Training The Mind To Heel

Jody Ripplinger

Recently, I was listening to a Sounds True podcast in which Linda Graham, author of Bouncing Back: Rewiring the Brain for Maximum Resilience, was describing some findings from neuroscience about how babies see and experience the world. It turns out the preverbal infant sees the world in a collage of forms, colors, lights, patterns, energy and waves.

You see, before we acquire language, we have no ability to solidify ourselves or the objects around us by labeling them. Until we know that the word “tree” represents a tree, for example, we don’t “see” a tree. We see green and brown and movement. We see energy. We see what’s actually before us, not the CONCEPT of the object before us.

In other words, in developing language and naming ourselves and everything in the world, we literally create ourselves and everything in the world. We solidify objects by naming them, including ourselves, and we lose the awareness we are born with to encounter ourselves and the world in a direct and very intimate way. With language, we build identities and beliefs and ways of knowing that become fixed and unchanging, stable and reliable.

However, if our fixed concepts of ourselves, others, or the world are negative, fearful, hostile or judgmental, we often go through life feeling miserable, anxious, angry or not good enough. Worse, we believe we are a miserable, anxious, angry or unworthy person. We experience ourselves as solid and unchangeable when in fact, the opposite is true; we are constantly changing, whether we realize it or not and our self-concepts are nothing more than thoughts in our heads.

This is why developing mindfulness and practicing defusion as taught in the ACT model of therapy is so helpful. It alleviates the suffering that results from believing the negative, fixed concepts of ourselves that keep us from being rooted in the reality of the here and now.

In this, my third post on how the ACT model helps create the conditions for growth, we’ll look more closely at Defusion as a tool to dis-identify from our disturbing and intrusive thoughts. Coupled with Acceptance of our feelings and letting go of our inner conflicts, defusion realigns us with the ever-present awareness that has laid dormant since infancy, and frees us from our negative, fixed concepts.

If you start to pay attention to your thoughts, you’ll notice that you are constantly engaging in private self-talk all day long. Mindfulness and defusion involves the practice of NOTICING.

When we plant the seed of intention, we begin to interrupt the non-stop flow of inner chatter and notice that we’re caught up in our thoughts. The minute we notice we are lost in thought, we are no longer lost! So mindfulness isn’t necessarily about getting rid of thoughts altogether – which is virtually impossible – it’s about the practice of noticing we are lost in thought and gently bringing ourselves back to the present moment.

When I started practicing mindfulness, I began to notice that my mind was like a bloodhound, constantly running full-steam into the past or future, pulling me along, often against my will, on the end of its leash! Like a bloodhound, my mind was full of tension, wildly chasing the scent of faint memories or fantasies that it believed would solve my anger, depression or anxiety like clues to a crime.

By noticing how quickly and automatically my mind raced about, I was no longer mindlessly allowing myself to be dragged this way and that. Rather, I developed the capacity to be aware that I had a very busy, tense and untrained mind!

After noticing for some time how quickly my bloodhound darted heedlessly in search of answers to my problems, it occurred to me one day to say to my mind, “heel,” as I imagined gently pulling the leash at my side. To my relief, my mind responded in kind. Suddenly there I was, present, with my mind and body in the same place at the same for as long as my bloodhound could tolerate remaining still at my side. It didn’t last for more than a second or two, but in that moment, I felt clear, quiet and aware that my mind had responded to my command.

I had discovered Defusion.

I started to train my mind to heal when I noticed it racing off without my consent away from the present moment. And little by little, I defused from the habit of problem solving myself. Then I defused from the fixed beliefs and self-concepts that had led to the need to problem solve: that I was broken, unlovable, unworthy, not enough, and I began to experience myself not as a stable, unchanging or unchangeable lost cause, but as an empowered co-creator of my ever-evolving self.

While meditation is a great way to develop mindfulness, it isn’t necessary. Defusion involves any number of techniques that help us see our thoughts for what they are and to move beyond our limiting concepts and into the exciting world of continuously changing, lived experience.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the third element of ACT that works in harmony with Acceptance and Defusion: identifying your deepest Values and choosing to live by them. Stay tuned…

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