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Men Therapy Session

Presence of Mind, Absence of Mind, the Stream of Thought, and a Word on "Mindfulness"

In this post, I would like to explore how we might find ourselves in relation to two states of mind and one continuous event of the mind. Lastly, I will briefly mention a few thoughts on the common usage of the word "mindfulness" and how it may be taken advantage of and possibly improved upon. The gist of my post here is to say that in order to practice being more fully present in our own minds, and to avoid falling into the common experience of being swept away in our own stream of thought, it takes a constant self-reminding of our intentions.


The adjustment of our attention toward what we want to focus on and the stance of non-judgment toward whatever we observe are skills that are only enacted when we remember to enact them. Having presence of mind is not only a skill that we can develop, it is the act of performing that skill that brings the skill itself into life. Imaging you are a stage actor and you have worked indefatigably to memorize the plot, moods, direction, timing, steps, gestures, and lines of a play. You are well-studied and confident. You are heralded by the local news and artistic community as an astounding talent who will undoubtably shine at the upcoming debut of your starring role. All the years of training; all the weeks of memorizing; all the hours of rehearsal; every moment of your day, you eat, drink, sleep, and breathe preparation for the role you will play... And you forget to put the play's opening date on your calendar... Without remembering to actually do what you prepared yourself to do, you failed - no matter how "good" you are at it. I used to teach orchestra in public school, and something I remember telling my students is that "if you play the right notes at the wrong time - even if they are perfectly in tune - you might as well be playing a different song than the rest of us" (if it sounds like I was a mean teacher, know that this was typically met with smiles... unless it was concert day!). Similarly, if the mind is prepared to meet any challenge that it faces (or poses for itself), but we do not take proper action to remember to demonstrate this preparedness at the appropriate moment, we may not see the results we care to. This is living in a state of absence of mind - a condition with which all of us are, I am sure, quite familiar! - which I will discuss in the next section.

As I write this, I am reminded of my own goal of changing certain skillful ("mindful") states into generalized traits of my personality (with the understanding that the personality is something like a set of adaptive constellations of responses to the self, other, and environment that are constructed of increasingly performed - and thus increasingly probable - states-of-mind and are also stable but also somewhat malleable). Basically, the intention of the practice of self-regulation is for it to become easier by becoming more automatic. This makes sense, and there is even evidence [see citation below] for it in terms of the mind and attention: Tibetan monks who have had an average of either 19,000 or 44,000 hours of meditation practice (!!!!!!!) had their brains scanned in an fMRI machine during Focused-Attention meditations. The results were compared to novice meditators and basically showed an inverted u-shaped curve in the utilization of the attetention-monitoring region of the cortex, the dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex (dlPFC). The monks with and average of 19,000 hours of meditation practice showed much higher activation of this area of the brain than did the novices: not really a big surprise. The monks with the higher number of average practice hours - this is the amazing part - utilized the attentional conflict monitoring region of the brain less often than did the novices! This leads to the assumption that they have trained their brains not only to notice wandering attention (absence of mind), but also to simply hold their focus for longer and with less distraction (conflict) to monitor for. This is very inspiring, but, in my view, if our intention is more about the GOAL of "getting better at" attention by creating traits out of states rather than living more presently within our own lives, we may miss out on the benefits of attentional regulation and actually find ourselves (paradoxically) more often caught in a state of absence of mind.  


Being present is typically misunderstood and maybe undervalued. One reason seems to be because it can be so easy to live absently. I am not claiming that we have an epidemic of lack-of-attention (I am also not claiming that we don't), but I am claiming that, if we want to take advantage of the mind's ability to practice certain beneficial mental skills, we will need to continually draw the attention back to the intention of using them. Absence of mind comes during moments of being carried away the events in our mental worlds. In other words, when we over-identify with the representations in our minds (perceptions of thoughts, feelings, sensations, images, memories, etc.) - when we (implicitly or explicitly) view our essence as being the same as that which we are experiencing - our freedom of choice about our present state of existence dwindles. In effect, identifying ourselves with the objects of the mind transforms us into a deterministic result of mental processes instead of an autonomous being of freedom and will. Did you know that your mind has that much power? The adage "you are what you eat" can be loosely re-casted as "you become what you think": if we think skillfully, the outcome will be marked with a self-presence and fulfilling degree of responsive choice; however, if the mind neglects to both develop and use its inherent skills of self-regulation, we can essentially become suffering automatons.  

