Mindfulness on the Path of Gifted Development
by Kelly Pryde
ROBUST MINDFULNESS & GIFTEDNESS: AN EMERGING INTERSECTION
In recent years, there has been a growing interest in mindfulness as a tool for enhancing well-being in gifted people (e.g., Sharp et al, 2016; Mannisto, 2018; Turanzos et al., 2018). Mindfulness as a path to freedom from suffering and a practical tool for reversing neural patterns of stress and improving well-being (e.g., Goleman & Davidson, 2017; Hanson, 2013) offers us a valuable opportunity to support ourselves on the gifted development journey. It allows us to respond to our common gifted challenges such as perfectionism, heightened sensitivity, relational struggles, asynchronous abilities, cognitive complexity and emotional intensity in ways that diminish personal suffering and increase our ability to live well, and fully, with our giftedness.
But there is apprehension about embracing mindfulness amongst parts of the gifted community. As mindfulness emerges as a secular practice in western culture, there are many forms that have taken on the western features of the medical model of intervention (“Let’s fix what is abnormal according to this label”), spiritual materialism (striving for a level of achievement or perfection through spiritual pursuits), and the latest fad or self-help technique-du-jour. Indeed, many of my clients with heightened awareness of and sensitivities to these cultural tendencies have experienced the walls of resistance go up when I mention mindfulness as an approach to support them on their journey.
I tend to think of mindfulness on a spectrum from lite mindfulness to robust mindfulness. "Lite mindfulness" usually has tenuous connections to the ancient wisdom roots from which the discipline has evolved, and thus fails to capture its potential for deep transformation in how we view and relate to self, others, and the world around us. It divorces mindfulness from the something more that for thousands of years has compelled seekers and spiritual masters (many of whom surely were/are gifted in their own right) to find freedom from the suffering of their own minds and connect with the world in rich and deeply authentic ways. "Robust mindfuless", as I call it, is firmly rooted in both eastern wisdom traditions and western modern science; it captures the essence and meaning of both disciplines, and thus offers us tools, practices and wisdom for the full range of the gifted development journey.
UNDERSTANDING THE GIFTED GROWTH JOURNEY
In exploring the role of mindfulness in gifted development, I like to consider the journey within the context of two frameworks: Maslow’s Hierarchy of (Gifted) Needs and Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration. These frameworks provide the basis for understanding the multilayered and multidimensional factors that stimulate, direct, and sometimes block the gifted growth process.
MASLOW'S HIERARCHY OF (GIFTED) NEEDS
Maslow’s psychological theory of motivation outlines a “ladder” of eight needs underlying human development — needs that evolve from the most basic (physiological and safety) to the most advanced (self-actualization and self-transcendence). The hierarchical nature of the model reflects the notion that foundational needs must be sufficiently met in order for an individual to effectively move through more advanced levels of development.
More recently, gifted psychologist James Webb and his colleagues (2007), as well as gifted coach and mentor, Jennifer Harvey Sallin (2016), have described this hierarchy of needs within the context of gifted development. They note that gifted children and adults are particularly vulnerable in the foundational areas due to the intense, sensitive, and complex nature of their neurobiology.
Four Foundational Needs
Physiological Needs (Level 1) — food, sleep, bodily comforts: Gifted intensity results in high levels of mental and physical activity requiring commensurate fuel and rest. Similarly, sensitivities to environmental stimuli such as noise, crowds, bright lights, clothing textures, etc may require adjustments to ensure a level of sensory comfort before other tasks can be effectively undertaken.
Safety Needs (Level 2) — physical and emotional security: Gifted emotional sensitivity often leads to strong reactions to criticism, harshness and conflict, as well as heightened concerns about uncertainties and threats. Misunderstanding, lack of support and bullying from significant others often leave gifted people feeling deeply wounded and vulnerable at this level.
