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Mindfulness and Hearing Voices

Mindfulness is the permanent and impartial attention to our body, our sensations and our mental states. The habit of mindfulness, according to the Buddha, is the path that leads to the elimination of suffering and hence to the blossoming of inner harmony. Though some people seem to be mindful by nature, most of us must work on our faculty of awareness through the practice of meditation.

Psychologist Eleanor Longden, a researcher at the University of Leeds, England, was not acquainted with or interested in the Buddha’s teachings; she developed her mindfulness out of necessity. As reported by her, the careful observation of her auditory sensations and her mental states was the approach that helped her out of the annoying imaginary voices that tormented her for several years.

 

 

It was an ordinary day when Eleanor, leaving a college class, heard for the first time a voice, coming out of nowhere, that clearly said, "She is leaving the building." The terrified girl ran home and, as she arrived, heard the voice again, "She is opening the door." The drama, which soon after included a repertoire of phrases, unknown narrators, hallucinations, doctors, psychiatrists, hospitalizations, medication and, sadly, the social stigma of schizophrenia, lasted several years.

Thanks to the continued support from a few people and, in particular, from a fair-minded doctor, Eleanor began to understand that the voices resulted from traumatic events in her life and were subtle guides to see into her emotional problems. The realization that the voices would facilitate her healing brought her to the careful attention to the signs that both these voices and her mental states were communicating.

Ten years after the first 'spooky' messages, Eleanor earned with honors a degree in psychology, soon followed by an also lauded master's degree. Now, when she stills hear voices, the psychologist is completing a PhD in Leeds.

 

 

 

Until recently, medical science attributed hallucinations to unknown genetic factors that condemned their victims to schizophrenia or predisposed them to such grievance. This verdict is changing.

 

Psychologist Longden is now an activist of a group that promotes the natural acceptance of the ‘noisy inner voices’. According to her, "a high proportion of the 1.5 million people who are diagnosed each year with schizophrenia are not victims of chemical imbalances or genetic mutations; rather they are exhibiting a complex response to abuse, loss, neglect or other past trauma."

 

The occurrence of hallucinations is much more common than we recognize. Our brain has embedded the neural design to generate such experiences; our dreams confirm this statement. Perhaps the children's imaginary friends are more 'real' than what we adults think. Likewise, this 'natural anomaly' could eventually explain the apparitions of sacred prophets, virgins, angels and ghosts that devout people often report. Soon we will know much more about these mysteries.

 

Returning to schizophrenia as such, even in its extreme cases, as the well-documented experiences of Dr. John F. Nash, it is in the blunt acceptance of the 'unreality' of visions—what a paradox!—that healing starts. (Do you remember "A Beautiful Mind,” the movie?) The 1994 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences expressed it frankly in an interview, “I would be sweeping the delusions under a rug and they were able to come out later on, and could be triggered, and I would move very quickly to accepting it again. A delusional state of mind is like living a dream. Well I knew where I was.”

 

"Society has a long way to go before fully shakes the stigma associated with schizophrenia," says the future Dr. Longden. "One place to start is by asking not 'what's wrong with you?' but rather 'what's happened to you?'" She concludes, "Treating 'voices' like a symptom rather than an experience can only worsen the condition."

 

Only every individual —not her analyst—can observe and draw reliable conclusions from what is happening within her life. Mindfulness is personal. The professional's role is helping, not judging. In these matters, the patient-therapist interaction is likely to be imprecise. The 'expert' compares the collected data with her diagnostic manuals and extrapolates cloudy symptoms to verdicts that most patients tend to consider definite. Their suffering, already severe, becomes more intense and the determination to look keenly and impartially to their mental states becomes hardest to pin down... Precisely when it is most needed.

 

Gustavo Estrada
Autor de ‘Inner Harmony through Mindfulness Meditation

gustrada1@gmail.com