Mindful Self-Presence: Challenge and Promise

The practice of modern psychotherapy, going back to Sigmund Freud, is based on the idea that mental health depends upon gaining insight into one’s issues. The more we understand ourselves, the happier we will be. To this has been added the awareness that in order to gain insight we have to begin with experience and observation. Here’s the rub…it turns out people are not great observers of their own experience. Consequently, mindful self-presence is an increasingly important tool in contemporary psychotherapy. But we should be cautious not to assume that mindfulness alone will lead to happiness. Rather, it is a vital first step that points beyond itself.

Moving, as the scientific method does, from observation to hypothesis (insight) practitioners of talk-therapy simply presumed that individual subjects were capable observers of their own experience and simply needed help interpreting it. The subsequent focus on experience is grounded in evidence from clinical practice and scientific research that individuals are often not very reliable witnesses of their own experience. The most important intervention in the domain of experience (prior to interpretation) is the practice of mindfulness or nonjudgmental self-acceptance, as it is sometimes called. The goal of mindfulness is to allow oneself to be present to whatever occurs within the range of conscious experience. That means being present to thoughts, feelings and sensations as they occur, in real time. This is easier said than done, and the difficulties help to explain why individuals are not often reliable witnesses to their subjective experience; and hence why many people have difficulty understanding or gaining insight into that experience (which, after all, they do not adequately observe as it occurs). First, let’s look at several challenges that arise as one tries to cultivate this capacity for mindfulness. Second, let’s see if we can get a clear picture of the promise and goal of mindfulness, lest we go only half-way and wind up in an equally difficult or perhaps a worse place.

The first challenge is to overcome a lifelong pattern of allowing life to just happen and of passivity. In this way, one thinks and acts merely by habits that one has acquired but has not really chosen. Habits are formed in the course of daily living, and the person who has passively gone along with things now possesses habitual ways of thinking and feeling that may be useful or comfortable but that are not intentional or deliberate. Along these lines, mindful presence is frequently contrasted with a state of forgetfulness, of acting as if one were sleep-walking or on automatic pilot. To be mindful is thus to be awake, intentional, deliberate in one’s thinking and acting.

A second challenge follows upon the first. One of the habits formed in daily living is the habit of ‘extroversion’. Extroversion here means an orientation outward or away from the self or subject who is doing the thinking, feeling and sensing. Thinking is always about something. Sensations are always a response to something, even if the something is just an inexplicable firing of neurons somewhere in the nervous system. Similarly, feelings are either about something (perhaps something pleasant or unpleasant) or arise from within the physiology of one’s body, like a mood one cannot seem to shake. The extroverted consciousness is oriented to what these inner processes are about or are responding to. The extroverted way of thinking, feeling and sensing is exclusively focused on the content of the thoughts, feelings and sensations.

This extroverted habit leads to what Acceptance and Commitment Therapists call ‘fusion’. To the extent that one is operating on automatic pilot, one does not make any distinction between the content of these subjective operations and events in the world independent of oneself. Fusion means that the content of one’s thoughts or feelings are fused to objects in the world and both are fused to one’s sense of self. Sensations are taken as reflections of reality. Feelings are signs that something good or bad, fearful, dangerous or beneficial is really present. Thoughts are representations of the real world. In addition, I AM my thoughts and feelings. In this literalist orientation to thoughts and feelings, there is no distinction between the content of one’s inner experience and the world independent of the self.

To the extent that one is somewhat awake or intentional, sensations, thoughts and feelings may not be taken quite so literally. The thinker may demand some evidence for the thought. As one slogan has it, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Feelings also may be subjected to inner scrutiny: “If it feels good, does that mean it is good?” “I am afraid, but am I in any real danger?” But if this half-awake attitude is less literal than that of the sleepwalker, it is nonetheless still oriented to the content of conscious experiences and not to the conscious subject of those experiences. The content of experience and the content of psychological insight (interpretation or hypothesis) are not yet adequately distinguished because the newly awakened person does not yet possess an adequate sense of the self as observer and the self as thinker or the self as actor.

In contrast to these modes of being, mindful presence is oriented to both content and operation. To be mindfully aware of one’s thoughts, feelings and sensations is to acknowledge what these are about and to heighten awareness of oneself as the observer, as the one who thinks these thoughts, feels these feelings or has these sensations. Better yet, mindful self-presence is awareness of the self to whom these thoughts, feelings and sensations are present.

At this point, the third challenge arises. A common difficulty with being mindfully present to whatever occurs is the adoption of a negative attitude toward or evaluation of the self to whom these things are present: I know that these thoughts are my thoughts, and may not represent reality as it really is; but my thoughts are usually entirely wrong and I don’t know how to correct them; and these feelings are my feelings and may not be the best guides when it comes to making decisions about what is good and bad, but my heart always leads me astray and I cannot change it; and these sensations are my sensations, but I don’t like them and want them to go away. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to cultivate a sense of and develop a strong connection to the self as observer when one is locked in an ongoing battle with the content of what occurs.

Mindful self-presence is a matter of nonjudgmental observation of whatever occurs in conscious living. The practice of nonjudgmental awareness or acceptance is for the sake of making a strong connection with the self or subject to whom thoughts, feelings and sensations are present. It is not in any way a rubber stamp on the content of inner experience. Mindfulness is not a return sleepwalking from a state of wakefulness. Thoughts still require evidence in order to be taken seriously. But thinking, requiring evidence, and taking truth seriously are all aspects of the processes of thought that may be present to the subject as observer. Feelings must still be scrutinized. But feeling and doubting and scrutinizing and evaluating are all aspects of the process that may be present to the subject as observer. As the observer, then, the subject is present to the self in through each of these processes. This level of self-presence creates a sense of the self as observer and the self as thinker or the self as actor.

Here is the true promise of mindfulness. It lies not simply in one’s acceptance of the contents of thoughts, feelings and sensations as these are present to the self. The ultimate goal is awareness of and connection with the self who is self-present in the acts of observing, in the process of verifying thoughts, evaluating feelings, and managing sensations. It is finally possible to notice, in other words, that the quality of self-presence differs among these different processes. The promise is in loving oneself as a knower who places truth above falsehood or half-truths, as someone who cherishes genuine values, and as someone who is not governed by passing sensations.

It may be true that one does not yet know how to verify thoughts or to sift the wheat from the chaff. One may not yet have a language in which to express feelings and evaluate what it would be good to love or despise and what it might be a mistake to desire too ardently. These further questions are not answered by mindful practices alone. They may require deliberate study. But through mindful awareness and nonjudgmental acceptance one cultivates a taste for the quality of subjective experience when one is going through life asleep,partially awake, or else deliberately attentive, and thoughtful, authentically loving, and self-possessed. This deeper self-presence (not, for example, the presence of thoughts to the self as thinker, but presence of the self to the self as seeker) will bring to light the questions one needs to address and suggest possible ways to acquire the needed skills.

To engage in mindful self-presence is to free oneself from ruminations and self-doubt in order become a seeker of truth in a methodical way. It is to free oneself from a tumult of emotions in order to properly feel and respond to the value of aspects of the world, especially the human world, as one knows them to be. It is to free oneself from the tyranny of the senses in order to place one’s body at the service of the values that shape one’s family, society, and human community.

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