Belonging Needs (Level 3) — love, acceptance, connection: Personal identity develops from belonging and feeling connected to family and social groups. Because gifted people recognize from a young age that they are different, they often feel a deep loneliness and strong motivation to fit in.
Esteem Needs (Level 4) — competence, achievement, confidence: At this level, one seeks validation to the questions: “Is my way of being and doing valued? Am I good enough?” Fulfilling this need is essential to working towards self-mastery; however, as part of a neurominority, many gifted people who have not had their unique, complex abilities recognized or validated do not sufficiently make it through this level.
When any, or all, of these foundational needs are not reasonably met, the sophisticated nature of our nervous systems will intervene to ensure we are protected — most often in unconscious ways. For example, the gifted person who longs to feel a sense of belonging may develop a false sense of self, unconsciously denying their gifts and suppressing their traits and values in order to find acceptance within a neuromajority group. Similarly, a gifted person with emotional intensity and sensitivity who experiences people reacting to them in harsh ways may develop psychological “armouring” in the form of indifference, defiance, social withdrawal, or excessive self-control in order to feel emotionally safe.
Over time, these unconscious protective patterns create what I call “internal knots” — entanglements of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and narratives that constrain and distort both our inner experience and outer expression. These knots not only create blockages for moving through the next four levels of advanced growth needs, but also form a large part of the focus around which a robust mindfulness practice revolves.
Four Advanced Growth Needs
Maslow described the four growth needs as advanced levels of development that allow the individual to continue learning and maturing toward the highest levels of being. For many gifted individuals, these advanced needs are like ”the air they breathe” - it is as if they possess what Maslow called a “meta-motivation” that propels them towards constant evolution.
Cognitive Needs (Level 5) — learning, understanding, exploring: Gifted people have an intense drive to explore how things work, contemplate meaning, problem solve, research, theorize and analyse. Environments that don’t support this need will feel stifling and oppressive.
Aesthetic Needs (Level 6) — beauty, order, symmetry: At this level, one moves beyond the purely intellectual and not only experiences the beauty in symmetry and order, but also needs to transform things according to these aesthetics (Harvey Sallin, 2016). Deep passion is evident here as the gifted person becomes immersed in creative endeavors such as art, nature, music, mathematics or language. As Webb et al state, “Whatever is in their nature, they must be” (2007).
Self-Actualization Needs (Level 7) — self-fulfillment, realizing one’s potential: Very few people reach this level of development, yet many gifted individuals experience an intense drive toward fulfilling their potential. While Maslow emphasized that realizing one’s potential is self-defined and can be domain-specific (e.g., a writer may be self-actualized when able to publish a book), the gifted person’s complex needs across multiple domains and ideal of self-actualization can create a lot of internal struggle at this level (Harvey Sallin, 2016).
Self-Transcendence Needs (Level 8) — helping others achieve their potential, working for the benefit of humanity: At this highest level, one becomes directed by that which is greater than the self, experiencing deep feelings of joy and peace as well as a sense of flow and interconnectedness. The expanded nature of being here is related to “enlightenment” as described by robust, classic mindfulness (although it’s important to note that not all people who feel called to enlightenment feel called to serve humanity). Gifted individuals who have achieved some level of self-actualization may begin to move toward self-transcendence.
Those who have not been able to fulfill their foundational needs experience an intense inner discord as their unique neurobiology propels them towards advanced levels of being, yet protective layers of internal knots prevent them from moving forward. This inner discord can be further understood from a gifted perspective in Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration. This theory not only overlays nicely with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but also provides further grounds for the role of mindfulness in the gifted growth journey.
DABROWSKI'S THEORY OF POSITIVE DISINTEGRATION
Dabrowski saw giftedness not merely as advanced intellect, but as a multidimensional experience of intensity, sensitivity and tendency toward emotional extremes. He referred to these intensities as “overexcitabilities” (OEs) which are heightened physiological experiences of, and reactions to, stimuli because of a highly sensitive nervous system. Dabrowski identified five areas of overexcitability: intellectual, emotional, imaginational, sensual, and psychomotor, and observed that combinations of these OEs in gifted people are necessary — but not wholly sufficient — for advanced growth (Daniels & Piechowski, 2009).
