Friday, November 25, 2011

Mindfulness vs. relaxation

Mindfulness is a popular word these days.  It can refer to more than one thing but they all have to be with being aware.  Another way of putting the subject is to say it is about what we allow ourselves to attend to, to pay attention to.  In America, a man who is often given credit for getting publicity for the subject is Dr. Herbert Benson, emeritus professor of Harvard Medical School.  His 1972 book, "The Relaxation Response", focused on the medical reasons for noting tension on the body and mind, and relaxing it away.  His recent 2010 book "The Relaxation Revolution" carries the same theme further and shows how much has been developed along this line in American medicine since his first book.

The Barry Boyce book The Mindfulness Revolution seems to me more important, although it can seem quite similar.  If you read the instructions for eliciting the relaxation response, similar to the body's parasympathetic response, from the 1972 book, you will find virtually the same steps as you will find in the Boyce book. The usual short version of the directions is to sit comfortably but still for 10 minutes or so and pay attention to your breath.  

However such directions are indeed a short version and for Westerners, I think, too short.  There are usually said to be two basic types of meditation practice: fixed attention and insight.  It seems to me that the first leads to the second naturally.  For 10 minutes or so a day, keep your attention on one target.  It works well to look at a single spot or junction of lines somewhere in your visual field.  Keeping your gaze there while placing your attention on the intake and exhale of your breath gives you something to focus on.  The reason you want such an anchor is so that you can notice when your attention has moved away from either of those anchors, the visual or the breath.  You can rely on your attention moving off the targets since that is what attention, the mind and the brain do.  The point and the value of the practice is to notice you have moved off the target when you can, and move back on to the visual and breath targets.  It is the noticing that leads to the psychological and life payoff.  Recently, an author on this subject said that 21 days of this exercise will be enough for you to see results in greater appreciation of yourself and the treasures in your life.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is often credited with first successfully introducing such an exercise into hospice medicine.  He had been doing the exercise and realized that cancer or heart patients for whom medicine could do nothing more might well benefit from getting to know their minds and mental habits better.  Even while dying, maybe especially while dying, being aware of what you are thinking about, being aware of whether that is what you want to be thinking about can be very helpful.  Dealing with pain, disappointment, failure, rejection, loneliness, arrogance, shame and the entire spectrum of human feelings, both positive and negative, is much easier when you can see what you are doing.  The exercise increases your ability to do just that.

Main blog: Fear, Fun and Filoz
Main web site: Kirbyvariety

Popular Posts

Follow @olderkirby