Freedom From Our Own Special Prison

When I went to my first ten day silent Mindfulness retreat in India (called Vipassana), something in me changed forever. The first few days were painful, physically and emotionally. Facing my view of myself and to seeing how it was twisted in a self-aggrandizing way was startling. Things fell apart. The next few days involved reconstructing my view of myself and my relationship with the world. In that process, I discovered that I was part of humanity, on the same boat as the rest of the universe, and that a certain “suffering” bound us all together. I did not need to separate myself by collecting academic degrees or by doing “special” things. I could see how I had interpreted people’s actions using a self-centered “what about me” attitude instead of paying attention to their reality or by taking a bigger perspective. This change from the “self-centered” to the “world-centered” experience of my surroundings was the beginning of a more humble and empathic journey, less attached to external validations and unrealistic expectations, less attached to a fixed “self-image” and more interested in “authentic me” and “authentic others”.

Stress-anxiety-depression reduction and increased focus-attention are well known results of Mindfulness. The less known effect of Mindfulness practice is frequently reported by practitioners: the changed self-image, less attached to the pride-based fixed permanent image that needs to be preserved, and less separate from the rest of the humanity. And there is a certain freedom that comes from it.

Yes, there is a freedom from non-attachment to a fixed and externally-validated self-image. I was more free to try out new things, think creatively about solving problems, and less worried about the shame from wrong decision making. It was easy to accept my own short-comings as just a part of me and not the whole of me, not the absolute fixed truth about me. It made it easier to accept short-comings in others. I wanted to stick to my own “core values” because it felt like the right thing to do, not because I wanted to look good or be special. In fact, “I don’t need to be special” made my relationships with close ones more special. My interpretation of events and facts around me was increasingly based on an objective reality-based perspective rather than lofty ideals. All this made it easier to understand the other person’s side and the source of their actions making me into a better psychotherapist. All this, mind you, was and still is a continuous journey full of regressions and mistakes, but it seemed I was set on it “forever”.

The “forever” feeling about my change was amazingly validated when Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar, in a 2005 conference meant for Psychology and Mindfulness practitioners, announced results of her studies. With Mindfulness Meditation practice, “the brain structure changes” she announced. Although it is true that the neuroscience studies about Mindfulness are preliminary, it is amazing, nevertheless, to see that some of my experiences about self-image are beginning to be researched and validated by neurological (and behavioral) studies. Neurological studies by Farb (et.al), Brewer (et.al), and Ives-Deliperi (et.al) interpret the connectivity changes in the brain regions to mean that Mindfulness training decreases our rumination of the past and the future, possibly through the process of dis-identification (it is not all about you), enables us to objectively interpret events (as opposed to self-referential processing), and allows us to be more aware of interceptive factual signals (as opposed to making conclusions using self-centered stories in our head). I would say, it moves us out of our own prison of self-centered fixed self-image.

Of course, a relevant question is how much minimum training one needs to take in order to experience the freedom from reduced obsession with the self-centered self-image I am professing here. The answer is largely unknown. The minimum dose is not yet established in research for any of the benefits of Mindfulness, but the first step is to learn about and establish some form of practice of Mindfulness. Taking a class with a live teacher helps, followed by web-based apps or other guided meditations to motivate you to keep the practice going. The best way to keep a practice is to join a meditation practice group, either face to face or online. The next step is to attend a retreat. Starting with a gentle retreat, you can graduate to a hardcore retreat, minimum seven days and mostly silent. Once you have a practice going, daily consistency is more important than the amount of time you spend in meditating. You can meditate for just two minutes, if your schedule does not permit a longer session on a certain day. Make a commitment to at least two minutes a day!