When we find ourselves in a state of absent-mindedness, what has effectively happened is that we have forgotten to pay attention to what we feel is important. This tendency to forget to pay attention leads to mind-wandering and can cause us distress, but I should also add that the wandering mind can have a protective purpose. Attention is considered one of six emotional styles in a model designed by Richard Davidson to isolate what leads some people to be able to handle the vicissitudes of life (what he refers to as the "slings and arrows of life") with more resilience than others. His is a wonderful method to think about how emotional style interacts with personality formation (I would highly encourage anyone interested to read his book "The Emotional Life of Your Brain"). Attentional skill, as Dr. Davidson points out, is on a spectrum the poles of which are labeled "Focused" and "Unfocused". We can easily see the challenges resulting from having an "Unfocused" Attentional style, but there are also issues that can arise from being too focused. If you are changing a flat tire on the side of the road, for instance, and you become so absorbed in doing that job that your awareness of your own body's position and the environment around you fades, your chances of being hurt (or worse!) increase proportionally. This point is stated here merely to indicate the necessity of balance in any effort we make to change our minds. In my opinion, it would be erroneous to consider any trait as being something we should expect ourselves to exhibit to its fullest extent all the time. Even something as universally "good" as kindness can fluctuate in how intensely we choose express it: being kind to the utmost to someone who is trying to push you off a bridge, for example, would not be a prudent way of handling that situation. Showing kindness doesn't always look the same, and attention doesn't - nor should it - always appear in our lives in the same way either. We should give ourselves time to be absent-minded. It is a healthy part of mind-maintenance. But we should also seek to balance the degree of presence of mind ("mindfulness") we seek to experience throughout our day. Being loosely careless about allowing absence of mind to delegate choice for ourselves can be just as dangerous (or at least stressful) as can too rigidly binding ourselves to the aim of strictly concentrating on every moment's task without any room for distraction. Besides, the way to strengthened concentration - as I have mentioned in previous posts - is not to purely concentrate all the time; it is to monitor for wandering attention, notice the absent experience when it happens, choose to disengage from the over-identified mental object(s), and redirect back to the intentions of having presence of mind. "Fully living" seems to me to include room for understanding (and even allowing for time of) "less-than-fully living"... the point is that there is choice.


Despite its occasional benefit, living with absence of mind can leave us open to the perils of our own stream of thought. Coined by the late 19th century philosopher and psychologist, William James (who is often called the father of American psychology and, incidentally, the brother of author Henry James), the phrase "stream of thought" is a useful way to think about the activity of the mind. In his Principles of Psychology, James points out the appropriateness of the metaphors "stream" or "river" considering the way consciousness flows instead of being presented to the mind in small bits of experience. Thinking of thought in this allegorical way can be helpful especially when we realize we are being taken by the current and are powerless to direct ourselves how we choose. [It should be noted that the neural activity that makes consciousness possible actually does seem to be collections of small bits of experience in the form of "neural snapshots" that are seamed together by the integrative capacity of the brain (see my post "Less-Self or Selfless" which includes a brief explanation of the "thalamo-cortical sweep"), but the analogy of a "stream" is much closer to our pragmatic self-depiction of experience and is therefore very useful when analyzing our mental lives.] 

This concept of being "swept away" or "caught" or "over-identifying" with the steam of thought is a very exciting thing for me to explore. At a phenomenological level (the term "phenomenology" refers to the study of subjective experience of consciousness - looking at the way we experience), the idea of drawing a line, so to speak, separating the moments we are fully present and the moments we are absent seems to be fuzzy and lightning-fast. Being able to tell when we are moving from a state of focus to a state of un-focus (and therefore absence or even dissociation) takes a lot of practice and is, arguably, something that can never be perfected. We can, however, more familiarize ourselves with the experience and make it possible to more often have the conscious control (regulation) of the direction and intention of our experience. This can be powerful when considering to what extend many of us feel helpless or out of control when dealing with even slightly strong emotions or compulsions (ever heard of the word "Hangry" - so hungry you feel angry? I capitalize it here because I personally could utilize that word as an adopted pronoun to describe the over-identified state I experience when I miss lunch...). I would argue that "escaping" from the torrential current of a stream of thought might be easier than noticing our entry into that stream. Taking a position as an observer of the stream of thought rather than a victim to it can lead us to what is called meta-awareness. This is the awareness of our being aware. Think of meta-awareness as an autonoetic (indicating a coherent and reflexive sense of self across time) perspective orienting a distributed form of attention toward the contents and processes of conscious experience - in other words, observing ourselves observing. So, the next time you feel overwhelmed and overtaken by the stream of thought, instead of desperately grasping for water and soil in an effort to change the shape of the river bed (this translates to trying to clutch, push away, or change your thoughts, feelings, sensations, behaviors, and mental images), try releasing your grasp and observing yourself float. You may find you can keep your head above water more easily and even navigate your own chosen path.

