A mindsight based approach to mindfulness

There seems to be a significant difference between our mindsight-based approach to mindfulness at The Mindfulness Centre and the approach many colleagues seem to take when they provide training in mindfulness meditation. This difference is worth examining closer.

Mindsight, a term coined by Daniel Siegel, is simply the ability to see minds clearly, both ours and of others. This means that we know how to look inside and perceive our own inner world, how to connect with others and perceive their inner world, and how to combine the two by promoting harmony through kindness and compassion towards ourselves and others. Achieving that is easier said than done and requires the whole symphony of a balanced brain and mind. Such symphony only starts to sound good when the many different neurocircuits in the brain and our different mind states communicate well and engage in a flexible dance of on- and off-stage appearances with each other.

The protagonist believed to be in charge of directing this orchestra is you. This statement is really not true at all as we know from both age-old mindfulness meditation traditions and science, but for the purpose of this article, we will relish our superficial common-sense perception of who we are and pretend that we are the heroes that live the lives we live. Nice to meet you, whoever you are, dear reader, and invite you to the podium of the orchestra that you are. Yes, you are an orchestra of physical and psychological players of the symphony of your body, mind, and life, and at the same time also its director. As director, you want to take good care of the orchestra that you are and admittedly, at times or even many times, the orchestra suffers. This means you suffer and you need to pay a visit to the mindsight suite.

The mindsight suite is in the wellness clinic of your brain that offers many different therapeutic modalities to your orchestra. In fact, there are mindsight suites of different sizes and complexities, and today we are going to avail ourselves of the standard suite with two rooms connected by a door. One room is where psychotherapy, the other where mindfulness meditation is provided. These two approaches to the mind’s suffering are complementary, which is why a door connects the two rooms of the suite. The psychotherapy offered in this room of the mindsight world is a particular one called psychodynamic psychotherapy. This means that this psychotherapy deals with the way history has wired your brain and affected your mind to become who you are now, and how you can change the past in light of unchangeable history to position yourself for a more creative and less painful future.

Did I say change the past? Indeed. History is what objectively happened, and because it is past, it is unchangeable. But because our memory and experiences of what happened are highly subjective, imperfect, fallible and variable, what objectively happened is mostly unknowable. All that is known about history are relics in the present, such as memories and physical vestiges of how history has impacted us, as well as the stories we have created about our history. We call these stories ‘the past’, which is the story we construct about history, and this story can be constructed in many different ways, some more beneficial to us than others.

To make a long story short, our past can be a story that is close to facts (and therefore to history), that has complexity able to describe both positive and negative events, and that is detailed and differentiated enough as to not leave out huge chunks of history. Such a story is called a coherent narrative. It will feel like it makes sense and will easily allow all parts of the orchestra that we are to participate freely in its telling. In this case, the past is healing, even if full of pain.

On the other hand, our past can be a story that is far from facts (and therefore from history), that distorts facts more than what is minimally inevitable, and that leaves out large chunks of what historically happened. Such a story has no complexity, but is complicated instead. It is unable to describe both positive and negative events in a balanced fashion, and is not detailed and differentiated enough. We call such a story incoherent, as it either feels non-sensical, or if it makes sense, it only seems that way to the protagonist, but an external observer will see all kinds of contradictions the protagonist cannot see. The protagonist is blind to his own distortions and the constructed past will not allow all parts of the orchestra that we are to participate freely in its telling. In this case, the past with its incoherent stories causes psychological disturbances we usually do not understand and end up chalking up to a ‘chemical imbalance‘.

The main point to take home here, is that thanks to the neuroplasticity of the brain we can learn to use our minds to rewire the brain, and as I said above, change our past despite the fact we cannot change history, so that it ceases to have a toxic effect on who we are.

Coming back to our cozy 2-room mindsight suite, it has been alternately nicknamed ‘presence’ or ‘wholeness’. In this suite, major misunderstandings about what the present moment is get clarified, and with it our approach to who we are gets trained to honor wholeness and all brain neurocircuitries. Let me explain.

Not infrequently people come to The Mindfulness Centre to see me, because they want to learn to ‘live in the moment, forget about the past and not be preoccupied with the future‘. They come with a fantasy of some esoteric moment, free of all the suffering that they believe their thoughts about the past and the future bring. In their minds, the present is some sort of Shangri-La free of stress and pain that promises relief from all the suffering in their lives, if only they could learn to take the right train. This reminds me of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Express that starts from King’s Cross station, platform 9¾, is invisible to the eyes of Muggles, and reached only by walking through the wall between platform 9 and 10. I must admit, being freely present and at peace independent from circumstance, does feel like a situation only accessible by walking through some wall, but that wall is never what the mind imagines.

Let’s have a closer look at the present moment. What we imagine the present moment to be, a dimensionless point on the axis of passing time, is misleading. Even when we deal with non-duality, a topic far removed from what we discuss today, the present moment cannot be imagined, because it is beyond any notion of time. Leaving that aside for now, coming to the present moment always entails honoring our embodiment, and thus the way our brains and minds work. The brain is, among other things, an anticipation machine. It uses new information coming from the present to enrich old conditioned information from the past in order to anticipate a future. This process is in fact what intention is all about: Anticipating future experience on the basis of past experience enriched by present experience.