Profound curiosity, love of knowledge and learning, love of problem solving, probing questions, search for truth, understanding, knowledge, and discovery, keen observation, reflective thought, introspection, avid reading, sustained intellectual effort, love of theory and analysis, and independent thinking.
Depth and intensity of emotional feelings and relational attachments, wide range of complex emotions, strong memory for feelings, high concern for others, heightened sense of right, wrong, injustice and hypocrisy, empathy, responsibility, and self-examination. Tendency toward feelings of guilt, anxiety, loneliness, depression and somatic expression of emotions.
Detailed visualization, vivid dreams, love of fantasy, creativity, inventions, love of music and art, good sense of humor, preference for the unusual and unique, fear of the unknown.
Enhanced sensory experience of visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, or tactile stimulus. Appreciation of beauty, need for desire or comfort. Sensual expression of emotional tension (i.e. overeating).
Physical expression of emotions. Surplus of energy, such as intense physical activity, competitiveness, rapid speech, restlessness, nervous habits and tics, and impulsiveness. Preference for fast action.
Used with permission from “Living with Intensity,” Harvey Sallin (2013).
Dabrowski pointed out that the path for the person with strong OEs is not a smooth or easy one. Extreme highs and lows in the areas of OE hold the likelihood for a great deal of personal stress and conflict — inner discord that both results from developmental conflict (i.e., unfulfilled needs/internal knots as per Maslow’s hierarchy) and drives development toward advanced growth. This discord can overwhelm and block gifted individuals in their process of growth (not to mention the possibility of being misdiagnosed with pathology) if they have not developed the tools and skills to support their intensity.
Interestingly, Dabrowski saw this inner discord as the fuel for advanced growth. He saw the human development journey as a multilevel progression driven by vertical tension between what a person feels to be higher and lower versions of oneself — an inner disharmony between what one is and what one thinks they “ought to be” according to their own self-chosen ideals and values (Harvey Sallin, 2013). The inner conflict caused by this discrepancy between inner ideals and outer social and cultural realities, combined with OEs and the drive for authentic growth, leads to a process of disintegration at lower levels of being (e.g., the dismantling of cognitive constructs within the confines of social and cultural conformity) and reintegration at higher levels of being (i.e., reintegration according to one’s own ideals and values, and eventually, in harmony with universal needs).
This disintegration and positive reintegration process has often been likened to scaling a mountain; it is a rocky journey that requires strength, courage, guidance, skill, perseverance … and a progressively lightened load to continue making the climb. If we are unable to complete the disintegration and positively reintegrate at a higher level, we remain stuck at lower levels of the mountain; stuck while at the same time being acutely aware of the existence of a plateau up ahead. This vertical tension of seeing where we want to be yet being stuck where we are can create deep personal suffering for the gifted person. The corollary, of course, is that when we have the skills, tools, and guidance to support our inner experience on this rocky journey, and can let go of the “baggage” holding us back, we are able to take deliberate and conscious control of moving toward gifted self-actualization (as well as self-transcendence for those who may feel called to do so), and resolve that deep suffering.
FUNDAMENTAL SKILLS FOR GIFTED MINDFULNESS
As a practice, mindfulness is essentially a series of techniques for processing our inner experience and elevating our base level of awareness. In fact, in Spanish one of the terms for mindfulness is “conciencia plena” which translates to “full awareness” or “full consciousness.” I find this to be a more apt description when it comes to robust mindfulness than the somewhat ambiguous description of “present moment awareness.” Indeed, since robust mindfulness draws from both the wisdom traditions and modern scientific advances, it involves the systematic practice of developing three main skills: attention, clarity, and equanimity (Young, 2016).