Placing the emphasis on mental skill development (like attention, bodily awareness, self-compassion, etc.) is a true must, but living with under-utilized skill is equivalent to unskillful living.  I use the words "skill" or "health" in the place of "good" or "right". The good and right are up to you and your family to decide for yourselves; however, the effectiveness and health of mental skills can be fairly self-evident. In other words, practicing a certain set of skills typically leads to somewhat predictable effects: when you think negative thoughts about yourself, you often feel worse; when you allow unchecked physical sensations to guide your decision-making, you will often be surprised by your own behavior. Unless you create proximity between yourself and the objects of your mental life, you will have less choice in your response to stress and pain. I believe that there are generalizable elements of mental skill development that can lead to less over-identification with thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations; more space between these things and the person experiencing them; and more overall choice in how one responds to what happens to them in life.


Presence of mind can be thought of as another way of saying "mindful". This word (mindful) has, however, seemed to become slightly jaded by its use. The original Pali word for mindfulness is sati which means loosely, "to remember; to bring to mind". I love this description of a truly healthy practice of "being mindful". "Being mindful", though, has turned into something of a pop-psychology term with one foot in the science of happiness/positive psychology and the other foot somehow insidiously stuck in new-ageism. I am not claiming that this is necessarily bad, but I do think it is limiting in terms of psychological development toward a type of wholeness (something Dan Siegel calls "Integration", Jung called "Individuation", and Maslow called "Self-Actualization"). Viewing the practice being mindful as something that will make you feel better, perform higher at your job, and more easily get along with others can be a very useful thing. Why not present it in a way that will draw people to try methods that can take them toward increased happiness? I can't think of a good reason why not! But it does make me think, "is that all there is to it? what other ends can result from it?"... 

The (western) cultural phenomenon of "mindfulness" seems to be wonderfully captured by the image on one of the latest covers of Time magazine: young, blond, pretty, thin, blissful-looking woman in a pristinely white shirt sitting in an empty and quiet-looking room with her eyes closed in a heavenly state of peace... It seems to be saying, "be mindful in the ways we show you in this magazine and you will be happy!". To disclaim, I read the magazine and actually think it provides some wonderful ways to incorporate techniques into your day that can be very beneficial. The authors of the articles even cover their bases fairly well. I simply am pointing out the overarching impression that is given by presentations of this kind. It points to an over-simplified and stress-free version of mindfulness that sells great and can be very helpful but may have some limitations. 

Having said that, the use of the term Presence of Mind throughout this article really stands in for "mindfulness" with the addition of the not-so-shiny side of this type of practice - the dark periods and constant balancing of struggles during meditation; the pangs of staring right into the eyes of "dragons" (distressing emotions, images, thoughts, etc.); the chaotic re-orientation to the self, others, and the world upon reaching a pivotal point in self-transformation; and the radical and sometimes life-altering shifts of perspective that can occur when attempting to live out new discoveries of the "self" - these difficult facets of practicing presence of mind can be thought of as the growing pains of self-regulative development. Like the legs ache when a 6 year old has a growth spurt, the mind may ache when its boundaries are expanded to include previously un-experienced aspects of life's reality. As a therapist, I feel that these difficulties can be best met with either a high level of discernment and self-care or with the help of someone who is qualified to safely guide folks through mental distress and suffering. I believe it is well-worth the effort, but it should be done one careful-yet-ambitious step at a time.

"Attention Regulation and Monitoring in Meditation" by Antoine Lutz, Hellen Slagter, and Richard Davidson of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior from the University of Wisconsin, Madison's Psychology Department; and John Dunne from the Department of Religion at Emory University