The brain also processes information the way matter is built from tiny energy bundles that gradually assemble in stages into larger and larger bundles made from the assembly of smaller bundles (strings into elementary particles into atoms into molecules into cells into organs into organisms etc.). Information processing begins with many different small units of information called basic units of perception, which yield experience. This is a fundamental process of being alive. In humans experiencing is partly non-conscious, partly conscious and reflective. The building blocks of experience start non-consciously with the basic units of perception. These are the time interval a nerve cell takes to register and pass on an electrical impulse to the next nerve cell. It lasts about 100 milliseconds (msec). For these non-conscious units of perception to become conscious, their electrical impulses need to be amplified so to speak. This is thought to happen by a process called reentry, whereby the electrical information impulse goes through several neuronal loops before it becomes conscious. That takes time. The first go around the reentry loop takes about 250 msec. This is the time it takes to start having unconscious intuitive likes and dislikes, the root of our experiences of pleasantness and unpleasantness. For the experience of consciousness to arise, in other words, for such basic units of perception to reach enough complexity and saliency to be allowed to enter consciousness, it takes several trips around the loop, during each of which the information gets gradually enriched by new information. The purpose of this merry-go-round process is to stabilize the reentry loop activation and make it ready for conscious experience. With four or more trips (4 x 250 msec = roughly 1 – 2 sec and upward), we are in the range of the present moment. This stabilizing activation of the reentry loop that takes one or more seconds, serves the function of protecting the mind from becoming conscious of happenings every split second, which would overwhelm the organism if it occurred. Events must be sufficiently meaningful to reach consciousness. The present moment with its duration of about 1-2 (up to 10) seconds is the time it takes for such a reentry loop to be sufficiently stabilized to give rise to consciousness. The present moment as an existential, psychologically useful experience is therefore the fundamental unit of conscious experiencing, with which we can understand the way we construct reality. We are wired to experience the present moment as an experiential duration of about 1-2 seconds. This is why the present moment is so central to our work in mindfulness.

As this illustration shows, the present moment has a duration, within which we experience all three-time dimensions, memories and conditioning from the past, novel experiences arising in the present, and anticipations of the future. As the second illustration shows, the proportion of past and future experiencing to present experience can vary widely depending on how mindful we are.

But, what does being mindful entail to change the subjective experience of the present moment? It entails the capacity to observe experience without having to act upon or react to it. Siegel coined the acronym YODA for that, meaning ‘You Observe and Decouple Automaticity’. When you are unmindfully on autopilot mode (see left circle in illustration), your experience of the present moment will be dominated by past conditionings that determine how your brain constructs an anticipated future. Very reactive, past experience leads to automatic assumptions about the future without much new input from the present. In other words, your future looks pretty much like your past and you fit the category of insanity, where you expect different results despite always doing the same thing. That is the equivalent of hell. Conversely, When you are mindfully present (see right circle in illustration), your experience of the present moment will be dominated by novel present experiences. Past conditionings will be much less dominant in shaping the future, because you will not act on them, and instead allow the present to change and modify what comes from the past. As a consequence, your brain’s construction of an anticipated future will be creative and fresh and look very different from your past. You can expect different results because you allow the present to change your conditioning. This can only happen by harnessing the full potential of the medial prefrontal cortex (MPC) to integrate the brain and the mind in new ways through the practice of mindsight.

‘Being in the present moment’ does therefore not mean being untouched by the past or ignorant of future anticipation. It means being non-reactive, so that past conditionings cease to automatically determine the future. Instead, novel information flow in the present has room to review and modify the past to make room for a creative future with full potential. This is what it means to not be identified with experience.

This awareness of what a present moment really entails informs our approach to mindfulness and mindsight at our centre in 3 major ways:

1. Our brain has approximately nine neurocircuitry clusters (also called domains of integration) that need to function well for us to be healthy. When we are symptomatic, one or more of these clusters malfunctions. Mindfulness meditation addresses many, but not all of those clusters directly. At least two of them, memory and narrative integration, require psychotherapy for integration. In other words, when patients and students come to us for help, we need to have the whole person in mind and address the whole brain and mind, not just what we are trained to provide.
2. In working with the present moment we also work with past, present and future and need to be skilled in navigating the inevitable mental time travel everybody is engaged in.
3. We also work with two levels of information processing, the level of pure energy flow that has not yet been turned into stories by the brain, and the level of stories with content and meaning. Meditation deals mostly with pure energy flow, while psychotherapy focuses on the level of story-making with its content and meaning. For a successful outcome in helping our clients meet their challenges it is essential that we embrace both rooms of the mindsight suite in a discerning fashion. The practitioner needs to have the necessary flexibility to navigate them all, or at least have awareness of all and enlist other help for those domains he/she is not familiar with.

We see time and again how some mindfulness meditation teachers enter the mindsight suite with their students and patients, but keep the door between the two rooms locked. They seem to provide mindfulness meditation training, and when psychological contents arise that pertain to people’s life stories and the way they affect their lives, people are encouraged to set them aside and rigidly stay in the meditation room. This is how several people have ended up developing anxiety disorders and depressions for which they had to seek help in my practice. We, therefore, find it crucial to provide the tools to develop mindsight of the whole person. When we stand in the mindsight suite, mostly in the meditation room when we teach meditation, yet our students present experience contents that arise with stories about their lives requiring psychotherapeutic attention, we do not keep the door to the psychotherapy room shut. Without altogether abandoning the meditation room for the psychotherapy room, we will lend a listening ear to what comes up, to the content and meaning of their narratives. We will visit the other room for a moment, deal with what comes up psychotherapeutically as far as is necessary to allow the meditation process to be resumed, and thereby raise awareness in the student of the importance of dealing with all neurocircuitries, not just those accessible through meditation, and pursue psychotherapy in another context if necessary.

We feel that this is a crucial difference that affords our patients and students a level of depth otherwise unavailable to them.

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

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