Walking has become an increasingly stressful activity for me of late. Not because it is the slowest mode of transport and my mind is constantly let down by the physical speed of my legs, nor because it involves walking past people and several awkward decisions about timing of eye contact and polite ‘hellos’, not even because my dog might attack the little child who attempts to stroke her, although the one that kicked her in the face deserves it. It is stressful because I am constantly having to attend to everything around me and pay attention to it. Every noise I hear, every tree I see or small animal that scuttles away, not to mention all the traffic and cars I have to attend to in the ‘present moment’. All whilst trying to stop my brain doing its normal wandering off. I use to walk to get away from the present, to get my dog out whilst I could digest my own head and LET it wander freely. I call it killing two birds with one stone. But ever since I found myself being stung by the Mindfulness bug, doing that makes me feel almost guilty. Am I indulging too much in my minds wanderings? Have I been doing it wrong all this time and making myself even more stressed in the process?
Mindfulness is an ancient Buddhist practice, which since the 1970’s has been remoulded into our Western clinical settings; you would be hard pushed now to see a doctor or therapist for mental health difficulties who does not at least slip in the idea of trying Mindfulness, in fact the majority will find that this is the main focus of their treatment. It has been so contagious that now even employers are subjecting their employees to courses on it, to improve general stress levels in the workplace and ensure everyone gets on harmoniously by being mindful. But what does mindfulness even mean? The definition of being mindful is “the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment”. It does not happen overnight, but one starts by consciously practicing it during walks or taking time out to think about it. So you stop what you are doing, you take notice of all the sounds, smells and things around you that you can see. You let any feelings or thoughts just pass through your brain without attending to them, you just be. Like a non-evolved chimp who ends up dead very quickly for paying no attention to the sound of a grizzly tiger heading straight for it. Sorry that’s wrong, he paid attention to it, but then let the feelings of fear bypass him whilst he lived in the present.
There are mixed reports on how helpful Mindfulness actually is, although if you hear about it through the official clinical channels you will only ever be told that it is evidence based and comes side effect free. For example Brown and Ryan (2003), who developed the Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS), say that dispositional and state mindfulness predict self-regulated behaviour and positive emotional states. In a sample of people fighting Cancer, they report that increased mindfulness over time correlates with reduced stress and mood disturbances. Pretty powerful stuff. Researchers at Oxford University found it can even prevent relapses in depression in 44% of cases. But delve deep enough and you discover reports and articles warning of the harm it can do. Especially when one attempts to learn mindfulness themselves or is taught it by an inexperienced clinician. It should be remembered that none of the people teaching the technique in clinical settings have spent time in Buddhist practice learning the correct method, for this takes years, even a lifetime. So what we have is a fast tracked version, a slimmed down practice that has taken out some bits and ignored the rest. For many the practice can be traumatic in itself.
Once I had grasped the principles of the Mindfulness practice I was to endure, from the self-help leaflet on it I had been handed by an inexperienced Support Worker, I had a few break through moments of real connectivity with my present self, but mostly I felt frustrated and like a failure. More than that, at times I felt like I was not even really there, that I was just a body moving along, nothing more than the trees I was listening to. Because of my Asperger’s I am often not really in touch with my body or my feelings. When I am it comes in a great big wave like the flood gates have been opened, but it quickly closes. This activity demanded I attend to what I could not reach, and in doing so left me with more issues and anxiety than I started with. A Consultant Psychiatrist from the Maudsley hospital has been investigating these adverse reactions, and the reports of many of depersonalisation, which refers to feeling detached from oneself as though you are watching yourself from the outside. It is not just those in clinical settings experiencing this either, the Buddhists practicing the full Monty mindfulness themselves have reported adverse effects, including changes in their sense of selves and problems with social interactions (imagine if you already have these issues to begin with!). It sounds like a good thing to do, that we should take more notice of what is in the present, but taking this too far and making it a priority, we also ignore another very important human process; being creative and letting our minds wander.
Jonathan Schooler reported that mind wandering increases during undemanding tasks, which makes for more creativity. When I walk my dog along the river thinking through all the thing at my desk I could not, I come up with solutions to my problems, I think of new ideas. I also process anything bad that has happened, instead of ignoring it and letting it sit and fester, I tackle it in my mind and think it through. Stuart Heritage suggested this week in The Guardian that we should instead embrace Mindlessness. This is a new wave of thinking that assumes our brains can take care of themselves without are conscious imput; we breathe automatically without thinking for a reason and have always done so, we do not now need to start interfering with that process. Mindlessness relies on gut feelings and mind wandering day dreaming, all the things Mindfulness has campaigned against. It certainly sounds less exhausting.
It is true, we should pay attention to what is around us. We should listen when people are saying important things to us, and notice beautiful wildlife and sights we have not seen before, but we should also let our mind do its own thing when it wants to, not fight it. Let it wander and explore and come up with solutions. For those of us on the spectrum this is quality time to decompress from all that is present that we find overwhelming, to focus on ourselves and let lose our creativity. This is what reduces our stress, not ignoring it for the sounds of passing cars and the hat colour of strangers.