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“Conserving Mental Energy” and Enhancing “Individual Power”:
What Is “Mindfulness” Therapy?

Hiroaki Kumano
Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University; Director, Institute of Applied Brain Sciences, Waseda University

“Mindfulness” refers to a mental attitude propounded by the Buddha 2,600 years ago as a way to free oneself from worry and suffering. In recent years, however, it has received widespread attention in the fields of behavioral medicine and clinical psychology and been applied to a variety of interventional treatments. I imagine this explanation will lead some of you to think mindfulness is a relaxation-like state that relieves stress, but this is actually not the case, as shown in Figure 1. It would be more accurate to describe it as a “state of awareness or wakefulness,” as opposed to a “state of absent-mindedness.”

Figure 1: What is mindfulness?

So, what exactly is a state of absent-mindedness? Let’s look at one example. I imagine many of you took the train from the nearest station or drove your car to work or school today. Do you remember the ride there? What route you took? What scenery did you see on the way? What was the weather like? How about the movement of the wind? What were the sensations in your body? Few people would be able to accurately recall such things, right? In other words, we are always thinking about something, our minds drift off into that world of thought, and we often lose contact with the “here and now.”

But what is so bad about that? I can almost hear people saying, “Commutes are the ultimate waste of time! What’s wrong with thinking about other things?” If you’re talking to someone and they seem to be zoning out, though, you’re going to say, “Hey!” to bring them back to the here and now. Or, say you go out hiking on a nice day, but you can only think about work as you’re walking—where exactly are you? In reality, we only ever live in the here and now. If we vacate our present reality and have no memories of it, can we really say we are living?

The state of mind when someone says “Hey!” and you “come to your senses,” like in the example above, is called mindfulness. When we look at our daily lives, however, it seems that not being present in the here and now is our default state. The reason why is becoming clearer through basic research on the operation of language. When we hear, read or even think about something on our own using words, the content of the words appears in our minds. For example, when someone reads the word “lemon,” a shiny, round, yellow “lemon” with tapered ends appears in the reader’s mind (Figure 2). This is called “word-object bi-directionality,” meaning that words have the power to create a “virtual reality.”

Figure 2: The “virtual reality” created by words

Thus, when we think of a mixture of fact and fiction, it becomes a virtual reality surrounding us, and we become trapped in this “virtual balloon.” Since we look out from this balloon when we try to understand reality, it can be very difficult for us to tell where the world of thought ends and reality begins. For example, when we are feeling down and have thoughts like, “I’m not good at anything,” “I can’t do anything right,” or “No one will even speak to me,” we end up seeing ourselves in this light, feeling even worse, and becoming unable to take the actions we need to. Despite all this, the lemon is nowhere to be found; at the very least, the “fiction” part of the “fact and fiction” is not real.

How, then, does one break free of this virtual reality and come into contact with actual reality in the here and now? While a lack of presence in the here and now may be the default mode for us language-users, we all experience moments when we snap out of it and come to our senses or feel in contact with reality. The basic stance for pursuing mindfulness is that, if everyone experiences such moments, one can increase them through practice and achieve a state of mind in which one can freely choose to experience these moments. As I hope you can see from my explanation so far, this requires that one relativize the effects of words and thoughts and find a way to distance oneself from them.

The first technique that will help you do this is to focus your attention on distinguishing thoughts from reality. For example, going back to the example above, when you start feeling depressed, take a few moments to talk to yourself like this: “I had the thought ‘I’m not good at anything,’” “I had the thought ‘I can’t do anything right,’” etc. If you do this for three minutes, you’ll be able to extricate yourself from the “bog of thought” for a while. The next technique that helps is to practice cutting thoughts short and redirecting your attention to the present moment. For example, let’s say you’re cleaning and all you can think about is your worries. In this case, you would try to break away from your conscious thinking and redirect your attention to the operation of the vacuum cleaner or the sensations of your hands as they hold it. You just need to keep in mind that this is not about forcing yourself from the outset not to think about things. For example, if you tell yourself, “I’m not going to think about things that get me worried,” you’ll end up doubling your worries and increasing your feelings of unease, even if it seems to work well for a while.

The third technique I recommend is to practice “dividing your attention.” Mental capacity is needed whenever we think about or do something. By using that capacity in advance, you can achieve a state of mind in which thoughts are less likely to arise. To be more precise, you prepare 5-6 everyday sounds and practice hearing them all clearly at the same time. You can find a more detailed explanation and an audio file on the webpage for the episode of the NHK show Kyō no Kenkō (Health Today) in which I appeared (May 12-14, 2014). This technique prevents excess thoughts from arising while at the same time enabling you to sense a broad spectrum of reality as it plays out in front of you. You could say it “elevates your perspective,” improving your ability to perceive reality impartially, and aspires to a state of mind like that attributed to Prince Shōtoku, who is said to have been able to listen to ten people speaking at the same time.

What does the practice of mindfulness lead to in the end? For one thing, it frees you from a daily routine of thinking over and over again about things that don’t matter—worrying yourself, getting yourself down, involving other people in the madness—and wasting inordinate amounts of time and energy, enabling you to “conserve mental energy.” In addition, by gaining a perspective that is as broad and objective as possible, you can enhance your “individual power” in these turbulent times, preventing you from losing sight of reality and yourself as you live in that reality.

Hiroaki Kumano
Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University; Director, Institute of Applied Brain Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Kumano graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, the University of Tokyo in 1985. In 1995, he became an assistant to the Graduate School of Medicine, Tohoku University in the field of human ethology. He then became an Associate Professor at the Department of Stress Sciences and Psychosomatic Medicine, Graduate School of Medicine, University of Tokyo in 2000. Since 2009 he has been serving as Professor on the Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University and Director of the Institute of Applied Brain Sciences, Waseda University.

His major Publications include Third-Generation Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies [Shinsedai no Ninchi Kōdō Ryōhō] (Nippon Hyoron Sha), ACT from Mindfulness [Maindofurunesu soshite Akuto e] (Seiwa Shoten), and Stress-Resistant Living [Sutoresu ni Makenai Seikatsu] (Chikuma Shinsho).