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  • Writer's pictureNick Serro

DIRT FROM THE ROOTS 22: MINDFULNESS


Welcome back to DIRT FROM THE ROOTS, your monthly blog for discovering new perspectives on interesting, insightful, and obscure topics within the mental health and psychology fields. This month we will discuss another word that has virtually disintegrated through thousands of different interpretations in mindfulness.


TOPIC OF THE MONTH MINDFULNESS


“Most of the time our perception is limited by our attention span; fragmented by continuous distractions; distorted by our biases, assumptions, and expectations; and regularly hijacked by our emotional reactivity.”
— Patrick K. Hyland, R. Andrew Lee, & Maura J. Mills

I love this quote to start this off. It’s not much of an inspirational quote– rather just an excerpt from a psychological study– but really creates a great place to start:


Because here is the big secret: the most self-aware, emotionally intelligent individuals on earth… are simply the most aware that they cannot consciously realize everything going on within them.


Mindfulness is typically perceived as simple because we assume we are constantly doing it… in reality, mindfulness is important because what we consciously perceive as our current state is usually layered up and down with subconscious influence and manifestations. Without going too far and assuming this means we are all deluded, depersonalized, or completely unaware of self, what this does mean is that mindfulness is NOT just interpreting our current state, but rather reflecting on what our current state can genuinely tell us about ourselves at that moment.


I feel a good way to start off this is with a clear example of the phenomenon that most have likely experienced: being hangry, or experiencing seemingly unprompted negative emotions in response to becoming more and more hungry. The emotions that can arise are very valid– we may begin to become more annoyed, upset, or otherwise bothered by things that would usually not breach that threshold, and we are actually experiencing this real time. It is very obvious to assume that these emotions, as they are valid, must have come from a stimulus. That is an accurate understanding of how life works, after all. But anyone who has been in this situation knows that the idea of an internal hunger being the catalyst for these emotions can be incredibly hard to see when we have multiple ‘decoy’ reasons that seem more rational in front of us. Far more than simply realizing we are angry, mindfulness refers to the ability to realize we are angry, realize that we are angry because we are hungry, take the proper steps in accountability of our emotional escalation as internally rooted and then hopefully, eat food as soon as we can.


Generally speaking, if you are of the viewpoint that the practice of mindfulness is not effective due to being redundant or inherently assumed, then you are likely misunderstanding the meaning of the word!




MULTIPLE DEFINITIONS OF MINDFULNESS


We will follow a similar format to last month with self care here– looking at these ‘colloquial’ definitions, we may be able to determine a more nuanced understanding of what the word actually means.


Mindfulness: meditating and observing your inner thoughts, emotions and processes

This definition gives one of the larger deterrents to mindfulness, and that is the idea that this is something that happens in deep, intentional mediation and nowhere else. While it is true that many find meditation the easiest and most clear way to achieve mindfulness, this activity can happen at literally any time– dare I say the most important of which happen when we are far from capable of easily going into mediation. This is accurate, but far too narrow.


Mindfulness: checking in with yourself

We go back to the ‘true, but too broad’ category from last month. Mindfulness is as simple as checking in with ourselves, but the most important part is what we do with this perception. At least to me, the idea of ‘checking in’ with myself is more around the idea of asking how I feel rather than why I feel a certain way, which obviously can lead to problems. If I feel angry, that is valid. To then say “I am angry, I’ve got to take this out on someone” is possibly the opposite of mindfulness, which would be achieved by “I am angry, I am going to identify the source and accept what I can or cannot do about the situation”. Mindfulness is checking in with yourself… and then making the most emotionally intelligent decision based on our assessment.


Mindfulness: living in the moment

Now this definition is 100% true, but highlights where the complete overuse and bloating definitions of the word can become twisted. To live in the moment does not actually indicate that we are using mindfulness, but if we are correctly using mindfulness, we are living in the moment. Confusing, yes, but important to differentiate that we may feel that we are in the moment and still be experiencing defense mechanisms, deluded perceptions, or otherwise skewed interpretations. Living in the moment… with acceptance and without judgment is a much more clarified way to define mindfulness. Living in a moment of pain or sadness or frustration as feeling hopeless and vulnerable is mindfulness– as we are not trying to mask these into more acceptable forms. As I have likely stated before here, one of the clearest ways I've ever seen ‘living in the moment’ personified is when we hear a song we love for the first dozen or so times– we are entirely focused on our genuine emotions and only experiencing our internal feelings for 3-4 minutes of bliss.


