A teacher of mine once suggested to me, not to put too fine a point on it, that ‘insight, without action, is bullshit!’ This would have been one of those moments when I had become firmly mired in my head — unable, in his often inspired view, to translate all those tantalizingly tempting thoughts into experience of any kind. Thinking had pushed feeling well into background. He could have just as easily reversed the comment: acting, without awareness is . . . well you know the rest.
A breakfast table conversation recently had expanded — as they often do — to include chat about the ‘active ingredients’ in all manner of psychological interventions. My wife had encountered some material on attention deficit ‘treatments’ that seemed to be directed at the neurological bases of same. And had commented that, along with the usual medications, a whole whack of different kinds of therapies were being considered, including cognitive behavioral strategies (so much in vogue currently) and some mindfulness training as well. And it started me thinking . . . As I mulled over the sundry ‘stripes’ that therapies seemed to boast as ‘unique’ approaches to treating equally diverse issues, it occurred to me that many (dare I say, most) shared a key element: presence.
While it may seem like a statement of the obvious, if one isn’t fully engaged, present and accounted for, no intervention is going to be very effective. Take for example the aforementioned treat of the week (or month. . . or decade), CBT (aka cognitive behavioral therapy). This is a now half-century old — and very useful, I might add — method of helpfully modifying the ‘way people think’. Primarily directed at ‘distorted styles of thinking’ (personalizing, polarizing, catastrophizing, over-generalizing, filtering, etc.), the protocol is to divide one’s process into a series of progressive steps — often called the columnar method. Identify the trigger event, situation. Label the mood or feeling(s) attached to that situation. Highlight the ‘hot thoughts’ — these being the ‘faulty conclusions’ that tend to derail us. Catalogue the ‘evidence’ for and against these (often flawed) conclusions. Then finally, on the strength of this ‘balance sheet’, formulate a more ‘balanced experience’ of said situation.
Each progressive stage of this protocol requires that we fully and dispassionately (non-judgmentally) examine the ‘column’ that we presently occupy (be it situation, feeling, thought, or behavior). And secondly, most importantly, resist the compulsion to ‘jump to conclusions’ (another example of distorted thinking, btw), getting ahead of ourselves. For this process to ‘work’, the sine quo non (the ‘without which there is nothing’) is awareness, mindfulness.
My wife pulled me back with a very useful analogy. ‘All well and good — but you still have to do something with all that wonderful awareness’. The metaphor is that of driving down the highway in a nice, new, and electronically sophisticated car. Long before the zoned-out human occupants of said car tune into an impending flat tire, the on-board computer has detected a subtle decrease in pressure and illuminated the appropriate warning light for us to consider. That would be awareness. And that would also be the point at which myriad extraneous thoughts, choices, conclusions kick in for the human operator — and take us away from the present moment. Is it raining (avoidance)? Could it be ‘just a glitch’ (denial)? Do I have time to have a flat tire? (Hmm) When did I last check to see if I even have a spare? (guilt, anxiety). And so the light continues to glow, the tire continues to deflate, and finally, grudgingly, we pull over, compelled to actually address the issue at hand.
My wife’s point: we need team work. Awareness is a necessary — but not sufficient — condition for change, growth. Without it, we’re left with the sense that ‘we’ve been here before — with the same old outcome’. Repeating the same old mistakes, stuck in the same old tapes; and not even knowing it. With it, we’ve created the necessary forum or platform for change. But we still have to pull over and change the tire.
For many of us (evidently in the mind of my teacher, I would be among the ‘us’), sitting on a regular basis may be experienced as ‘not working‘. We don’t feel noticeably less anxious, our minds still wander all over the place, we still get depressed, have disturbed sleep, lose our tempers. What perhaps has shifted is our awareness of these processes (‘tuning in’ earlier in this process), a reduced emotional reactivity to same (acceptance, to a degree), an increased sensitivity to change in this process (not generalizing so much, a reduced compulsion to catastrophize) and a resolve to continue making room in our lives for this forum of awareness. But if we don’t notice the sensor light . . .