Author A.R. Bernard has observed that “the quality of your thinking determines the quality of your life.” So what is the quality of your thinking?
Within the Zen tradition, thinking is often divided into two types, that of Small Mind and that of Big Mind, with the former being the thinking one engages in to work through decisions of every day life and the later being the awareness of what one is thinking. Small Mind is necessary and essential in problem-solving but it can sometimes become a problem in itself when we find ourselves thinking too much — for example, worrying, ruminating, or perseverating. This is when Big Mind comes in handy, the ability to examine one’s thinking. Some have spoken of Big Mind as an awareness, a mindfulness, sometimes referred to as a “high bank position” — a position that allows one to observe the stream of thoughts without getting swept away by them. Or, put another way, looking AT thoughts rather than FROM thoughts.
There are those who feel that observing this stream of thoughts is essential for good mental health, and the failure to do so is a kind of self-harm. As stated by Pema Chödrön in her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, “the most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist who integrated Eastern mindfulness practices with Western medicine by establishing the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Mass Medical School, defines mindfulness as “paying attention to something, in a particular way, on purpose.” And, it might be said, without judgment. With mindfulness, one is invited to simply pay attention to the present moment, the present thought, or the present emotional state without seeking to change it. Kabat-Zinn developed a practice known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and a great deal of research around this practice has been shown MBSR to reduce emotional distress, increase positive states of mind, increase quality of sleep, and have to an overall healthy influence on the brain, the immune system, and numerous other bodily systems.
The most common way to begin developing awareness is to focus on the breath. Sitting quietly, usually with eyes closed, allows one to explore the quality of one’s breathing. Does it feel easy? Labored? Can you stay focused on the breath either way? And can you return to that focus when the mind wanders (and it will)? Simply returning, over and over again, serves as a foundation for developing Big Mind.
From there, awareness can be expanded to include one’s physical state. A body scan helps one identify sources of tension or other conditions that might cause irritation (fatigue, hunger, etc.). Similarly, a scan of the emotional register can identify what may be causing emotional distress (something he said, something she failed to do, etc.). Generally speaking, it’s easier to identify sources of bodily distress, whereas identifying sources of emotional distress require more practice, given that the cues are far more subtle. And even subtler still is identifying what is causing cognitive distress. It takes practice to develop Big Mind. But the benefits are innumerable, and can have far-reaching impact upon the quality of one’s life and the quality of one’s relationship with others.
Tom Freeman, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family therapist, having worked as the director of programs in community mental health, as a research associate in behavioral health at a major Seattle research institute, and in private practice. He has worked in creative modalities with children for the past 25 years and has provided individual and couple’s counseling, family counseling and facilitated group counseling sessions. Most recently, he has gone through advanced training in dispute resolution and functioned as a mediator in small claims court for the Dispute Resolution Center of King County. Tom maintains professional affiliations with both the American and Washington Associations of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT and WAMFT).
Tom’s therapeutic approach starts from a cognitive-behavioral framework and is deeply informed by mindful awareness of what one is thinking and feeling from moment to moment. He seeks to build upon the principles of holistic health, recognizing that good mental health is supported by good physical health. Likewise, he recognizes that good relationship health is supported by the mental health of the individuals within that relationship.
He has extensive experience working with depression, anxiety, trauma, grief, relationship issues, sexual questioning, gender questioning (operating from an ICATH model), and the development of mindful awareness. He is currently available for individual and couple’s counseling at our Silverdale office.