How do you look at the relationship between mindfulness and self-mastery?

I would say that it’s a process towards self-mastery, because let’s not make it too much of a big deal. Who among us is fully self-mastered? If you get there, you probably don’t need to come to a mindfulness course. You can teach me. Moving towards self-mastery is a process. I would argue that mindfulness training is a way to travel on that journey, towards great self-mastery.

We cannot be masters of ourselves until we can notice what’s happening and until we can understand ourselves. William James said, in 1890, that if we can learn to bring back our wandering attentions, the skill of attention, then that’s what can make us master of ourselves. He said that nobody who doesn’t have this skill can be master of themselves. By learning how to pay attention and learning how to regulate our experience, the A and the B of mindfulness training, awareness and being with, not impulsively reacting, automatically, then we are able to regulate more skillfully, and therefore, be more resilient, because we’re not just drawn here, there and everywhere, when difficulties come. We’re able to stay present, we’re able to be less reactive and more steady. From that place, we are able to discern and act on real choices, rather than just first thing that comes into our mind, which will be a habit. It might be a good habit, a lot of the time, but it’s not a helpful habit all the time.

Each of us are different. We’ll each have our different habits that are skillful and we’ll each have our different habits that are not skillful, which is why we need the first bit of mindfulness training, which is to become aware of what’s going on, because we are all different. There’s no simple way to say, this is how mindfulness will help you, because you are unique. But it can give us the skills to look and find out and see what those are and the skills to practice not reacting habitually. In that way, we can start to become more masters of our experience, if you like.

If we were to look at traits like adaptability and resilience, in what ways have you found a relationship between mindfulness practice and those two traits, specifically?

One of the propensities of the automatic pilot, doing driven mode of mind that we’ve discussing, is rigidity, if we are meeting our experience in a reactive way, in that fast, shortcut, speedy manner, which is very helpful in some instances. If you’ve got a wild animal coming at you, you don’t want to be meditating at that moment. You probably don’t want to be reflecting at that moment. I wonder how I’ll deal with this wild animal? You want to be getting out of the way, without needing to think about it. That habitual reaction that has evolved within us, to flee threats, would kick in there, hopefully, and we’d flee to safety.

However, that reaction, because of its speed and automaticity, is rigid. There isn’t time to consider other options. The body will just get us out of the way. It’s like a quick and dirty response; it has to be. But it means there is no real discernment going on as to what the situation actually is, which means that we will tend to react to any threat, any perceived threat, as if it is a wild animal and want to get out of the way. Maybe there are some perceived threats that, actually, aren’t immediate threats to our life. Maybe it isn’t helpful, in some of those situations, just to get away from it, because, firstly, it may still be there when we come back.

In those situations, perhaps, actually, what we need is not to flee, but to pause and look at it. It isn’t a wild animal trying to get us; it’s a problem that needs addressing. It’s a situation that needs appraising. It’s another person where we both might benefit from a relationship, rather than just screaming at them or running away from them. What we’re then displaying here, is adaptability, flexibility, which is realizing when a situation needs more than the rigid, automatic response. That’s difficult because those automatic, rigid responses, which we call habits, will inevitably kick in. Particularly in our bodies, they will kick in as feeling, thoughts, impulses.

However, if we can practice mindfulness in those moments and recognize that this isn’t a wild animal, it’s a relationship, it’s a difficulty, it’s me feeling in a bad mood today. Actually, I can’t run away from that. We have then got the presence and the resilience to begin to find creative ways of meeting it. Again, this involves curiosity. What’s really going on? Appraising this situation fully. Maybe trying things out and experimenting. Once we’re not in that kind of situation of real danger, the kind of things that the fight or flight mode has evolved for, then by training ourselves in mindfulness which, remember, changes the brain, changes the body, gives us just a little moment of pause, or the possibility of shifting modes, rather than being driven by the automatic, by definition, we have become more adaptable.

Evolution is all about adaptability, except, of course, what we are adapting to is a particular situation. That’s how evolution works. It’s like environment adapting to environment. We’d had a lot of history of adapting to certain environments, in order to be able to survive. That’s how we react to the present moment situations, when they are difficult. But maybe it’s not adaptive anymore, in some of those situations. By training ourselves, we have this wonderful capacity for self-awareness, which has also evolved, only quite recently in our human history. The areas of the brain where that happens, it’s been shown from the neuroscientific studies, is quite recently evolved. Whereas, like all animals, we’ve got those middle areas of the brain, medulla and limbic system, which is the part of the brain which fires off and creates that automatic pilot reaction. That’s been around a lot longer, because survival is the first priority of evolution.

But maybe it’s not adaptable now, in some of those situations. Rick Hanson calls this self-directed neuroplasticity. By paying attention, in a particular way, again and again, our brains can begin to change in ways that are adaptive for the new moment that’s here and we can become more skillful at choosing our response to a situation. Being skillful in choosing our response to a situation according to what it is, would be, in my opinion, a pretty good definition of adaptability.

Sign up to read the full interview and hundreds more. No credit card details required.
Sign up to read