The University of Vermont has a Mindfulness Center for students, run by Miv London, one of the people who trained me in MBCT. Miv does a great job of finding interesting thinking about mindfulness, such as a recent one documenting that sex and mindfulness are the same to your brain. If you want to stay in the loop of mindfulness news, especially news that would be of interest to younger folks, join the UVM Mindfulness Practice Center, and click to receive updates. And thanks, Miv.
Articles on Mindfulness
Read these for yourself, then pass them along to your friends. You’ll be amazed at the clarity of these explanations.
They are the best of journalism, crisp, clear, without a lot of assumptions about what the reader already knows.
Accepting Fears, Wall Street Journal, 1/2/11 – Melinda Beck writes about the use of mindfulness and acceptance in mental health and personal growth.
Mastering Your Own Mind, Psychology Today, 9/06 – A nice primer on why meditation and mindfulness matter. Opens with, “Distracted? Angry? Envious? There’s growing evidence that attention, emotion regulation –even love– are skills that can be trained through the practice of meditation. Perhps it’s time for you to become a high-performance user of your own brain.”
Lotus Therapy, New York Times, 5/27/08 – beautiful article on a variety of paths to mindfulness.
The Art of Now, Psychology Today, Nov-Dec, 2008 – starts with this bit of knowledge that often comes with mindfulness: you are not your thoughts. Offers concrete guidelines on how to use this awareness to better your life.
A Simple Turning in Place, by Joseph Goldstein, Insight Journal, Winter 09 – Goldstein describes his initial (discouraging) attempts at meditating, and his eventual growth in this practice. Even masters have to start somewhere!
Yes I Suck: Self-Help Through Negative Thinking, Time Magazine, 7/9/09 – Many of us have at one time or another believed that it’s better to avoid negative thoughts. Martin Seligman has proposed that people should just think optimistically. But this bit of research refutes that, supporting a major premise of mindfulness, namely that running away from thoughts doesn’t work, that learning to be with them does work. Comments on this research are also available here, and here.
Sit Every Day, Shambhala Sun, magazine website – graciously examines why it is so hard to sit (meditate) regularly, why it matters that we do, and how do be more effective at having a daily (almost) practice.
Brief Meditative Exercise Helps Cognition, Science Daily, 4/19/10 – “Some of us need regular amounts of coffee or other chemical enhancers to make us cognitively sharper. A newly published study suggests perhaps a brief bit of meditation would prepare us just as well.”
Mind the Grid, New York Times, 8/31/10 – One person’s experience with a meditation retreat.
Regimens: Meditation, for the Mind and the Heart, New York Times, 11/24/09 – cites research that meditation can be heart healthy.
We Don’t Surrender Until We Have To, New York Times, 10/2/09 – the story of a journalist and a quadriplegic. “I went home with nothing particularly resolved, but happier than I’d been in years.”
On Becoming a Person: The Good Life and the Fully Functioning Person, Carl Rogers (1953) – a prescient description of the value of being fully open to experience in order to be a well developed person.
Finding Daylight: Mindful Recovery from Depression, Zindel Segal in Psychotherapy Networker, Jan-Feb 08 – An explanation of mindfulness teaching for therapists. The first paragraph is a gem; read it several times.
How Mindfulness Can Make for Better Doctors, New York Times, 10/15/09 – Doctors, like many of us, have to multi-task. When attention is all over, mistakes can happen.
In the Classroom, A New Focus on Quieting the Mind, New York Times, 6/16/07 – Children learn more when they are calm.
Can You Become a Creature of New Habits? New York Times, 5/4/08 – learning mindfulness meditation means learning a new habit. This explores some of the factors that make change difficult, and some that make it easier.
At End-Of-The-Line Prison, An Unlikely Escape, NPR, 2/8/11, by Debbie Elliott – In a prison for the most hardened criminals, mindfulness meditation is taught, and – amazingly – prisoners are responding.
Hazy Recall as a Signal Foretelling Depression, New York Times, 5/9/11 by Alastair Gee – Describes research by MBCT co-creator Mark Williams. Over-general memory, a clinical name for hazy recall, looks like this. If you ask a person for a specific memory (something less than a day, say) about going out for dinner, and the person responds, “Dinners always bore me,” that may be an over-general memory. The article is a bit heady, but makes an interesting connection between this and how mindfulness can help.
Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges, New York Times, 2/28/11 by Tara Parker-Pope – discussion of the importance of compassion for the self. Compassion is increasingly part of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and other mindfulness-based trainings.
And a few books…
There are also several key books I recommend.
The Mindful Way Through Depression, Mark Williams et al – The definitive text on the content of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. While it was developed for prevention of recurring depression, I have found the book very helpful for those with anxiety and negative thinking, as well.
Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh – a short, easy read. Really lucid. Basic mindfulness in life presented by a great teacher.
And sources for dharma talks (teachings)
Tara Brach lays out a way to deal with painful feelings, and to live life more fully. Her book Radical Acceptance, Embracing Your Life with the Heart of A Buddha, lays out her thinking.