Mindfulness: understanding what we do or do not like and how we operate

Similar to the prior, this could be taken as 100% correct, but overlooks the most important assumption which is that we do not actually understand our entire psyche from a simple conscious awareness perspective. We may consciously know what we enjoy or do not enjoy, we may consciously understand our patterns, but looking at mental health as simple as awareness=change? Well, that’s not too hard to sell as shortsighted for any human who has had to live through the swells of existence. Mindfulness could actually be seen as challenging your understanding of these facets, and discerning whether what we ‘like’ is determined by our actual internal desires, or are defense mechanisms, trauma responses, or ‘bad habits’ that we may be better off letting go of.


Mental Health Foundation official definition of mindfulness:

a technique of learning to be fully present and engaged in the moment without judgment in efforts to better manage thoughts, feelings, and overall mental health.

As we can see– and as is to be expected… the overall definition here actually is a matter of splitting hairs and semantics. LEARNING is a key word– one of the largest trends that I see in sessions is the assumption that mindfulness has an end goal, when mindfulness is actually being more aware of feeling bad, why we feel bad, and slowly finding ways to accept this rather than change it. In some ways, the very purpose of mindfulness is to not have an end goal. A secondary key word to differentiate from others is MANAGE our thoughts and feelings– again, we are not learning to become master repressors, we are not learning to ‘make the good thoughts defeat the bad ones’, we are learning to become as comfortable as possible with ALL emotions because the only guarantee here is that they will not stop coming. And finally, I will re-emphasize that a non-judgmental approach is the paramount, and likely most challenging, factor that must be present for full mindfulness to occur.


MORE HELPFUL ELEMENTS TO VIEW AROUND MINDFULNESS


Well, considering this word is murky due to broad and wide-spanning definitions, perhaps it is easier to look at the underlying or connecting processes around mindfulness than trying to define it as one single concept.


Mindfulness requires PATIENCE:

It’s not easy to look at ourselves in raw form– why do you think all 8 billion of us fall victim to defensiveness so often? And therefore one of the key parts of mindfulness is patience. Patience with ourselves, with our growing pains, with our disbelief, and with others are all very crucial but sometimes overlooked elements of mindfulness.


Mindfulness requires NON-JUDGMENT:

I wouldn’t reiterate the same point over and over unless it was very important! We can use a common example in substance use: the hardest part of actually treating addiction comes down to acceptance without judgment that the individual does need to treat an addiction. This is arguably the most difficult part of mindfulness for a good grip of people, and while there is understandably a hard natural resistance to exposing our flaws, it’s even harder to remember that by not doing so, we are only making them more problematic.


Mindfulness requires OPENMINDED APPROACHES:

This is a very important aspect to mindfulness as our ingrained patterns are certainly going to fight against the idea of accepting our true current state without judgment. Mindfulness can be extremely difficult when we want to see ourselves in a way that is not actually serving our inner wants and needs– and this is why starting from a fresh and newborn perspective is crucial for mindfulness to fully develop. We again see here how mindfulness becomes much more easily seen as a daunting task when we consider it is having the courage to look beyond our lifelong defense mechanisms.


Mindfulness requires “NON-STRIVING”:

I actually thought this was a great way to put it, awkward as the verbiage is– it is very, very difficult for most people to do something without some kind of goal, endpoint, or function; mindfulness is the opposite of this in some ways. Our goals, endpoints, and conscious reasoning for doing things are what create expectation, and expectation is truly the root of all heartbreak. If we strive to engage in mindfulness meditation and make a conscious and engaged effort to try and do it, we have succeeded 100% per the definition of mindfulness, even if we didn’t see any changes. Just making the effort is enough– and that is almost a ‘meta-mindfulness’ issue that might be hard to see itself!


Mindfulness requires TRUST:

Continuing on this thought, we must understand that mindfulness is not always self-evident nor positively received. In fact, the very root of defense mechanisms or trauma response is in self-preservation via warped perspectives– essentially, we are trusting ourselves that what we are perceiving is at least to some degree influenced by unperceived (and valuable) factors that should be considered as well. In my own and many others’ experiences with mindfulness, it can very easily be a “worse before it gets better” type of situation.


Mindfulness requires ACCEPTANCE:

And of course, we don’t always fully like ourselves. If someone tells you they like every single thing about themself, they would be more likely to have very little understanding of mindfulness at all! Now hopefully this is not taken in any negative attitude towards confidence nor self-esteem– rather just to highlight how a mindfulness-based perspective would come from the view of “I accept even the parts that create barriers to my life as part of me”. Accepting our flaws as permanent struggles that can be managed and improved but not cured is one of the most difficult things for a human to accept; it will also often correlate with greater confidence and self-assurance should we truly reach a point of acceptance. Once we get to this point, we can then effectively manage issues– utilizing external resources rather than continuously feel we are failing to do something ourselves must be predicated by the acceptance that we need external support in the first place.


