Mindfulness and the Personality Ideal

It’s Dad’s birthday today, and in his honor, I’ll be spending the evening practicing mindfulness.  Tonight will be the fourth session of an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class that I signed up for after a rather unpleasant holiday season and in anticipation of gloom on the first anniversary of his death.  (Which is tomorrow.)  So when I saw the announcement of the MBSR class, I said, that’s just the thing!  Dad, you see, was a huge proponent of mindfulness, and he had been encouraging our whole family to try it.

In class so far we’ve done the body scan, attention to breath, awareness of emotions, self-kindness, and lying down mindful yoga, and I’m pleased to report that after practicing about 30 minutes almost every day, I am indeed seeing some results!  Specifically, I’ve noticed increased awareness, both internally and externally, leading to greater ability to focus.  The effect is only slight so far, but I noticed that I started hearing “new” directions on the 30 minute body scan recording even after I’d done it several times, particularly toward the end of the recording—which suggests that I had spaced out for that entire section the first few times I did it, but recently have been able to keep my attention focused through almost the whole exercise!  Wow!

But don’t get the idea that I have any special talent for this.  I’ve told several friends about my experience over the past few weeks, and more than half of them said to me (almost word for word) “I can’t meditate because I just can’t clear my mind!”  I know how you feel, because I’ve said the very same thing.  But here’s something I’ve since learned: no one ever really clears their mind.  Even expert meditators who have practiced mindfulness for a long time continue to struggle with this.  The class and the recordings talk a lot about bringing the attention back to the breath, because it could wander away hundreds of times in a single session of meditation.  It’s the mere fact of trying that slowly strengthens your attention muscle.  So if you had a discouraging and disappointing experience the first time you tried meditation, I’d encourage you to give it another shot.  The trick is to practice every day for a few weeks, even if just for ten or fifteen minutes.  It still goes up and down (I’ve had days I couldn’t focus at all even after days that felt more successful), but the general trend is positive.

I’ve also found a link between mindfulness meditation and the Theory of Positive Disintegration.  (You are, no doubt, shocked!)

So, our class includes optional readings from Full Catastrophe Living, a guide to the MBSR program by its founder, Jon Kabat-Zinn.  As I was flipping through it, this passage caught my eye:

I used to think that meditation practice was so powerful in itself and so healing that as long as you devoted yourself to it on a regular basis, you would eventually see growth and change. But time has taught me that some kind of personal vision is necessary. Perhaps it could be a vision of what or who you might be if you were to see more clearly into the ways in which your own mind might be limiting your possibilities for growth. (Kabat-Zinn, 2013, p. 38)

I got excited when I read that, because it seems pretty clear that Kabat-Zinn is talking about what Dabrowski calls the personality ideal.

Dynamisms, as you may recall, are the behavioral forces that propel positive disintegration, and the personality ideal is the only Level V dynamism.  Though few people ever truly, fully live their ideal, it remains important to people working their way through Levels III and IV because it’s what guides their reintegration process.  It’s what they’re aiming at.

I don’t know whether Jon Kabat-Zinn is familiar with Dabrowski’s theory, but it seems that through his own work with his Stress Reduction Class, he observed the very same process that Dabrowski describes.  And he also saw the personality ideal—a goal for becoming—as the ultimate force for growth and development.

I would speculate that this means that someone guided by what Dabrowski called the second factor (i.e., external influence) isn’t going to get much out of meditation. Such a person in this case might be someone who signs up because it’s trendy or because of peer pressure.  If you don’t truly see it as at least potentially useful in reaching your personality ideal, that’s when I’d say you probably won’t get much out of meditating.

Which means you shouldn’t take up mindfulness just because I said it was a good idea!  But I’d nevertheless encourage anyone—and especially those who are highly excitable—to look into it and see if it might be useful to you.  I’ll be posting more about meditation as I continue the practice going forward, so you can decide on your own.  Let’s hope that the benefits I think I see aren’t just in my overexcitable imagination!

In the meantime, let’s make this post interactive: readers, have you tried meditation, yoga, or other practices related to mindfulness?  Why or why not?  What was your experience?  If you think of yourself as intense or overexcitable, has that had an impact on your experience?  (Maybe it pushed you to try it; maybe it made it harder!)  Do you have any questions that I could answer as a novice in mindfulness meditation?  Post in the comments below!

Dad Meditating on Honeymoon.jpg
Dad meditating on his honeymoon on the shore of Lake Superior, 1978

4 thoughts on “Mindfulness and the Personality Ideal

  1. Hi Jessie, I spent several hours here over the weekend, creating mind-maps as I read your beautiful articles on the Theory of Positive Disintegration. I really can’t thank you enough for the time you’ve put in to explaining Dabrowski’s work in such an accessible way! I feel like now I have enough of an overview that I can dip into other works on TPD.

    What a lovely way to celebrate your dad’s life. I love that photo of him. 🙂

    I first meditated after reading about it in a teen magazine when I was 15. My family used to crack up laughing if they happened to come into my room as I sat cross-legged looking at the wall, chanting ‘nam myoho renge kyo’ over and over. In my early 20s I tried ‘watching the breath’ but couldn’t get on with that at all, and I quickly switched to guided meditations, which have worked for me ever since. Sometimes I wonder if it’s cheating, but I find it much easier to quiet my mind if I let soothing, familiar words and gentle music wash over me. Whether it’s ‘proper’ meditation or not, my sessions leave me much more ‘conscious’ and self-regulated. My children used to refer to my meditation sessions as ‘rebooting Mummy’!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lucinda, thank you! I’m thrilled to hear that these materials have been useful to you. You’re encouraging me to do more to make this powerful theory accessible to people. (And I reiterate, to you or anyone else reading this, that I’m largely self-taught and might misinterpret something in it, so others’ takes are always welcome.)

      And thank you also for sharing your experience with meditation. Wow, you started as a teenager? I wonder if you were looking even then for a way to manage OE, before ever hearing that term. I think that’s probably part of what drew my Dad to it. As for “proper” meditation and “cheating,” we actually discussed this very topic yesterday in my MBSR class: essentially, if it’s working for you, then you’re doing it right, even if you came up with your own way to do it. The key is intentionality: if you’re accomplishing what you intended, that’s what matters! We also talked about meditating with our teacher’s guidance on CDs, and how a soothing voice can make meditation easier for some people and harder for others. As for watching the breath, I think I’ll ramble on about that in a future post. Suffice it for now to say that the trick really is finding what works for you, and then embracing it.

      Liked by 1 person

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