Tara Brach is a clinical psycholotist, meaning she practices psychotherapy. She’s also a student of Buddhism, including mindfulness meditation. She has a lot to contribute to mindful psychotherapy.
The idea here is to embrace all of life, the good, the bad, and the boring. Want to eliminate suffering in your life? Forget it. Want to only experience joy? Forget it. The way of mindfulness is to be with all experience, not to chase it away, even if it is unpleasant. It just takes too much energy to chase away experience. Avoiding knowing experience is a little like living in delusion.
The book’s title, Radical Acceptance, comes from the idea that it’s radical to accept negative experience, radical because in this society we’re brought up to minimize the bad and maximize the good. It really is radical to say that when we’re experiencing something unpleasant, we should allow ourselves to ‘be’ fully in that experience. This doesn’t mean going out looking for unpleasant experience; just being with it when it comes. Why practice this radical acceptance? Because it works.
The Buddha was raised in luxury, his father a King, yet he wasn’t happy. He wanted to find enlightenment, and like many Hindus of his day began by depriving himself of all comfort: nearly starving himself, living the life of a homeless person. That didn’t work either, he nearly died, not at all the better of having lived in suffering. Living in luxury hadn’t worked; living in suffering hadn’t worked, either. He struggled to make sense of life, finally resolving to sit under the Boddhi tree until he understood things more deeply. He realized the idea of embracing whatever experience came to him, the pleasant, the unpleasant, and the neutral (boring). Life always included elements of happiness and elements of sadness. Enlightment meant accepting all of experience, even as a child does, without preference.
This is a rather large teaching moment in Buddhism, and also for Tara Brach. She sees how we lead so much of our lives trying to avoid pain and suffereing, seeking after comfort, to no avail. The difficulties just keep on coming.
The change she teaches involves accepting all of experience, as the Buddha did.
It plays out like this: The prime dissatisfaction for many of us is the sense that we are unworthy. We aren’t enough, we don’t do enough, we don’t have enough. We live in a trance of unworthiness. It’s a trance because the pain of KNOWING the unworthy feelings is rather deep. So we keep really busy, so there’s no time to sit and feel. We embark on self-improvement projects to try to be good enough. We avoid risks to avoid more pain. We withdraw from knowing our current experience. We become self-critics. And like most self critics, we also become critical of others. Doing all this activity just to live in the delusion that everything should be pleasant. And to avoid knowing what’s life is really like.
Being caught in the trance means losing sight of the self who’s connected, whole, in the ‘fullness of being.’ Breaking the trance of unworthiness involves being in close touch with the self that’s fearful, wanting, feeling alone and separate.
Brach’s way out? “When we learn to face and feel the fear and shame we habitually avoid, we begin to awaken from the trance.” (p. 57)
A principal way for the beginner to do this is with the sacred pause. It’s a way to stop running from experience. Brach lays out in clear detail how to learn the sacred pause, although for many it is better learned with the aid of a professional helper, as the feelings that come out can be strong. The sacred pause is sort of like saying, “Here I am, (name your experience)…. let me feel it fully, let me be with it, regardless of how I feel about it.”
Having learned the pause, readers are encouraged to practice it often. The book introduces vipassana or mindfulness meditation to come into contact with experience, and metta or loving-kindness meditation to develop compassion for the deeper self that comes clearly into view.
People of all walks of life can gain from this book. Each chapter ends with the text of a guided meditation to practice and directly experience her teachings.
For professionals: In the process of describing Radical Acceptance Brach lays out an approach to mindful therapy that reveals itself only through the accumulation of examples she uses. But revealing it is, and worthy of study by the psychotherapist. For the professional psychotherapist who wants to learn more, Dr. Brach has also taught workshops on Radical Acceptance for professionals. I studied this with her, and found it most helpful. With some of my psychotherapy clients it becomes the focus of our work.
A helpful interview with Tara Brach occured in Elisha Goldstein’s blog at PsychCenral, 9/4/09.
Mindfulness for depression continues to do well in research.
The latest study found that Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for depression was about as effective as anti-depressants. This is the third major study showing MBCT’s usefulness. A word of caution: my experience as an MBCT teacher is that is just as effective if a person is taking anti-depressants or not. Any medication decisions need to be taken with your doctor or psychiatrist. Medications don’t have much to do with thinking patterns.
The real benefit of MBCT is that it helps a person learn a new way to deal with negative thinking, a new way to be with low self-esteem. I’ve pasted below parts of an article on the latest study. Major points are highlighted in blue.
Depression Treatment: Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy…
ScienceDaily (Dec. 2, 2008) — Research shows for the first time that a group-based psychological treatment, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), could be a viable alternative to prescription drugs for people suffering from long-term depression.
I studied Mark Epstein’s Thoughts Without A Thinker to learn how a psychoanalyst integrates mindfulness into psychotherapy.
