'…it’s only when we’re able to reside in the physical experience of no ground—no longer clinging to our fantasies of how life is supposed to be—that the power of our attachments begins to diminish. This is the path of practice. When we see through our attachments, that is, when we fully experience them, the result is freedom. When we see without the filters of our judgments and desires, the result is appreciation and the quiet joy of being. When we see through our fears, the result is love.' What Matters Most, by Ezra Bayda and Elizabeth Hamilton,
The above quote is taken from the article cited written by a couple who are also Zen practitioners. They are discussing their relationship challenges in the context of the woman recovering from breast cancer. I 'hit' this article through my Google search on the 'healing power of the non-conceptual', a pre-occupation of mine that has evolved over many years training and study in the field of mental health and psychotherapy studies. My 20 years research into western psychological therapies uncovered a culturally dominant dualism governing most theories and practices that, through a deeply ingrained dependence on language and concepts, seemed to hold as much potential to fragment a person's experience as to heal them. My practice in nursing and social work as a young adult at the coal face of mental health services in London, had also taught me that simple breathing exercises based on mindfulness meditation often had an immediate calming effect upon people in overwhelming mental distress. So, over the years, I became interested in the healing power of 'resting the mind', by which I mean learning to reside in the non-conceptual, observing awareness we cultivate through mindfulness, that enables us to let go of thinking. My experience of using these techniques to manage stress in my own life and as clinical practitioner in 'front line' services, also bore testimony to their power. But this pre-occupation of mine began in the 1980's, at a time when the subject of meditation and breath work was thought to be a dangerous fringe practice by the mental health community at large, especially in the UK.
Now, over 20 years later, mindfulness- based interventions are employed in a whole range of health and social care contexts, including pain management, stress, depression and substance abuse. They have an irrefutable evidence base supporting their effectiveness in helping us to manage and all kinds of suffering of mind and body. Yet the cultivation of non-conceptual awareness has not been much explored as the point of experiential transformation common to all cognitive, affective and physiological changes effected by mindfulness. I am trying to find out more. We know these interventions work but how exactly? It seems that mindfulness exercises are much more effective once we acquire the skills that enable us to let go of thinking, of concepts and just 'be'. For most people this is easier said than done. We need to be able to shift our attention to what Professor Steven C Hayes calls 'self as context', rather than 'self as content', or Dr Russ Harris calls 'the observer self', - that part of us that remains a silent witness to all of our experience, aware and non-judgemental, free of concepts.
It seems to me that resting the mind in this spacious awareness is key to all forms of deep psychological transformation that result in new levels of sustained integration. Yet what is happening during this process remains elusive to the conceptual mind. We must experience it directly, through practice. Our counselling students will be invited to keep diaries of their meditation and mindfulness practices when they study with us. It will be interesting to see if we can pinpoint what happens when we shift from thinking to observation, from conceptual processing to awareness. By learning to 'let go and let be' we honour the resting place in ourselves, and by honouring it, we also cultivate it by experiencing it. It may be that all that's needed to heal is to give ourselves time to retreat to that resting place, to bear witness to pain as a healthy response to human suffering. Perhaps we can reframe our pain as a message, that now is time to rest in the sanctuary of spacious awareness for as long as we are able. By resting there we can allow non-conceptual space to take care of us, by loosening the rigidity of our previously conceptualised experiences, that cannot equip us to cope with sudden bereavement, trauma, overwhelming stress and pain. In traumatic cicumstances we may experience this process as a kind of conceptual melt down, a temporary shift into a state of hot fluidity where our most treasured frameworks may no longer be able to serve us, and no longer make sense. By breathing into the heat of traumatic experience with awareness, we can venthilate it, cool it down and begin to acquire the skill of mindful acceptance. When we have melted, cooled, and made some space in our old conceptual frameworks, then perhaps a fresh integration can take place.
Polish psychiatrist and psychologist KazimierzDabrowski coined a special term for this process, which he said is often mistaken for a psychoneurotic illness. He called it 'positive disintegration'. His work suggested that we can progress to new levels of integration and acheive a more subtle conceptual understanding of what it means to be healthy, when we surrender to the need to process psychological and physiological pain in this 'melt down', and accept this as a necessary component of being fully human. Meditation and mindfulness are evidenced based methods of facilitating this fluidity, other methods may include creative arts practice, yoga or even gardening. Anything that can connect us holistically to the present moment is likely to be beneficial. Each person will be suited to a variety of methods that can release us temporarily from the tyranny of concepts, from the story lines that only compound our pain when they can no longer make sense of our experience. These skills can be applied to managing change in various circumstances, whether it's being diagnosed with cancer, as in the article above, losing a job, managing panic attacks or navigating a divorce.
I would like to share more on the intersection of Dabrowski, mindfulness and creative arts practice in the next post. Meanwhile, your comments and thoughts on this are very welcome, from whatever perpsepctive.
© Clinical Dhamma