Buddhist Meditation, Obsessionality, and the Mind-Object
Mindfulness practice makes states of hyperarousal more noticeable, salient, and egodystonic. As awareness settles more into the body, the mind relaxes, arousal lessens, and one’s subjective state shifts. While no particular experience can be reliably predicted, experience begins to take on a different coloration or resonant frequency; an alternate state of consciousness, a meditative state(s) begins to emerge. Meditative states represent a new organization of subjectivity which has its own coherence and flow; the mind becomes more relaxed, alert, present. Over time, the repeated experience of meditative states begins to change the habitual organization of energy patterns in the psyche.
One patient expressed it this way:
I am always a little bit hyper when I wake up in the morning ... typically I’m thinking about everything I need to do before I am even fully awake. My listmaking self kind of takes over. Then, when I do my morning sitting practice, I always get to a point where I realize how revved up I’ve been without even noticing. For instance, when my mind comes back from wherever it goes when I’m distracted, I will find myself holding my breath, shoulders tensed.
I guess that tension is my default mode. It generally takes quite a bit of steady and patient effort for me to settle down from this jangle into a calmer, more embodied state. That’s why I have to go on retreat periodically. If I don’t, I don’t stand a chance of really calming down.
Obsessional thinking rests on a foundation of anxiety. The most important focus clinically is bringing awareness to the embodied experience of anxiety that underlies recurrent thoughts. In obsessional mode, the mind/body tends to be in a state of high arousal. Unfortunately, this is a process that feeds on itself, because obsessing distracts attention from grounded awareness of the body. Obsessionality has the overall effect of displacing the feelings it is defending against.15 It is only when the cycle arousal > thinking > arousal is interrupted that it becomes possible to establish a state of calm presence in which awareness can deepen.
Considering obsessional cognitive style in relation to mindfulness meditation poses intriguing questions. While the answers are not entirely straightforward, the important questions seem to converge on the faculty of paying attention. Attention may be focused/stable or distractible/labile and is a function of both state and trait attentional factors. Also, how we pay attention is heavily determined by the emotional energy connected both to the moment and to what we’re trying to pay attention to.
The overview of obsessionality presented in this chapter is that it reflects the mind’s efforts to metabolize affect and figure out solutions for emotional problems. However, what emotional problems most need is to be felt. They need to be received and understood by an empathic other. While thinking about problems can be very useful, it can also go around in circles in a way that heightens anxiety rather than dissipating it. Moreover, the very things that most need attention may also flood the mind with anxiety, causing thinking to veer away from important “targets.” In short, paying attention is a complex psychodynamic process. This is precisely why the relational milieu of psychotherapy is so very useful: it supports focus on emotional matters that are in need of deep understanding and is conducive to psychological integration.
Mindfulness meditation is also extremely useful, engaging and strengthening the capacity to be with experience. Sitting quietly with the intention simply to notice what is creates a subjective state of calm focus in which affects can be more comfortably tolerated.
The ability to sustain mindful attention reflects cognitive processes which are embedded in personality. In addition to psychodynamic determinants mentioned above, there are several interrelated cognitive/neural capacities involved in selecting, sustaining, and switching attention. These have been designated as arousal, activation, and effort (Pribram and McGuinness, 1975).16 Overall, two general functions may be distinguished: (1) executive functions that organize the process of paying attention and (2) the ability to flexibly “shift gears” between different objects of attention. These correspond, generally, to concentration and mindfulness, the two interrelated attentional components highlighted in Buddhist mindfulness meditation (Wallace, 2006).17
Because it is possible to control attention in meditation with mental “force,” obsessionally inclined individuals may concentrate quite well.18 Although their executive control of concentration may be very good, their characteristic tense effort is, however, actually antithetical to effective mindfulness. Skillful mindfulness practice requires, instead, relaxation and letting go. In short, mindfulness requires flexibility of attention and mental balance as well as attentional focus.
Fortunately, one of the benefits of mindfulness practice is that it also trains and improves needed attentional capacities. One important factor is the effect of repeated practice. Also, as the mind becomes more settled and unified in meditation, arousal in the body/mind decreases, which further facilitates calm focus. In both of these ways, over time meditation practice may help develop the attentional flexibility that the obsessional mind most lacks.
From the above discussion, the basic question which most goes to the heart of the matter seems to be: what factors determine the degree to which attentional state in mindfulness practice brings about changes in attentional trait?
It seems likely that amount and depth of mindfulness practice have cumulative effects. Perhaps the tenacity of mind-object structures is also key. If so, then the question becomes: what allows the mind to let go of “psychological imperatives” of obsessionality, perfectionism, and drive for achievement in favor of an experience of equanimity?