Using Williams & Penman's book "Mindfulness: a practical guide" as a self-help resource (6th post) - fourth week's practice
Last updated on 31st January 2012
Last week I wrote about chapter seven of Mark & Danny's book. This post is about chapter eight - the fourth week of actual meditation practice - entitled "Moving beyond the rumour mill" (pp. 134 to 158). In their week-by-week overall summary of the whole programme (pp. 58 to 60), they write "Week four introduces a Sounds and Thoughts meditation that progressively reveals how you can be sucked unwittingly into 'over-thinking'. You'll learn to see your thoughts as mental events that come and go just like sounds. By meditating on the sounds around you, you'll come to learn that 'the mind is to thought what the ear is to sound'." I really like this aphorism - "The mind is to thought what the ear is to sound." And, again & again, chapter eight revisits this key issue of how we relate to our inner experiences. Can we learn to make some space, to not be swept away so easily and for so long by the stream of thoughts, feelings & sensations we all live with. And we will get swept away. I've been meditating for forty years. In an hour or so I intend to meditate again. I am very confident that I will repeatedly get "swept away". And another aphorism from this wise & helpful chapter - "The experienced meditator is not someone whose mind does not wander, but one who gets used to beginning again". Great.
So the actual practices for this week are to go through the 8 minute "Breath and body" meditation, that we're already familiar with, followed straight away by the new 8 minute "Sounds and thoughts" meditation. The aim is to practise this 16 minute sequence twice a day for six days of the next week. We're also requested to continue to use the short 3 minute "Breathing space" meditation "formally" twice a day, as we have been doing, and additionally to begin exploring the "Breathing space" practice "informally", for varying lengths of time, at many other points in our day. Finally the "Habit releaser" for this week involves a trip to the cinema. If you're finding it helpful to use, here is a practice record for this work.
This chapter "Moving beyond the rumour mill" looks especially at how we can get caught & torn by thoughts like some poor first world war soldier trapped & ripped on miles of barbed wire entanglements. Like my first world war soldier example, there are so many images & metaphors for this human struggle with unhelpful thoughts & feelings. One of my favourites is "The bus driver metaphor" that I often talk about with clients. Others I use are the wise fish, dealing with a loved but naughty child, and coping with a neighbour's overloud radio or very noisy traffic. Mark & Danny come up with a further sequence of metaphors - the rumour mill, the soundscape, the king/queen & their retinue, sitting by a stream, watching a film and getting caught in the rain to name just some of them. Pretty much every teacher of meditation is going to have their list of favourite metaphors & analogies for the challenge of relating to unhelpful mental activity. Learning mindfulness skills is likely to be helped if you choose & remind yourself of just a few of these many metaphors that you personally find particularly memorable and useful.
It's very clear that habitual responses like rumination/worry, catastrophising & self-blame are patterns that are routinely associated with worse outcomes - see for example a handout I use "Rumination, from TRAP to TRAC" or Garnefski & Kraaij's "Cognitive emotion regulation questionnaire". Interestingly it's the analytical, evaluative self-focused ruminative style that seems particularly toxic with a more sensory-based, experiential style (as in mindfulness) being helpful rather than damaging - see, for example, "The effects of self-focused rumination on global negative self-judgements in depression". A particulary troublesome pattern is the tendency to respond to temporary episodes of low mood with self-focused ruminative activity. This is a classic pathway into depression. As the researchers Barnhofer & Chittka reported in their recent paper "Cognitive reactivity mediates the relationship between neuroticism and depression" - "Tendencies to respond to mild low mood with ruminative thinking mediated the relation between neuroticism and current symptoms of depression ... The results suggest that neuroticism predisposes individuals to depression by generally increasing the likelihood of ruminative responses to low mood ... These findings suggest potential targets for interventions to help preventing the occurrence, or recurrence of depression in those who due to their temperamental predisposition are at an increased risk."
And this is what mindfulness training does. By teaching us to be more understanding, more mindful, more self-compassionate, we begin to step away from these ruminative vicious spirals that can so easily lead us down into depression. See, for example, "How does mindfulness-based cognitive therapy work?" and "Rumination and worry as mediators of the relationship between self-compassion and depression and anxiety". And mindfulness training seems particularly well-suited to this challenge - see "A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation versus relaxation training: effects on distress, positive states of mind, rumination, and distraction" with its conclusion "The data suggest that compared with a no-treatment control, brief training in mindfulness meditation or somatic relaxation reduces distress and improves positive mood states. However, mindfulness meditation may be specific in its ability to reduce distractive and ruminative thoughts and behaviors, and this ability may provide a unique mechanism by which mindfulness meditation reduces distress." In fact, if you don't learn to use mindfulness to reduce tendencies to rumination, you're liable to run into trouble as the authors of "Rumination as a predictor of relapse in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression" reported "Rumination significantly decreased during the MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy) course. Post-treatment levels of rumination predicted the risk of relapse of major depressive disorder in the 12-month follow-up period even after controlling for numbers of previous episodes and residual depressive symptoms". You can get an idea how you're doing with reducing a tendency to this self-focused, analytical, 'brooding' kind of response style by tracking progress using a simple measure like the four-item "Rumination scale".
As usual, you're more likely to digest and benefit from what you've read in the "Moving beyond the rumour mill" chapter and this blog if you use a simple reflection sheet to record your reactions & thoughts. And next week I'll write on chapter nine of the book - "Turning towards difficulties".