Mindfulness requires LETTING GO:

The emotionally dire idea of a couple realizing 15 years in that they are better off not together is a brutal but great example of true mindfulness. Forgiving someone for something generally seen as unforgivable is another good one. Letting go of what does not serve us certainly sounds like one of the most generic things I’ve written in these blogs, but, much like mindfulness itself, is one of the best pieces of mental health advice anyone can give anyone. The key addition that mindfulness brings to letting go is not just processing, but also fully understanding the ways that something impacted us; for better or worse, that is usually our only plausible option for progress.


WISE OBSERVATIONS

OF A BUDDHIST MONK


A Buddhist Monk might be one of the most common associations with mindfulness (or at least meditation), and I will share a story of when one described her interpretation of the phenomenon, as it had a great impact on my understanding.


Describing a meditation experience, the monk began with an emphasized highlight around beginning without an expectation. “I had my own perceptions of course,” she assured, “but look at it like a live event or contest. We should probably have some expectation of what will happen, but the entire purpose of the event is based around the unknown factor. It is what does happen that matters, regardless of where our expectations started. We wouldn't enjoy it if we went to see our expectations play out perfectly.”


When the monk sat down to mediate, she said her main focus was “to try and observe” more than anything. She began to have a sort of ‘daydream’-- remember, this is someone who practices daily for decades, not the typical response to meditation– in which she said she saw a dragon rise up around her. This dragon came face-to-face and simply said, “GO FUCK YOURSELF”.


While she understandably felt a great amount of intense emotion, she chose to not interact, and let the dragon “go”. She reported feeling scared, curious, and oddly, relieved. The dragon proceeded to fly around continuing with extremely hateful messaging, but at a point burst into flame and disintegrated. Upon concluding meditation, she deduced that not only was there a part of her that was more angry than realized, but also how to handle it from a calm and collected perspective. Now obviously this situation is being told out of thousands of meditation sessions experienced, but in this case, she said it led to her cutting out a toxic person she had not recognized beforehand. In bypassing a heated emotional state to recognize a strong negative emotion, we provide the same emotion in a much more regulated and logical headspace.


Now unfortunately, this situation is in no way easily attainable or repeatable– awesome as it may be– but is a good personification of how mindfulness does work most effectively. This monk did not repress anger– in fact, her anger manifested as a literal DRAGON– but rather effectively “sat alongside” the intensity of the emotion and waited until she was in a place to make a successful plan to address it. Oftentimes it is this fiery ‘dragon’ which we contain within us that blocks us from seeing what is truly most valuable at the time.



MINDFULNESS AND DISSOCIATION:

HOW DO THEY CONNECT?


Another aspect of mindfulness here is the contrast of the concept to dissociation. While this topic is deserving of its own entire article, dissociation briefly describes anytime we are experiencing cognitive separation of our mental functions from conscious awareness. While many jump to the most extreme definition of the word– and dissociation at full does indicate we are fully disconnected from our body and would describe people in psychotic episodes or experiencing dissociative identities– the truth is that you have probably dissociated (at a much lower level) multiple times today. Anytime we are engrossed in a movie, book, music or video game to a point where we are “fully immersed”– that would be dissociation. When we drive in our car and the commute feels quicker than usual– it is due to dissociation. Pretending we are a chef while we cook, imagining we are in a race while jogging, or even just looking out into nature and fantasizing about what life would be like out in the wilderness could all be categorized as dissociation, and though we may go to the more extreme examples at first, it is important to understand this in context of mindfulness.


My favorite example for dissociation is video games: there is a reason people have died from excessive video game usage, and that is because they have the unique ability to simulate the feeling that all our needs are met regardless of the fact that we may literally be dying of thirst in reality. This example highlights a clear difference between mindfulness and dissociation, but can also create a middle ground which for ease of clarification we could call “typically emotionally distracted”. The idea of dissociation might be perceived as mindfulness to some as it is “taking our mind off of something”, but in earnest our mind is going in the opposite direction from this ‘typical’ state. When we dissociate, we are actually foregoing our present state for a less reality-based one. TO BE CLEAR– this can be a VERY GREAT coping mechanism in many scenarios, despite the bad rap of the word. Ultimately, however, dissociation is in many ways an antonym of mindfulness.


