Transformation and Mindfulness
Posted on September 18, 2015
Today we meet our hero at a critical moment in the journey. In Campbell’s model, the mentor, or counselor of the mind, brings the light of hope into the abyss of spiritual and emotional death. Hope illuminates a path back to the light, but requires transformation in order to complete this journey.
Over the years, I have read much on the science and practice of mindfulness. I am consistently amazed by the science of mindfulness and its ability to repair the parts of the brain impacted by trauma. Just 15 years ago, the word mindfulness was never spoken during my three years of graduate work in psychology. Today, mindfulness in its variety of forms are not only a driving force in psychology, but in the larger society as well.
I have worked hard in recent years to help participants in my trainings find ways to integrate mindfulness into their work with clients. As part of this effort, I have broken mindfulness down into three levels: Building capacity; Being present with thoughts, feelings, and actions; and Feedback from others. These three combined help the client realize the transformational aspects of mindfulness and helps to maximize the biological changes of neuroplasticity.
The first component is the building capacity. This is traditionally what comes to mind when people think of “mindfulness.” You can find a great post on some of these practices written by my fellow Coldspringer Bettina Harmon here. I want to focus this post primarily on the other two, and often overlooked, aspects. However, I want to make it clear that I believe strongly that implementation of a mindfulness practice builds strength, confidence, and capacity for the transformational aspects discussed below.
The magic of transformation starts with a spark of realization which requires awareness and being present with ones thoughts and feelings. This usually happens when a caring and compassionate mentor shines the light of hope into the abyss and sits with the hero to consider and reflect on the meaning of this newly illuminated path. This is a critical aspect of mindfulness that our society is yet to recognize and fully appreciate. Just because there is a better option than the hell the person currently lives does not mean the person has the neurobiological capacity to realize that opportunity without a great deal of support.
There are many biological, social, and psychological hurdles still to overcome. Moving out of the abyss means learning new skills, leaving behind relationships, and exchanging a situation someone knows they can at least survive for one of uncertainty. This is where the second and third aspects of mindfulness are critical.
In my trainings, I often take participants to the corner of Broadway and Colfax, in downtown Denver. I used to live in this area, known as Capitol Hill, and watched a drama play out every day for people experiencing homelessness in my city. Most shelters at the time made people leave in the morning, and many walked up Broadway until it met Colfax, which was where one could find their drug of choice and a number of other vices. I saw people coming to this intersection and making a choice: They could turn left down Colfax and manage their addiction, or go straight on Broadway to the library, clinics, and other services.
While this simplifies the situation facing these heroes, it helps show the power of being unaware that a different decision could be made. Before I understood neurobiology and the science behind behavioral change, I believed that these people were making a conscious decision every day. I believed they were choosing whether to continue behaviors that kept them in the abyss of homelessness and addiction or to find healthier behaviors. Unfortunately, for many there was no conscious choice.
Trauma, suffering, and the abyss is about reacting and surviving. The biology of the brain is designed to repeat behavioral patterns day after day, month after month, year after year. Most of those people approaching Colfax were not mindful of their choices, but slaves to their addictions, which most had developed as a way to deal with the psychological pain of past trauma. Please take a moment to visit a past post “The Vote” for more of the science behind this choice and changing behavior.
The great thing is that story does not end here. If a mentor comes into the hero’s life, that person can help them first realize that they have a choice and allow them to consider and reflect on the implications of making a different decision. The transformational power of mindfulness happens after this conversation, when the hero reaches the door of the abyss (Colfax) and realizes that they do indeed have a choice. This thinking about thinking is the spark of transformation is the beginning of bringing of the mind back online in a way it can start exerting control over biology.
To maximize the healing and transformational power of mindfulness, let’s bring together the three aspects. If the mentor can help the hero practice mindfulness outside the decisional situation through relaxation, deep breathing, yoga, and other methods, it helps to build the capacity of the hero to take this presence into real world situations (Luke Skywalker training with Yoda is a great example of this in the hero’s journey). The mentor can also help the hero visualize the moment of decision, creating triggers to bring the mind into the decision making process. The hope is that when the client stands at Colfax and Broadway, they stop and consider their choice, bringing mindfulness into the present.
The final aspect of my approach to mindfulness is feedback from others. The hero’s brain will take time to fully integrate and change its biology to support new, healthier behaviors. Even if they choose to go to the clinic the first day and the library the second day, they might be pulled back to Colfax the next day. Having a caring and nonjudgmental mentor helps to further the insight gained throughout the change process. Time and space to reflect with another helps reinforce the biological systems needed to make difficult change.
My challenge to you this week is to think about a client who is struggling with a difficult change. See if you can find a decision point (Colfax and Broadway) where you think presence is needed. Can you find ways to bring all three aspects of mindfulness together to help support the client in this difficult change?