Do You Really Know Yourself?

Do You Really Know Yourself?

know-3

The words ‘know thyself’ appear frequently in the work of the Greek philosopher Plato and have been used by writers and philosophers for thousands of years. But what does it mean to know oneself, why is it important, and how can a person acquire such knowledge?

We suspect that some people would be uncomfortable, or even offended, by the suggestion that they don’t know themselves. We spend 24 hours a day in our own company and while it can sometimes be difficult to interpret other people’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, we can’t use this excuse when it comes to ourselves. We have direct access to our inner psychological world and in theory, we are in an ideal position to cultivate an in-depth understanding of who we are.

However, the truth is that many people are not aware of the events unfolding in their mind. At any one moment, a vast number of psychological processes are happening inside them, but at best, they are only partially aware of a small number of these. Consequently, their behaviours are the automated product of a complex – and sometimes competing – assortment of impulses, thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and memories. Rather than consciously allowing these psychological processes to influence their choices, they are effectively ‘processed’ by them. Instead of collaborating with the mind and using it as a tool, they find themselves ‘lived’ by the mind.

Changing this habit is easier said than done but there are some remits of human endeavour that may be able to assist us. In particular, we can look to modern science in order to gain insight into how we can develop a better understanding of ourselves. In order to acquire knowledge about a given phenomenon, scientists engage in the process of observation. This observation takes on many forms. It can involve observing phenomena in their natural state or it can involve observing how phenomena behave under a given set of experimental conditions. However, either way, careful observation is a crucial part of scientific enquiry and if we adopt the same principle in order to gain insight into ourselves, it is likely that our journey of ‘inner scientific enquiry’ will bear fruit.

By stepping back and observing our inner psychological world, a number of ‘truths’ about ourselves become apparent. Firstly, given that it is possible – particularly when using meditation – to observe our thoughts, feelings, and impulses, we must conclude that we are something more than these psychological processes. Secondly, we must also conclude that there exists a part of us that can ‘consciously observe’ our own mind. As we continue to engage in the process of inner observation, this ‘conscious observer’ part of us steadily grows, such that it becomes easier to maintain concentration and observe ourselves for longer periods of time.

A third truth that we may come to understand about ourselves is that the closer we observe, the harder it becomes to establish exactly who and what we are. The reason for this is that we don’t exist as standalone or isolated entities. We exist in reliance upon all other phenomena in the universe. We breathe in the out-breath of every other living being. When we drink a glass of water, we are effectively drinking rivers, clouds, and oceans. Our visit to the bathroom produces food for the plants and trees. Being embraced by a loved one can change a bad day into a good one, and a single heartfelt smile can completely change another person’s life.

In order to truly know ourselves, we have to fundamentally change our ideas of who we think we are and of how we think we exist. In effect, in order to find ourselves, we have to let go of ourselves.  When we stop thinking in terms of ‘me’, ‘mine’, and ‘I’, we start to see the world differently. We start to experience that the boundaries between ourselves and other phenomena become blurred. It becomes difficult to determine where the ‘self’ ends and ‘other’ begins. We adopt a much looser definition of ‘self’ yet somewhat paradoxically, we start to understand more about who and what we are.

Letting go of self really means that we are embracing the universe. The universe has existed for billions of years and it contains lots of knowledge. It contains the knowledge of creation, existence, and dissolution. We are an indispensable part of the universe and it relies upon us just as much as we rely upon it. By exploring the inner universe of our mind, we can weaken – or even remove completely – the boundary that we think exists between our inner psychological world and the external physical world. In other words, our practice of inner scientific enquiry and observation can, in time, cause our inner and outer worlds to collide. When this happens, we find ourselves flooded with the knowledge of the universe and the universe becomes flooded with the knowledge of our mind.

Ven Dr Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

What Science Can Tell Us about How Mindfulness Actually Works

What Science Can Tell Us about How Mindfulness Actually Works

science 2

Throughout recent decades there have been increasing attempts by scientists to understand how mindfulness actually works. However, because there are so many factors that could potentially exert an influence, coming to a definitive conclusion over the precise mechanisms of action that underlie the biological, psychological, or spiritual changes caused by mindfulness practice is not an easy task. Consequently, when scientists propose a mechanism in terms of how mindfulness causes change in individuals receiving mindfulness training, these proposals tend to be treated as just one piece of the larger jigsaw rather than as the final verdict. In today’s post, we summarise and discuss a selection – covering numerous remits of scientific enquiry – of the mechanisms of action that have been put forward to date.