Mark Epstein’s credentials are impeccable. He is a long-time meditator, student of Buddhism, a psychiatrist practicing psychodynamic psychotherapy. He was mentored by some rather eminent scholars of Buddhism: Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield.
The first part of the book lays out classical Buddhism in a framework of psychodynamic understandings. It is a fine introduction for the psychoanalyst, as he frequently describes Buddhism from the point of view of Freud’s teachings. The second part describes Buddhist meditation and explains its workings psychodynamically. The third part presents a model of how Buddhist meditation can work hand-in-hand with psychotherapy.
It is this third part that is of great value to the therapist seeking ways to integrate meditation or mindfulness with treatment. In it, Epstein uses Freud’s essay “Remembering, Repeating and Working Through.” While I recommend reading this third part of the book carefully, as it is full of important insights, a brief synopsis might be helpful:
Epstein sees psychotherapy and meditation as going hand in hand. He does not see them used consecutively, or side-by-side, but rather being closely integrated.
Epstein focuses on the concept of the need of patients to deal with the `basic fault,’ the feelings of inadequacy left over from growing up with parent(s) who did not devote enough attention to the child. He sees this as a sense of emptiness that must be dealt with in therapy, rather than dealing with specific incidents with the parents.
There are some problems of using meditation without the support of a therapist. Epstein writes, “meditation is often extremely efficient at bringing out the basic fault, but rather silent about dealing with it.” (pg179). (In my experience as a therapist, this problem, as it is encountered by beginning meditators, can result in great discomfort, often so great the defenses keep it out of awareness. It can be a cause of many beginners finding reason to discontinue meditation just when they get started. Those who can verbalize it might call it a sense of emptiness.)
Also, meditation can stir up projections and transference that the classic meditation teacher may not know how to respond do. The therapist would see this as a natural and expected occurrence, and of course has the necessary training to use it productively with the patient. Thus the need for therapists versed both in therapy and meditation.
A huge benefit of meditation to the therapist comes from developing her or his own meditative practice. It has been said that the therapist’s person is the first and foremost element in healing. The therapist who meditates can achieve a much more advanced `presence’ with the client, and this can result in a stronger, more productive therapeutic relationship. The presence involves listening, but also an attitude of acceptance and openness, elements often nourished by meditation. For Epstein this means sitting with the patient without
-trying to force an experience
-thinking h/she knows what is happening
-feeling h/she knows the patient
As for the therapeutic process, Epstein writes, “Much of my work as a therapist with a meditative perspective involves teaching people, in the context of therapy, how to pay attention to what they are repeating in a manner that is both meditative and therapeutic.” (pg. 193)
In discussing `working through,’ Epstein defines it as `changing one’s view.’ While this will be a very challenging adjustment for experienced therapists, it is helpful once the nature of meditation is understood. It goes with the idea that `working through’ means less an outpouring of emotion and more an ability to sit with emotion and see it differently, thus `changing one’s view.’ Many therapists will need to develop their own meditation practice before fully accepting this premise!
Epstein describes how emotion can be experienced in the body and thus experienced as part and parcel of the `I’ rather than as split off elements. When emotion is experienced through the body it can be seen as something that arises and falls away, rather than as a feared, stuck part of the self.
In attempting to describe meditative states of mind, and the shifts in perception and attitude that can result, Epstein does a good job, but this is not easily summarized. Imagine writing an essay on the experience of swimming, for one who has never swum, versus offering the experience of swimming itself. Experiencing mindfulness meditation is much more than most authors can hope to adequately describe. Nevertheless, Epstein’s core idea is that the patient needs to arrive at a place of feeling Robert Thurman’s `injured innocence,’ basically an indignation at the treatment received from loved-one(s), and then is most open to having a shift in feelings about that. It’s sort of like moving from a position of swimming in the emotions, to a position a little bit away from them, where an `I’ can observe them from a few feet away. The transition from there to a deeper appreciation of the `I’ who is experiencing the suffering, rather than being consumed by the suffering itself, is an important part of growth.
Epstein has succeeded in explaining one way that meditation can help the patient. This conceptual framework is very important for any therapist wanting to provide more than superficial change, and deserves careful reading, followed by developing her or his own practice. Based on my experience, the therapist cannot go much further without jumping into the water and experiencing meditation firsthand. And that need not be seen as a price-of-entry to meditative therapy, since this very jumping in can help the therapist develop the choiceless awareness within the session that is so vital and valuable.
There are many exciting developments in the use of mindfulness and meditation in psychotherapy. A Buddhist approach is one of them. What gives such value to Epstein’s approach, though, is his success at giving an overall theoretical psychodynamic framework. This book is an excellent statement on the `how it works’ of meditation in psychotherapy. What is needed after a close reading of this material, are specifics on the `how to’ of actually doing and using meditation within a psychotherapy practice.
For now, learning the `how to’ in individual psychotherapy will remain the province of supervision, as approaches are developed client by client.