The following article is a summary and reflection upon what I learned from a psychology training course I attended last year in Sydney, Australia called “Mindfulness & Resilience” facilitated by Dr. Pavel Somov, who also contributes to a blog on Psych Central called 360 Degrees of Mindful Living. https://blogs.psychcentral.com/mindful-living
Not only have Dr. Somov’s teachings greatly enhanced my therapeutic practice as an Australian psychologist, they have also greatly enhanced well-being and resilience in my own life. The other reason for sharing is because I simply have not been able to find this stuff anywhere else.
One thing that made me realize that I had inadvertently signed up for some magnificent professional development was the way that Dr. Somov spoke of mindfulness. It’s not in a way that I feel is too warm and snuggly (e.g. the Acceptance & Commitment Therapy–ACT–approach, or the now countless array of mindful coloring in books), but rather in a way that posited mindfulness skills as being absolutely necessary and indispensable for survival in challenging and distressing situations, as well as in everyday life.
Perhaps it was Dr. Somov’s admission of past military experience that influenced him to present mindfulness in a far more immediate and pressing manner, but it spoke to me in a way that other more tender approaches have never done.
Two propositions (which I now simply consider as facts) which Dr. Somov put forth, regarding the body and the mind, are:
1. The mind exists in order to serve the body, and not the other way around.
2. The body will travel much further before it quits than the mind will travel before it quits.
Let the Body `Go for Gold’
Have a think about that for a moment, and then have a think about the implications of putting the two together. When I did just that, I realized that if we as a human being are not careful, when we are in a challenging or distressing situation, our mind will very quickly get in the way and lead our body to a length well short of its potential. In order to let our body reach its full potential, we must be able to (at least initially) get our mind out of the way and let our body “go for gold” to see how far we can take it.
Can you imagine being a basketball or baseball coach and having Michael Jordan or Barry Bonds on your team without even realizing? Your mind tells you to expect of them what you’d expect from anyone else on the team, and that’s just what you’ll get: way below their potential. But then imagine you say to them, “Michael…Barry…I’m just going to step back out of your way for a while and I want you to show me what you can do.” I think that’s your wake-up call right there, coach.
Being the sort of psychologist that likes to personally road-test as many of the psychological strategies I bring into the therapy room as possible, I thought I’d give this one a go. I enjoy doing star jumps (or jumping jacks) for some quick and easy fitness and I normally do about 50 and then stop. But this time? Forget it, I’m going to practice getting my mind out of the way and just keep going until my body starts to keel over and forces me to stop…167 star jumps later! To say that I was amazed would be an understatement.
Tuning Into the Observing Mind
For the first time since becoming a psychologist 10 years ago, I understood why training to disregard the ‘thinking mind’ and tuning into the ‘observing mind’ (as ACT would encourage) is so important and critical to our everyday well-being, and why it should be practiced by everyone.
Dr. Somov also presented a perfect exercise to help us practice putting aside our thinking mind. He called it “The Mind Is a River,” and its basic task is “to not mind the mind.” We were called to imagine our mind as a constantly flowing river of thoughts, and rather than get caught in the flow of the river and get taken downstream, our task was to (as often as necessary) sit back on the riverbank and simply watch our thoughts come and go without any interference – no attachment, no aversion.
With this exercise in mind, Dr. Somov later taught us the two basic rules of surviving adversity: you need to relax and you need to not mind your own mind. Was that it? This pearl of wisdom took me a fair while to make sense of until I found the right analogy. I thought about the idea of either climbing a rock face or walking along a tightrope over a canyon without any safety features – no harness, no safety net, no plan B.
Then, I realized, skills aside, there are only two things that are going to get you up that mountain or across that canyon.
Firstly, staying calm is absolutely necessary. Even the mere thought of climbing up a sheer rock face – harness or no harness – makes my hands sweaty, and if you’ve ever done rock climbing before, sweaty hands are bad news!
Secondly, staying in the moment (and perhaps focused only on the very next step or handhold) and not minding your thinking mind is also absolutely necessary. I imagine if I was halfway up a mountain or halfway across a canyon, living on a wing and a prayer, it would be the listening to thoughts such as “you’ll never make” or “you’re gonna fall” that would be my undoing.
So, who would have thought mindfulness skills could be so relevant and indispensable during some of life’s most extreme situations?
The teachings of Dr. Somov are perfectly relevant to modern life. Think back to Proposition #1: “The mind exists in order to serve the body, and not the other way around.” Then, have a think about the basic needs of the body – adequate nutritious food, water, physical activity, sufficient rest, some warmth and shelter, and that’s about it.
These needs have not changed all that much even after millions of years on earth. But what about living in our current western society? For most of us, every one of these needs are provided for in abundance, with almost no need for hard struggle on our part to obtain them. So you could say that, given our minds are there to serve our bodies, and that what our bodies need is now so easy to obtain, does this mean that the job our minds have in this day and age is the easiest it’s ever been in human history?
If we think of our mind as being a sort of personal assistant to our body, then what does our mind need? Two things that come to mind are to seek pleasure and to avoid discomfort.
Perhaps 100,000 or more years ago with pleasure a scarcity and a lot of discomfort and danger often at hand, this would have been very helpful for the mind in meeting the needs of the body. But now? With relatively few major discomforts and untold amounts of pleasure fairly easy to come by, it’s easy to see how our mind can quickly become our body’s worst enemy – leading it astray – and worst of all (by avoiding discomfort like the plague and consuming pleasure like it’s going out of fashion) it would actually cease to do the job it was originally designed to do.
I can imagine a client saying to me, ”So, you’re telling me that I should just live like a caveman or cavewoman and be happy about it?” Well, I think that we should make the most of what our sophisticated modern society has to offer and derive some meaning and purpose from it (e.g. music, literature, football, fine dining, etc.). But, as long as these ventures do not take away from our body’s basic needs. One out-of-this-world delicious Belgian chocolate is something great to excite the mind with for a few moments, but many more and the mind begins to fail at its basic duty, which is to serve the body.
For these reasons and more, I think that cultivating mindfulness skills and being able to, as Dr. Somov puts it, “not mind the mind” is so important no matter who you are.
Sean Kijurina is a psychologist at HealthWISE Northeast Northwest located in New South Wales, Australia.