  1. Perceptual Shift: Practising mindfulness is believed to create a perceptual shift in terms of how individuals respond and relate to thoughts, feelings, and sensory stimuli (e.g., sounds, sights, smells, pain, etc.). This greater perceptual distance is understood to help individuals objectify their psychological and somatic experiences and to regard them as passing phenomena.
  2. Increase in Spirituality: Some scientists (including ourselves) believe that mindfulness can increase spirituality and that this, in turn, acts as a buffer against feelings of loneliness as well as the various adversities we encounter in life. This growth in spiritual awareness is understood to help broaden an individual’s perspective on life and cause them to re-evaluate their life priorities.
  3. Reduced Autonomic and Psychological Arousal: It has been shown that mindfulness – and in particular conscious breathing – increases vagus nerve output which causes the heart and breathing rate to lower. Keeping the heart and breathing rate under control is understood to go hand in hand with remaining calm and being able to cope with stressful situations.
  4. Neuroplastic Changes: Neuroplasticity refers to changes in the brain neural pathways and synapses. Neuropsychological functional and structural imaging studies have demonstrated that mindfulness practice results in neuroplastic changes in various areas of the brain (including the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, temporo-parietal junction, fronto-limbic network, and default mode network structures). These neuroplastic changes are believed to improve an individual’s ability to regulate and remain in control of their choices, feelings, and behaviours.
  5. Increase in Self-Awareness: Mindfulness is understood to improve self-awareness which, in-turn, is believed to make it easier for people to identify and label negative mood states and thinking patterns. This relates closely to the above ‘perceptual shift’ mechanism because being able to accurately label mental processes makes it easier for people to objectify them.
  6. Addiction Substitution: One recently proposed mechanism of mindfulness (and other forms of Buddhist meditation) is that the peaceful/blissful states associated with mindfulness can be substituted for the highs and various forms of mood modification experienced by individuals with addictive behaviours. This particular mechanism was actually proposed by ourselves and it basically involves a ‘negative addiction’ (e.g., to drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc.) being substituted with a ‘positive addiction’ (i.e., to mindfulness/meditation).
  7. Urge Surfing: Another proposed mechanism of action (not by ourselves this time) relating to how mindfulness works as a treatment for addiction is that of ‘urge surfing’. Urge surfing basically refers to the process of an individual observing and not reacting to mental urges. In other words, they surf the urge and are therefore better able to regulate habitual compulsive responses.
  8. Letting Go: By mindfully observing the coming and going of thoughts and feelings (and other phenomena), it is believed that mindfulness practitioners cultivate a better understanding of the ‘transient’ nature of existence. This helps them to let-go of difficult situations and not to see things as fixed or permanent.
  9. Increase in Patience: Some scientists (including ourselves) believe that mindfulness increases an individual’s levels of patience. This is understood to reduce an individual’s desire for instant gratitude as well as their propensity for anger.
  10. Greater Situational Awareness: Outcomes from our own research have shown that mindfulness can help people feel more in touch with the physical and social environment in which they find themselves. This greater situational awareness is understood to improve decision-making competency, job performance, and the ability to pre-empt how a particular situation might unfold.

It is beyond the scope of today’s post to discuss every single mechanism of action that has been proposed in relation to how mindfulness causes somatic, psychological, or spiritual change. Nevertheless, the above overview represents a mixture of recently proposed mechanisms of action as well as those that are more established. As scientific enquiry continues, it is likley that new mechanisms of actions will be identified and that a more complete picture of ways in which mindfulness leads to positive change will emerge.

Further Reading

Dane, E. (2010). Paying attention to mindfulness and its effects on task performance in the workplace. Journal of Management, 37, 997-1018.

de Lisle, S. M., Dowling, N. A. & Allen, J. S. (2012). Mindfulness and problem gambling: A review of the literature. Journal of Gambling Studies, 28, 719–739.

Derezotes, D. (2000). Evaluation of yoga and meditation trainings with adolescent sex offenders. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 17, 97-113.

Gillespie, S. M., Mitchell, I. J., Fisher, D., & Beech, A. R. (2012). Treating disturbed emotional regulation in sexual offenders: The potential applications of mindful self-regulation and controlled breathing techniques. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 17, 333-343.

Holzel, B., Lazar, S., & Gard, T., et al. (2011). How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives in Psychological Science, 6, 537-559.

Howells, K., Tennant, A., Day, A., & Elmer, R. (2010). Mindfulness in forensic mental health; Does it have a role? Mindfulness, 1, 4-9.

Rungreangkulkji, S., Wongtakee, W., & Thongyot, S. (2011). Buddhist Group Therapy for diabetes patients with depressive symptoms. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 25, 195-205.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Mindfulness-based interventions: Towards mindful clinical integration. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 1-4. DOI:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00194. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3629307/)

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., Slade, K., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Mindfulness and other Buddhist-derived interventions in correctional settings: A systematic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18, 365-372.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Managers’ experiences of Meditation Awareness Training. Mindfulness, DOI: 10.1007/s12671-014-0334-y.

Toneatto, T., Pillai, S., & Courtice, E. L. (2014). Mindfulness-enhanced Cognitive Behavior Therapy for problem gambling: A controlled pilot study, International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 197-205

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Sumich, A., Sundin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for psychological wellbeing in a sub-clinical sample of university students: A controlled pilot study. Mindfulness, 5, 381-391.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation as medication: Are attitudes changing? British Journal of General Practice, 63, 654.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. (2015). Towards a second-generation of mindfulness-based interventions. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49, 591-591.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Compare, A., Zangeneh, M., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Buddhist-derived loving-kindness and compassion meditation for the treatment of psychopathology: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 6, 1161-1180.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). Searching for the present moment, Mindfulness, 5, 105-107.