I’ve used the phrase “be here now” to describe what mindfulness looks like. It’s bumper-sticker-ease for the practice of observing the present moment right in front of us, paying attention to the here and now rather than yesterday, tomorrow, or over there. But a study that’ll soon be published in The Journal of Affective Disorders offers an important clarification of this notion by calling attention to how we “read” the here and now.
Desrosiers et al. note that focusing on the present moment may lead to rumination, worry, anxiety, and depression, so instructions like my “be here now” may, in fact, exacerbate some emotional problems rather than alleviate them. They conducted a series of assessments of 189 people seeking help for anxiety and depression and concluded that the key was “non-reactivity”: the subjects who observed the “here and now” and then paused and non-judgmentally reassessed their emotions before reacting–rather than immediately and impulsively reacting, or just shutting down and blocking it out–had decreased rumination, worry, and depression. They write,
observing present moment experience without immediate reactivity may help individuals avoid automatically engaging in unproductive styles of cognitive processing (i.e., ruminating or worrying) and instead respond to observations with more productive forms of elaboration (i.e., reappraising experience in the service of managing emotions). (emphasis added; 15)
So it’s all about what we do with there here and now, how we read it, and what we do with that reading.
This emphasis on a specific process is fascinatingly similar to recent research clarifying the effects of reading literary fiction–which depends less on what is read and more on how it’s read. English professor Natalie Phillips and some neuroscientists measured neural and physiological reactions of subjects reading Jane Austen, one group in a leisurely manner and the other practicing the close reading techniques of literary studies. The researchers were surprised at these early results, including blood flow and neurons firing in different regions of the brain, suggesting that “cognition is shaped not just by what we read, but how we read it” (Phillips qtd. in Goldman 1). This research is still in progress, but last year’s widely reported findings by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano in Science single out active, participatory, and complex reading practices. As their title indicates, this specific way of reading “Improves Theory of Mind,” or “the ability to detect and understand others’ emotions” and “the inference and representation of others’ emotions”–or empathy (377).
Ultimately, all of these studies simply remind me of the truth at the heart of my discipline of literary studies: how we read matters.
I found “The Art of Non-Reaction,” a blog post with a long list of metaphor-based strategies, but I’ll excerpt just a few here. As you go about your life in the next week, call up a few of these at moments when you might otherwise react automatically:
Arguments are like tennis matches – if you don’t return the ball the game stops… Instead of hitting the tennis ball back you choose not to return the volley – let it pass you; let the game stop.
Imagine that you are an invisible dartboard – visualise darts passing through you. The darts (attacks, insults, arguments etc) don’t land; you are invisible.
Instead of crashing your car, you gently apply the brakes, stop, engage neutral and assess the situation. Ponder, then decide, then manoeuvre, logically and safely.
Passing the baton in a relay; don’t take it and the race stops.
When you cross a road, you stop; look, listen and you check both ways before proceeding. The art of non-reaction is exactly the same.
Desrosiers, Alethea, Vera Vine, Joshua Curtiss, & David H. Klemanski. “Observing Nonreactively: A Conditional Process Model Linking Mindfulness Facets, Cognitive Emotion Regulation Strategies, and Depression and Anxiety Symptoms.” Journal of Affective Disorders. (2014).
Goldman, Corrie. (2012). This is your brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford researchers are taking notes. Stanford Report.
Kidd, David Comer, and Emanuele Castano. “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.” Science 342 (2013): 377-380.
Phillips, Natalie, Samantha Holdsworth, Robert Dougherty, Franco Moretti, Heiko Schmeisdekamp, & Craig Heller. (2012). Attention to fiction reading, an interdisciplinary fMRI experiment. Wallenberg Foundation.