense of calm and safety needed for healing is best achieved by building a therapeutic relationship that feels accepting and safe. However, the process goes deeper than the therapeutic relationship itself. What gives the relationship with a therapist its power is that it re-awakens previous experiences of calm and safety along with the present one. This is much harder to do with people who have never known calm or safety, but most of us have experienced “good enough mothering” at some point in our lives. Perhaps even before memory, at an age when, even in dysfunctional families, infant care was simpler and easier, most of us have had some experience of feeling safe.
From our earliest years, we look to our primary caregiver for calm and safety. When toddlers fall, they look to their mother, make eye contact, and take in her sense of calm and perspective. When mother smiles and waves, the toddler’s distress melts away and she goes on playing. Sometime around age three, under good circumstances, this feeling of safety becomes internalized as part of our being. It becomes what I call our “Internal Rechargeable Battery Pack of Connection.”
The mechanism of healing for all distressing and painful feelings is basically the same. We must consciously be aware of distressing feelings and simultaneously in touch with our inner sense of calm and perspective. One way to do this is to share our feelings with an empathic other. Another is meditation. In meditation, we seek to quiet the noise of distress and in doing so find calm and perspective.
In my view, the way this actually works is that, as the noise dies down, we reawaken that same internalized sense of everything being OK. Importantly, though, some of us have easier access to this inner calm than others. The reason is that our “basic trust” is actually not inborn but acquired. Under good conditions, in the first years of life we experience the emotional attunement of our caregivers and come to rely on it to calm ourselves when we encounter distress. Around age three, we begin to internalize the experience so that it is available even when Mom is not actually present. Even so, under stress, we may lose touch with our internalized sense of connection and safety. I am insisting on this, because many people, especially those with traumatic backgrounds, will naturally have more trouble getting in touch with a core sense of safety. They may need more help from the actual presence of an attuned other person, or may even have to build an internal feeling of connection from the ground up.
What I am suggesting, then, is that the other part of mindfulness is the need to get in touch with a feeling of oneness with others and deep safety. There a number of different ways of doing so, but I think they all boil down to finding something within ourselves that was hopefully internalized a long time ago, something that we got from those who cared for us, telling us that someone big was in charge and that everything is going to be OK.
Thus, in my view, mindfulness has two, quite different components. First we need to be consciously aware of our distress, then we need to find an inner sense of connection, peace and perspective. The first part is more intellectual, while the latter is more interpersonal or spiritual, where spiritual means connection to something greater than ourselves.
I’d like to hear your comments on this interpretation of mindfulness, since I am coming to it more from the perspective of trauma therapy than from the point of view of Buddhist practice.