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The Nature of Effort in Mindfulness and Biofeedback

Publication date: 13 November 2011

Mindfulness presents us with something of a paradox: we want to control the mind in some sense, at least by keeping it in the present moment, and yet we are taught that any effort to control the mind is doomed to failure. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT – a form of mindfulness-based therapy) gives us the metaphor of quicksand: when we struggle in quicksand, we get sucked down. In other words we get the opposite of what we want. Instead we need to focus on acceptance. Mindfulness therapy purists seem to be saying don't make any attempt at all to control the mind, or at least to control emotions.

I think this goes too far – it risks throwing the baby out with the bath water. The key thing is the nature of the effort. The wrong kind of effort is indeed counter-productive. But there is a right kind – let's call it mental application to distinguish it. It's possible to acquire skill in working with emotions – emotional intelligence if you like. We'll never have absolute control over our emotions, but equally we aren't powerless.

How can we think about this kind of mental application?

Recently I re-read the book, 'The Inner Game of Tennis' by Timothy Gallwey. I like it because it presents a set of ideas for working with the mind, that closely parallel the way I teach my clients both mindfulness and biofeedback.

Gallwey uses the terms 'self 1' and 'self 2' to represent firstly the conscious, thinking, judging mind which gives the orders and offers commentary on how well or badly we're doing (usually the latter), and secondly the part of ourself which knows how to do – for example play tennis shots. Self 1 is the teller, while self 2 is the doer. If you've played tennis, you'll know how apposite the distinction is. (Playing a musical instrument is another illustrative context.) The quicksand dynamic applies – if self 1 tries to intervene it's likely you'll blow it.

I sometimes use the alternative terms 'thinking intelligence' and 'body intelligence'. Self 2 or body intelligence knows how to fall asleep, and how to relax. Here we have two more contexts where the quicksand dynamic applies – self 1 effort is counter-productive.

How do we access the resourceful intelligence of self 2, if not by “effort”? Gallwey gives is some pointers. The first thing to note is that self 2 speaks the language of image, sensation and feeling, not words. Giving ourselves verbal instructions is not what is needed.

We need to relate to self 2 in a new way. This relationship needs to be based on respect and trust, even an attitude of humility. Self 2 knows how to do so many things effortlessly. Take the everyday example of walking. If you had to think about which muscles to use and in what order, it would be impossible. Even when self 2 doesn't know, it can learn – and again effortlessly.

Gallwey suggests we ask self 2 for results. I think this means in a spirit of imaginative invitation. In the case of tennis, we need to start with a clear image of the desired outcome – a good tennis shot. We ask for this outcome – then let it happen.

When we're working with emotions, we can't just will them in and out of existence. Say you want to develop a positive emotion, as in loving-kindness meditation. A traditional method is to repeat a phrase such as 'may you be well and happy'. If self 1 forcefully demands a feeling, it's likely to be disappointed. Instead, self 1 can repeat the phrase, then ask self 2 for a response in the spirit of humility. At the same time as letting go of the idea that you (as self 1) have the power to summon up love, you can imaginatively ask, what would it feel like to be kind and loving?

In biofeedback the same concepts apply. Suppose you're working with muscle tension biofeedback, and want relaxed muscles. Self 1 doesn't know how, and as long as self 1 struggles and strives you're going to be in the quicksand dynamic. Instead, patiently wait for self 2 to give you the outcome. If you've done it before you can ask for the feeling of relaxation again, remembering the sensations. If not, you can trust your body to learn.

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