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Learning MBSR: fourth evening of the course - body scan, Damasio on identity, and informal practice

I wrote last week about the third evening of this eight session MBSR course.  The fourth session was yesterday evening and I missed it.  It was my wife's birthday and I'd told the course teacher when I enrolled that I wouldn't get to this fourth meeting ... or to the seventh meeting when I'll also be away.  It's not ideal.  My practice has been poorer this last week, both because I've been particularly busy and also because I haven't been back to get the weekly commitment boost that tends to come from attending the class.  I've still practised mindfulness meditations every day, but it's felt more like a routine to be squeezed in than a particularly rich exploration over these last several days. 

Happily we have been provided with a course manual that lists the coming week's practice sequence.  We shift from practising the Body Scan and Mindful Movement/Sitting Meditation on alternate days to practising Mindful Movement/Sitting Meditation every day.  I'm going to miss the Body Scan and that's a real surprise to me.  My previous experience of a slow body scan was many years ago working my way through Jon Kabat-Zinn's book "Full catastrophe living" while away on holiday in France.  I think the request then was that we practised the sequence for about 45 minutes.  I found it boring & irritating (no doubt, good mind states to practise mindfulness with).  This shorter 30 minute practice we have been using has felt more workable and possibly more welcome in the busy-ness of my everyday life.  It reminds me too of the great neuroscientist Antonio Damasio's emphasis on the body as central to our sense of self.  I wrote about this last winter quoting Damasio saying "Of the ideas advanced in this book (Self comes to mind), none is more central than the notion that the body is a foundation of the conscious mind ... the special kind of mental images of the body produced in body-mapping structures, constitute the protoself, which foreshadows the self to be ... the body is best conceived as the rock on which the protoself is built, while the protoself is the pivot around which the conscious mind turns." And he goes on to say "I hypothesize that the first and most elementary product of the protoself is primordial feelings, which occur spontaneously and continuously whenever one is awake. They provide a direct experience of one's own living body, wordless, unadorned, and connected to nothing but sheer existence ... all feelings of emotion are complex musical variations on primordial feelings."  I've been meditating regularly for forty years.  A while ago I was asked what it was doing for me and I realised it was hard to know as it was something I'd done for so long.  I tried stopping meditation for some weeks to see what happened.  I wasn't aware of feeling any more stressed.  The experience was stranger than that ... I felt as if I'd been "locked out of my house".  It was good to restart the practice.  Damasio's comments chime with my own subjective experience. 

Well I can always go back to the body scan, and mindful movement/breath meditation should overlap in many ways with the body scan's "going home into myself" experience.  We're also to continue to practise the short three minute Breathing Space exercise three times daily and try as well to practise a Breathing Space variant whenever we notice "unpleasant feelings".  Finally the request is that we also choose a routine activity (different from those we've already tried, I guess) and use it too as a semi-formal mindfulness practice.  I'm cautious about the value of these requests to practise "informally" during various daily experiences & activities.  In the paper by Carmody & Baer - "Relationships between mindfulness practice and levels of mindfulness" -  that I quoted from last week, the authors commented "Another unexpected finding was the lack of significant relationships between informal practice (doing routine activities mindfully) and extent of change in other variables.  Informal practice is often described as an important method for generalizing mindfulness skills learned in formal practices into daily life (Kabat-Zinn 1990). Since no audio recordings are provided to guide informal practice, it is possible that participants in this study had difficulty in providing accurate estimates of the time they spent in informal practice. Better methods of monitoring this type of practice may be helpful in future studies as well as a more detailed investigation of the importance of ‘living mindfully' on health and well-being outcomes."  This kind of research though is in its infancy and, to balance the negative impression the Carmody & Baer paper leaves on the value of informal practice, we have the comments from an earlier paper by Brown & Ryan - "The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being".  They investigated 50 experienced Zen meditators and using the "Mindfulness attention awareness scale (MAAS)" they reported "Within the active Zen sample, the MAAS was correlated with the extent to which individuals perceived that their meditative practice was carried over into daily life.  The amount of time currently practicing meditation was not related to the scale score.  However, the number of years of practice was positively related to the MAAS."

Possibly teachers of MBSR/MBCT might consider other creative ways of teaching informal practice.  It's worth remembering that January's evidence-based NICE guidance on the treatment of generalized anxiety recommended Applied Relaxation not MBSRApplied Relaxation has some good ways of taking relaxation/mindfulness practice into daily life - see for example my application of their "reminder dot" approach in the Autogenic Training method that I teach.

And see next week's post "Learning MBSR ... the value of difficult practice sessions & of concentration".

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