Get Out of Your Mind

Feeling anxious? You’re not alone. In my experience, anxiety seems to be quite prevalent among academics. What’s interesting is how some people are really bothered by the experience, and others aren’t. One difference? Mindfulness.

Mindfulness has been an increasingly hot topic in psychology and neuroscience. Researchers investigate ancient Buddhist practices, mental health clinicians innovate around them, and in turn both enrich that tradition’s evolving trajectory.

Hayes and Smith’s workbook Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life: The New Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (2005) provides a practical, no-nonsense, self-help psychological take on mindfulness with no religious agenda and very little jargon. It’s filled with so many clear and helpful explanations and exercises that it has earned a spot on my ready reference shelf.  In the past few weeks, I’ve found myself returning again and again to two particularly compelling concepts explored in this book: the two dials and the three selves.

The two dials

The authors ask us to imagine that we have access to two dials to control our experience of life. We can only use one of them at a time. The first dial is labeled “discomfort,” and although it’s easy to find, turning the dial (aka avoidance) changes nothing about how much pain we experience. In fact, focusing on controlling the suffering only traps us in it!

The second dial, labeled “willingness,” is a hard-to-find on/off switch. The switch can’t be manipulated by the thinking parts of our mind; instead, willingness is a quality of experience that must be cultivated. Paradoxically, deep willingness to give up control and tolerate anything frees us from suffering.

The three selves

The authors observe that because of structural features of human language and brain organization, the concept of “me” can refer to any of three phenomena:

  • the historical self: the set of likes and dislikes, personal qualities, past history, etc., that our brains try to organize into a coherent narrative. The historical self resists change and innovation; its preference for consistency is often reinforced by other people and society as a whole.
  • the stream of consciousness self: the ever-changing verbal answer to the question, “what’s up?”. Sometimes, I like to think of anxiety as a small whirlpool in the stream of consciousness.
  • the observing self: the point of awareness from which your perspective on the world is centered. “Where ever you go, there you are.” It is a quality of experience and is ultimately non-verbal.

Mindfulness and meditation aim to strengthen the observing self, and so avoid suffering traps endemic to the other aspects of selfhood. The observing self is a stable place from which to operate and to look out on the world. Best of all, it doesn’t get anxious!

Getting there on a regular basis, however, takes a great deal of deliberate practice and a guide to show the way. Hayes and Smith have written a worthy workbook for the road.