Put in most simple terms, from a mental/consciousness perspective, dissociation would be seen as daydreaming or “going somewhere else (fantastically)”, typical state would be seen as our baseline state of coping and defense mechanisms, and mindfulness is sitting in the emotions that are harder to cope with in attempt to increase comfortability with these inevitable states. Let us use a few examples of each response to a few sample situations:


Situation A: a friend is not responding to your texts after an uncomfortable discussion:


Dissociation response: Ignoring the situation, telling ourselves nothing happened or there’s nothing to be concerned about

Typical response: Either taking the blame on self, putting the blame on the friend, or reframing the friendship with a more apathetic, negative, or overly optimistic viewpoint.

Mindful response: Considering how we are genuinely feeling emotionally and how you would best express yourself in context of how the friend may respond as well as with acceptance that we have no control over anyone’s response but our own.


Situation B: we have overslept and will be late for work:


Dissociation response: calling in sick, going to work and not addressing that we are late, blowing off work

Typical response: Self-anger or frustration, frantic responses, overly apologetic responses, externalizing projection

Mindful response: Considering why we slept in, what can be done to appropriately rectify the situation, and taking genuine accountability for our own internal guilt as well as outside issues we may have caused while attempting to move on with the day and compartmentalizing this moment.


Situation C: we are overly anxious about a tough task tomorrow:


Dissociation response: Ignoring the situation, daydreaming about other things to distract, overindulging in distraction activity/behaviors

Typical response: acting upon anxious impulse, misattributing anxiety elsewhere, displacement behaviors in interactions with people around us, practicing/preparing for task, perseveration on anxiety

Mindful response: Accepting we have no control over anxious feelings and must sit with them, determining healthy means to channel anxious feelings through, doing relaxing or soothing self care activities, reframing anxiety as investment into situation and considering how we can give our ‘best shot’ rather than looking at the situation with a more binary succeed/fail or good/bad approach.


Situation D: we are emotionally dysregulated:


Dissociation response: ‘classic’ dissociation (being ungrounded or not in the body), daydreaming, shutting down, going numb, negative emotional responses to full escalation dissociation

Typical response: feeling hopeless, helpless or powerless, displacing emotions on others, taking harsh self-blame, being unable to sit in our own bodies

Mindful response: Accepting that we have lost access to many of our regulated coping mechanisms and frameworks and recognizing that sitting in these hard emotions is a better decision than escalating them, getting ourselves to a more suitable environment if possible, mental exercises of ‘tolerating’ negative state with focus on regaining tools once dysregulation passes.


Situation E: someone close to us has died:


Dissociation response: going on as if nothing happened, distracting self from intensity of grief, pretending this is not real

Typical response: continuing obligations such as work and typical activities with expectation that we will only be mildly affected, either refusing to discuss grief or oversharing, a constant feeling of something being wrong or off

Mindful response: Accepting that grief is larger than the brain can cognitively handle, considering many emotions are yet to develop/guarded by shock, taking proactive steps to adequately process such as seeking counseling or other therapeutic methods, and giving self as much grace as possible to pause daily activities to make time for grieving.


As you can see here, the idea of mindfulness is certainly not easy nor something we constantly do. Mindfulness could also be compared to critical thinking after learning something as opposed to just blindly accepting that as fact (middle ground) or coming up with our own self-interpretation that disregards or embellishes on what is presented (dissociation).




NOVEL IDEAS TO GENERATE MORE MINDFULNESS


Beyond meditation and just, well, living life in general, here are some more novel ways that we may find more helpful in better engaging in mindfulness.


5 THINGS YOU FEEL, 4 YOU SEE, 3 YOU HEAR,

2 YOU SMELL, 1 YOU TASTE

A therapist ‘classic’ if you will here, this activity may not be universally helpful but can typically at the very least start the brain on reconnecting with our present environment. Noticing all 5 senses will naturally initiate a shift from internal to external focus, and when the external overtakes the internal, it becomes much clearer to see an accurate picture of what is going on within us. This activity is particularly effective in moments where we feel “not connected to ourselves”, whether that is just in an acute moment all the way towards full depersonalization. This can be particularly effective in a desirable environment: sitting in a place where we trust that the outside is not causing discomfort can make discernment of internal perceptions much easier.


“THE MINDFUL SHOWER”

Another way to ‘hack’ into mindfulness is to add in other variables. A shower offers a range of strong sensory experiences– being alone in thought in a dark or well lit area, strong smells of soaps and shampoos, feeling the water on our skin, a large range of temperature, the acoustic sounds of water, etc– which can be seen as a sort of ‘meditative space’ even for those who have a harder time with the process. Noticing any of these aspects (or any others) can more quickly pull us towards a more mindful state both through distraction and clear focus on what we are perceiving in the moment. An added benefit– with the hopeful assumption that you shower regularly– this is something that we can start incorporating with zero change to our normal routine.