Attention is the ability to focus on what is relevant or consciously shift focus away as appropriate. Skillful attention is often a challenge for gifted people due to intense inner pushing and pulling — in a myriad of directions by OEs, into protective mode due to internal knots, and toward autonomous growth. The ability to selectively focus our attention on our inner experience — whether zooming-in in a concentrated way or zooming-out in a meta way — is essential for the gifted development journey. We must be able to attend to our thoughts, ideas, curiosities, feelings, and sensations that are worthy of our attention when the time is right, or choose to focus away from any or all of these things in a gentle, matter-of-fact manner — perhaps redirecting our attention altogether or allowing the inner experience to “do its thing” in the background while we engage in another task. Attention, in concert with clarity and equanimity, gives us the choice and skill in turning toward and managing what comes up in our inner experience rather than turning a blind eye or resisting it.
Clarity is the ability to keep track of and disentangle what we are experiencing in the moment. Where attention says, “What is this?” as it zooms in and out, clarity says, “Ah, it’s this and this and this” in a high resolution kind of way. Let’s say you’re dealing with a particularly difficult life circumstance; it could be parenting a gifted child, trying to figure out a career that fits, navigating the grip of perfectionism … or even the throes of a positive disintegration. Whatever the situation, chances are that there is an overwhelming amount of internal “stuff” happening. Without clarity, the “stuff” — the emotional, intellectual, imaginational, etc intensities — gets tangled and cross-multiplies with one another giving you the impression that you are suffering at a level 10 x 10 x 10. A 1,000 level of intensity is a lot of suffering that is extremely difficult to navigate.
Clarity enables us to disentangle the components of our inner experience so we see clearly what is actually happening in the moment. In this way, the elements of our experience no longer cross-multiply, they simply add together: 10 + 10 + 10. An intensity level of 30 is a big reduction in suffering and much more manageable to process. How’s that for lightening our load?! Can you see how this skill is such a tremendous asset on the rocky road of gifted development? (This reduction technique is described by American mindfulness teacher, Shinzen Young (2016).)
Equanimity is an inner spaciousness and balance that allows our internal experience to flow without push and pull. It says, “It all belongs, and I’ve got this,” like an exquisite container that expands to hold greater amounts of all experience as our mindfulness deepens. Even when we are able to break down and gain clarity around the specific elements of our inner experience, it is still possible to get caught by the elements. For example, we can get caught in rumination of thoughts about the way things ought to be, or in intense feelings of gifted shame. In order not to spin our wheels or get hijacked, we bring in equanimity — we open to the experience with a gentle matter-of-factness rather than resist or cling to it. In this calm spaciousness, without the resistance or grasping, the intensity continues to lessen and begins to flow more freely. One of the beautiful features of equanimity is that it enables us to be the “soft place to fall” for our gifted selves — a refuge that we’ve often so desperately been missing.
Mindfulness gives us the inner resources and agency to lean in to the gifted journey. Not only do we learn how to support the intensity of our overexcitabilities and drive towards growth in a clear, equanimous way, but we also develop a gentle spaciousness in which to fulfill our unmet needs. We discover a new and deeper sense of safety, belonging and gifted self; what poet Maya Angelou calls “the safe place where we can go as we are, and not be questioned.” When we can hold all of who we are, not in spite of who we are, but because of who we are, we are able to openly connect with our gifted selves, others, and even life itself, in meaningful, authentic ways. The gifted journey along the mindful path is about being our full gifted selves wherever we are.
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Hanson, R. (2013). Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. New York: Harmony.
Harvey Sallin, J. (2013). “Living with Intensity: Understanding Giftedness as Self-Actualization” [Blog post]. Retrieved from: www.intergifted.com.
Harvey Sallin, J. (2016) “Legitimizing Your Gifted Needs.” [Course Notes]. Retrieved from online course at www.intergifted.com.
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