Sati, in the Pali language, the language of early Buddhist scripture, is the ability to remember, to call to mind. Thus it is usually now translated as “mindfulness,” introducing different connotations in English. And mindfulness has become attached in a mysterious way to cognitive behaviour therapy.
A webcast by the Oxford Cognitive Therapy Centre last month took the form of an interview with Dr. Mark Williams, who promotes what he calls Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). Although the webcast had technical problems, you might be able to download it from this link: Live Interview with Mark Williams 10 Nov 2008
Dr. Williams’ brief explanation of mindfulness is that it has two components:
The first is to simply attend to one thing at a time, whether it’s eating, or doing routine activities, or the breath. We have a lot of mindfulness meditation practices, such as focusing on the breath, which enable people simply to learn to train their attention, to stay on one place.
…using that attentional tool that one has learned,to be able to maintain a wider form of awareness, to allow thoughts, feelings, body sensations, or whatever normally distracts, to come into the mind, and then be held in this different perspective that enables people to see them clearly as just mental events, as mental states.
Asked how this compares to distraction, he explains that using distraction you “move your attention away” from wrong or troublesome aspects of your experience, but using mindfulness you “take a different perspective, or relate differently to what’s troubling” instead. To claim that moving away and taking a different perspective are not the same thing seems deliberately confusing, recalling the purposeful mystification described in an earlier post here, so it needs closer examination.
How can you control your own thoughts? Well, there are essentially four methods:
|ignoring||“Try not to think about it.”|
|denying||“It’s not true.”|
|distracting||“Think about something else.”|
|depersonalizing||“The thought is not really mine.”|
Most people ignore things that trouble them from time to time. They might ignore the troubling thing for a while, hoping it will go away. If it doesn’t go away, they might then try a different approach. Ignoring things works, but most of us know that it’s only good in the short term.
Denial works less well, because the denial itself may be contrary to reality. It’s like telling yourself a lie. So denial places you in a kind of parallel universe where things are not what they seem. You might have to deny further things so that you can maintain the initial denial, causing denial to become troublesome in itself.
Distraction works very well in the short term, just like ignoring but more likely to work. That’s because when you distract yourself you ignore the original thought by substituting a nicer thought. The nicer thought helps to prevent you from relapsing and thinking about the troubling thing again.
Depersonalizing is a strange technique that some very ill people use. They are able to imagine that some of their thoughts are not their own. So they do not actually have to deal with troublesome thoughts. They convince themselves that although these thoughts are “in their heads” the thoughts do not really belong to them.
Which thoughts can you control?
In the cognitive model of troublesome emotions, there are three elements that you can apply these techniques to:
|cognition||“I see a man approaching.”|
|schema||“He looks like my father.”|
|automatic thought||“Try to escape!”|
|feeling||“I am anxious.”|
You cannot access and control the schema or the feeling directly, but you can access and control the feeling indirectly by converting it into a thought. For example, if you are anxious you can have the thought “I am anxious.” Then you can control that thought.
I’m leaving out somatic symptoms (like raised pulse, sweaty palms) only because they don’t contribute much to this discussion.
So there’s a matrix of eleven ways you can control your thoughts — not twelve because you cannot ignore a cognition. There are circumstances in which people do ignore cognitions, but they don’t choose to do it or control when it happens (except perhaps though hypnosis).
|ignoring||—||“Do nothing.”||“I’m not feeling anything.”|
|denying||“My father never looked like that!”||“There’s no need to escape”||“I’m perfectly happy, really I am.”|
|distracting||“Is it going to rain?”||“I should put my coat on.”||“I’m anxious because the washing might not dry.”|
|depersonalizing||“Someone else is seeing him.”||“It’s not me who needs to escape.”||“I can see how this might make someone anxious, but it doesn’t affect me.”|
The risk with mindfulness is that it might encourage people to adopt a depersonalized approach to their problems, creating an imaginary second self that observes their real self.
Their real self continues to have exactly the same problems as before, but their second self is detached from those problems and does not suffer from them. Although this works, in the sense that it avoids the suffering, it only works by creating a worse problem — the problem of depersonalization.
It’s similar to curing a headache by banging your head against a wall until you fall unconscious. See, you’re not worried about your headache any more!
It could be said that I have misinterpreted and distorted the idea of mindfulness, and that it doesn’t mean this at all. Perhaps if it is very carefully explained, it can be put into practice without any risk. But in this webcast, a leading expert in the use of mindfulness in psychotherapy is seemingly unable to explain it carefully enough to avoid this interpretation.
I can only conclude that the misinterpretation and distortion lies in using the idea of sati to evade experience instead of to embrace it.