STOPPING TO THINK ABOUT THE DETAILS

I’ve surely mentioned before how the easiest way to live in the moment and slow time down is through novel experiences– to reverse engineer this, the reason this works is because after doing activities or going to spaces or seeing people repetitively, we stop being as attentive, observant, and rely more heavily on prediction. Stopping to think about the details of a familiar situation can not only highlight the differences that we have been overlooking, but also may make us re-appreciate these things that we then realize we have taken for granted to some degree. Examples: next time you eat a meal you like, think about chewing every bite, notice the individual flavors you like, and try to notice the shift in your internal feeling of getting full or no longer feeling hunger. Next time you see someone you see frequently, pay attention to their eye color, what they are wearing, the sound or cadence of their voice, the things they say that are unique. By focusing on what is normally being overlooked as a superfluous detail, we are actually pulling ourselves to be more present, engaged, and therefore mindful. Not to mention, changing our focus and where we put our attention will eventually lead to novel perceptions of even something that is seen as one of our most monotonous constants. Additionally– perhaps obviously, participating in novel experiences will likely encourage us to do all of these things naturally.


“CARS ON A FREEWAY”

The closest I can personally get to meditation without extreme hyperfocus or extreme physical distraction is to look at this interpretation of the activity: imagine you are sitting on an overpass of a freeway during rush hour. Now imagine your thoughts as the cars. We will watch in overwhelm as the hundreds of shiny, noisy, and dysregulating distractions race uncontrollably below us, but the focus of the activity is simply to remain conscious that we are not INSIDE any of those cars, rather just above them watching. We might see a high speed chase, a massive wreck, or even a 47 car pileup, but the purpose of the activity is to stay present in the idea that we are simply in the vicinity, and do not have to get whisked away in any of them. Not only does this activity foster actual mindfulness via separation of our own internal monologue from our actual present self, but may open the door to meditative benefits for those who have given up by shifting the goal of the activity from trying to attain an empty mind to trying to remain unbothered by a racing one.


ACTIVE LISTENING

Damn, this in itself is another one of those phrases that may have all meaning numbed out through overuse without proper explanation. ‘Active listening’ is more or less treating a conversation as a lecture; Most of the time in normal conversation, conscious or not, we are at least partially configuring an answer while the other person is talking. This is obviously just a natural and helpful approach to banter, but does take away from us being present in the conversation. Two ways that this can be done are obviously by simply taking an approach to a conversation that we are not going to respond to encourage further focus on what is being said, or for others like me that find this near impossible, shift mindset to aim to think about questions pertaining to what that person is saying that keeps the conversation engaged on their topic. And writing that out… no wonder I became a therapist!



CONCLUSION


Did we get novel information this time? Still probably not, but unlike self care, mindfulness is something that might be better reframed as something that humans in general actually have a very difficult time understanding psychologically. We can get to a point where we have better self awareness and understanding, but mindfulness is still what takes those pieces and leads to the all important next step of emotional intelligence to understand what we can truly best do with the emotions we have become aware of.


One of the funniest things to me personally is that at the end of the day, it is succinctly correct to say you will manage an excellent life of mental health with just SELF CARE and MINDFULNESS. That is truthfully the most concise way to answer one of the most complex questions we as a species can ask– the irony is just that the most complex question will NEVER be adequately answered with a concise, brief statement.


Perhaps we should look at these phrases similar to “eat healthy” or "succeed", "stay focused" or “exercise”-- very general truths that are completely valid but meaningless until we fully look at our own interpretation and balance of these concepts in our own life.



WHAT’S COOKING FOR NEXT MONTH

PSYCHEDELIC THERAPY PART I

We are in for a good one next month: whether you see this extremely fast-rising concept as dangerous usage of schedule I narcotics, believe this is the greatest psychiatric treatment available to humanity, or land anywhere in between, we will begin to go over what can be said at this point about the controversial yet groundbreaking approach that is psychedelic therapy.


MORE ABOUT

CONNECTED ROOTS


At Connected Roots, our three core pillars are connection, grounding, and confidence.


We share dedication to creating nonjudgmental and safe spaces where clients can

express themselves authentically and reach their goals.


For more information on Connected Roots or Nick Serro, please visit our website or contact us at 720-593-1062.



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