Lyrical mindfulness and the parables of Jesus

Within psychology, a very strong argument is being made for the importance of the narrative perspective as part of our self-understanding. It is, of course, mindless for anything to be automatically assumed to be correct and unquestioned.

Mindfulness as a theory and in its practice does offer another perspective on our self-understanding. In their book, Teaching Mindfulness, McCown, Reibel and Micozzi talk about the need for a ‘lyric perspective on self-understanding,’ A lyric perspective doesn’t define our self-understanding as who we are (narrative), but how we are, it is about how we are in the moment, not who we are in a sustained self-story.

McCown et al make the point that this goes against the grain in Western culture which ‘posits the narrative perspective as normative for psychological and moral well-being.' It can be seen, therefore, from this lyric perspective, that mindfulness doesn’t just relativise our thoughts; it also relativises our distorted inner narratives, especially those wrapped up in ruminative and secondary emotional processes. Mindfulness asks us to notice these distorted narratives and let them go. You are bigger than your thoughts, but you are also bigger than your ruminative narratives. This is not to diminish the importance of narrative but to understand why the lyric perspective on self-understanding – that is, how we are and not just who we are – is so important. Mindfulness shows us how powerful the narrative perspective is as part of our self-understanding.

Others are making a plea for the lyric perspective on self-understanding. An example of this is an article by Andrew Abbott, ‘Against Narrative: A preface to lyrical sociology.’ Part of a lyrical stance is our location in time: ‘The lyrical is momentary. This above all is what makes it non-narrative. It is not about something happening. It is not about an outcome. It is about something that is, a state of being.’ Such a stance requires a mindful approach.

Another aspect of a lyrical approach is that ‘A lyrical writer aims to tell us of his or her intense reaction to some portion of the social process seen in a moment.’ This is also part of being mindful.

With its emphasis on paying attention to the present moment, mindfulness invites us to take up this lyric stance to self-understanding. In fact, all mindful awareness practices invite us into this stance. Another way this is done more explicitly is through the use of lyric poetry as a teaching vehicle within mindfulness approaches. Why this use of lyric poetry might work is explained in Daniel Siegel’s book The Mindful Brain. The author talks about the mindful awareness induced by [lyric] poetry, creating what he calls ‘a receptive presence of mind’. About ‘presence’ he says, ‘I mean quite specifically the state of receptive awareness of our open minds to whatever arises as it arises’. Daniel Siegel argues that such poems activate the streams of awareness within us. He goes on to explain that, ‘The science of language and the brain reveals that while the left hemisphere specializes in linguistic language, the right takes a dominant role in words with ambiguous meaning.’ Another way to say this is that lyric poetry enables us to shift from the mental gear of doing to the mental gear of being.

It is not just lyric poetry. There is the constructive use of ambiguous language through creative metaphors, riddles, paradoxical stories and other techniques in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). These enable people to see how conditioned their thinking is, with such evocative names as Tin-Can Monster, Feeding the Tiger and the Polygraph metaphor. Another way to put this is to say that these strategies enable cognitive defusion. Cognitive defusion is the term that ACT uses to talk about how we need to realise that our thoughts are not a direct readout of reality, how we need to move to looking at our thoughts rather than looking from our thoughts.

A more defused thought is when we are able to say, ‘I am having the feeling that I am anxious’ rather than a fused thought, ‘God, I am so anxious.' Defused thoughts help people to realise how unworkable their existing strategies for coping are up to this point.

Someone else who helped people access their lyric stance to self-understanding through mindful riddles, called parables, was Jesus of Nazareth. Dodd defines a parable as ‘a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its ... strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into actual thought’. I would change this to say that the mind is teased into awareness, is allowed to cognitively defuse from an automatically held position. For example, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the hearers are cognitively fused to the idea that any Samaritan is a bad person and a non-neighbour. The parable enables some to see that thought, or attitude, in a new light.

In his parables, Jesus partially exposes the truth to our awareness through the use of paradox, riddle and ambiguity, and allows our awareness to expose the rest of the truth, to use an analogy from photography.

We should not stand over Jesus’ parables and pick them to bits; we should go back to them, as if for the first time, staying with them until the truth is exposed by our awareness. Or we can take the principle and rewrite it into our own parables. Too often we read the parables of Jesus aggressively, trying to pick them apart looking for truth and knowledge. If we read them mindfully, allowing them to dwell in our being – then truth begins to emerge.
Shaun Lambert, 09/09/2013