In the paper introduced here last month, “Mindful emotion: an integrative review,” there’s a clear contradiction of mindfulness.
The authors define mindfulness in the paper as:
“…the ability to bring a wide and spacious quality of attention to whatever is experienced, such that whatever stimuli are present pass through awareness without engendering any judgment or evaluation (i.e. appraisal)”
Okay, that sounds reasonable, right?
Meaning, if you are walking in a field of grass, you observe your movements without having to label things like “walking” or “grass.” You just notice the scene unfold.
And meaning, if you are feeling a certain way, you allow yourself to feel it without judging the feeling as bad or good, wrong or right. Just a feeling.
Both scenarios work fine with how the definition is written.
But when it comes to how the authors interpret and use that written definition — the grass scenario works fine, but the feeling one doesn’t.
Emotion implies judgment
The thing is, emotion is entwined with logic. And it involves an element of judgment.
Meaning = judgment.
So any time you experience an emotion, you experience the effects of the thought processes/logic/judgment that underlie it.
Or, as it’s referred to in psychological literature, you experience the effects of the appraisal of whatever stimuli you are perceiving.
Each emotion has its unique set of appraisals. For simplification: When you appraise an event at “good,” you’re likely to feel “good.” When you appraise an event as “bad, you’re likely to feel “bad.”
Judgment is not mindful
What this means to the authors of the paper, is that emotion itself is the antithesis to mindfulness.
Because you cannot experience judgment/appraisal, through emotion, while at the same time — not experience it, through mindfulness.
So, emotion isn’t good for mindfulness (remember, just according to them):
“Disturbing emotions (DEs) are problematic in the sense that they disturb one’s ability to remain mindfully present.”
What the authors recommend instead
Even though the paper’s title alludes to an integration of emotion regulation and mindfulness, it recommends against the most successful emotion regulation technique: cognitive reappraisal.
Because cognitive reappraisal “intrinsically results in identification with” emotions. And remember, according to the authors, emotions aren’t mindful.
What they propose instead is this:
“MM [Mindfulness Meditation] involves a systematic retraining of awareness and nonreactivity, leading to defusion from whatever is experienced, and allowing the individual to more consciously choose those thoughts, emotions, and sensations they will identify with, rather than habitually reacting to them.”
Why it’s a dysfunctional recommendation
Dysfunctional key phrases to note…
“Nonreactivity” is a great way to mask a disdain for irruptive emotions like anger. Just don’t react to your anger, and it will go away.
“Defusion from whatever is experienced” is a complicated-sounding way to say, “Detach from your emotions already, ’cause you don’t need ‘em.”
Despite how the authors highlight the negative consequences of emotional expression suppression in the paper, “nonreactivity” and “defusion from whatever is experienced” is a fancy way of relabeling emotional expression suppression.
The emotions aren’t forcibly suppressed during mindfulness meditation, but the thoughts are rearranged in such a way that they the emotions are suppressed through “defusion.”
“In this way, it erodes the automatic process of appraisal that gives rise to disturbing emotions in the first place.”
So mindfulness meditation saves the day because you manipulate your thought-processes long enough to avoid having to experience your emotions — which are often disturbing.
But disturbing is such a strong word. Unpleasant, yes. But not the end of the world.
How the authors contradict themselves…
If you haven’t already caught on, the authors contradict themselves in a serious way.
And that’s in how they misuse their own definition of mindfulness. Or rather, mangle it to fit their mindfulness meditation agenda.
It’s true that mindfulness means: not assigning judgment to an experience.
And that it’s just accepting what is.
But you have to be clear about your frame of reference.
When you do mindfulness the right way, it’s like your mindful perspective is an outside observer.
That outside observer doesn’t go in and try to change the scene; it just observes.
So if the scene involves a baby throwing a tantrum — the observer doesn’t do anything to try and change it. (And it certainly doesn’t go in and explain to the baby not to intrinsically identify with the appraisals responsible for the tantrum.)
In the same way, when an adult throws a tantrum — their mindful, observing self doesn’t do anything to go in there and try and change it. As long as the mindful, observing self doesn’t mingle — only observes — then it obeys the definition of mindfulness:
“…whatever stimuli are present pass through awareness without engendering any judgment or evaluation”
So the tantrum stimuli that’s present passes through the mindful, observing self’s awareness without engendering any judgment or evaluation in that mindful, observing self’s awareness — of that tantrum being somehow bad or wrong.
Or a disturbing emotion. Because “disturbing” is a loaded judgment term.
And remember, judgment, let alone loaded judgment — is the antithesis to mindfulness (non-judgment and total acceptance).
… By making a “special” exception
Except, the authors make an exception when it comes to emotion.
They want a freebie to switch out of mindfulness mode so that they can go in there to change the scene through defusion techniques, so that they can essentially get rid of the disturbing emotion by pretty much shutting off the mind, which is responsible, via thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, and expectations (also known as constructs, cognitive networks, and appraisals), for co-creating the disturbing emotions in the fist place.
They’re suggesting that you bypass your “disturbing” emotions by using meditation to manipulate your mind so she can’t feel.
And then try to run with it
Yet totally condoned by the peer review for this paper.
As well as many mental health professionals who use mindfulness-based interventions to essentially shut off the mind so she won’t let the body feel so darn much — for quick-fix aims.
Yes, emotions are scary. Sometimes dark. Often disturbing.
We get this. It’s why we’re such a mess as a human race, and why now more than ever we’re in desperate need of some real mindful emotion regulation.
But to twist the definition of mindfulness to push a meditation agenda that leads you to dim your emotional resources until they’re so numbed out because instead of allowing yourself to ever let an ounce of anger drop into your bloodstream you have you close your eyes, count to ten, and breathe deeply because the “disturbing emotion” shouldn’t exist in the first place… so that over time your ability to discern, set personal boundaries, have the capability to be response able to life’s challenges, and be able to build your life as a mindful construct, completely erode, since these abilities absolutely hinge upon your ability to be engaged and in tune with your emotional reactions and why they’re there?
Let alone how emotion-phobic and self-destructive that is, it’s not mindful at all.
And you can bet I’m waiting for the papers to surface on that contradiction.
What do you think?
So do you think the authors contradict themselves, or is something else going on?
How can mindfulness and emotion regulation be melded in such a way there is no contradiction? Do you think it’s even possible?
I’d be interested in hearing your take.