Thoughts on the Spectrum of Involvement in Mindfulness

These are preliminary reflections on the levels of depth we can embrace as we embark on our mindfulness journey. So far I have conceptualized four depths, and there may be more distinctions one can make.

The first level of involvement is one-dimensional. At this initial stage people are inexperienced and driven by a vision of liberation from their suffering that is supposed to eliminate pain. They are impelled by a mixture of curiosity and a collection of fantasies about the potential benefits of mindfulness. Meditation is seen as a relaxation practice that increases comfort and wellbeing, and when this idea does not last, people think they are not good at meditating. Neurobiologically this could be seen as the ‘red light’ phase, where the benefits from an awareness of the importance of slowing down and relaxation are appreciated, but much rewiring of the brain is not to be expected. People remain within their comfort zone without challenging their conditionings much, thus still very much caught into their red stress zones whenever it arises. Attempts at spreading the word can get more people curious about the practice and invite them to come and get a taste of it, but deeper and more longstanding results are not to be expected. Most people who attend our Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programs (MBSRP) belong to this category, and will either remain at this level afterwards, or proceed to the next level, if they become really serious about making their practice and what the program teaches into a way of life.

The second, two-dimensional level of involvement often begins during people’s involvement in the MBSRP. The new dimension that opens up here is the realization that mindfulness practice is not about getting away from pain and making things better, but that quite in the contrary the only way towards liberation from suffering has to lead through inevitable pain. People start realizing the importance of learning how to befriend pain as an important source of information and wisdom, they accept the fact that things will likely first get worse before they can get better, and they begin to distinguish inevitable pain from optional suffering. This is the growth process people are invited to engage in during the MBSRPs. It is a very difficult step to take and a large number of people do not stick through this phase for very long. Neurobiologically this would be the ‘orange light’ phase, where major brain rewiring takes place during the time people really engage in the practice, but the gains will not be permanent unless one moves to the next phase. Attempts at spreading the word from this perspective will be significantly more cautious as people become aware of the difficulties involved. However, because of the hard work put into this phase usually over a shorter period of time (months), it also lends itself to developing the erroneous conclusion that it is sufficient to become a good mindfulness teacher. With this level of experience, the teaching can only reach a rather formulaic level that leaves students often looking for more somewhere else, particularly that the teacher has not yet explored the illusions of consciousness that only become apparent in the next level.

The third level of involvement is three-dimensional. The new dimension that opens up here is the transcendence of pleasure and pain as a preoccupation, allowing the practitioner to begin to investigate the many ways illusions and distorted views about reality are constructed by our mind and consciousness. This does not mean that pain and pleasure are not experienced anymore, but that they are seen as inevitable manifestations of embodiment towards which no resistance needs to be deployed. At this level, the challenges of the previous level are expected as a matter of course and peace independent from circumstance becomes a tangible experience. Neurobiologically major brain rewiring continues while it also gets solidified as a personality trait manifesting as a way of being. I could call this the ‘green light’ zone, while ongoing  regular visits to the orange light zone pose no great challenge. At this level teachers begin to be effective and experienced, able to transmit not just knowledge, but also the non-verbal experience of embodied mindfulness.

The last and fourth level of involvement is four-dimensional. Having explored the illusions of consciousness, non-dual awareness of Being becomes the home we reside in as we face our embodied existence. This is not paradise or any such imaginary world of perfection. It is the realization of reality or suchness at its rawest, simplest and deepest level that provides a sense of nameless and timeless Being beyond the time-bound embodied existence of our bodymind. I am not aware of any known neurobiological correlates of this stage and scientifically we likely know very little about that. Not much can be said about this level since it defies description and transcends the power of words and the mind. What can be said is what it is not, and that would take a whole other article.

Copyright © 2017 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.

Categories: Blog.