Friday, May 30, 2008

Mindfulness Meditation and Psychotherapy

An interesting article from the New York Times about the rapidly-growing popularity of mindfulness meditation as an aspect of psychotherapy. What is mindfulness meditation? The practice of witnessing sensations, emotions and thoughts as they arise and fall away, moment to moment, without reacting. For example, as you sit, you may hear a siren outside. Instead of getting pulled into a train of thoughts about emergencies-accidents-death-your dog that died-getting a new dog-etc, you simply perceive the sound as it rises and then falls away. Sound difficult? At first, it is. After spending a lifetime letting our minds run eagerly after every passing thought and sensation, it's a big change to ask the mind to let perceptions flow by without getting involved.

In the Buddhist tradition, where I learned the practice, beginners do no start with mindfulness meditation because the mind is too restless and reactive. Instead, some form of concentration/calming practice comes first - usually meditation on the breath - often for many years. However, I don't doubt the value of introducing moments of mindfulness meditation into a psychotherapy session, expressed nicely by one of the therapists interviewed in the article:
“It’s a shift from having our mental health defined by the content of our thoughts,” Dr. Hayes said, “to having it defined by our relationship to that content — and changing that relationship by sitting with, noticing and becoming disentangled from our definition of ourselves.”
Rather than trying to rewrite or analyze your mental script, you change your relationship to the whole mental drama, seeing it for what it is: A PLAY (rather than objective reality). Of course, it's one thing to intellectually understand that we do not need to identify with each and every thought that passes through our head, and another to experience it.

I try to weave mindfulness into all of my yoga classes, mostly through verbal cues that encourage students to widen their focus from physical to mental alignment. What is the mental tone when things become difficult? How does the mind react to what other students are doing or not doing? In my own experience, I have the most success when I am able to let go of thoughts of success (and failure) and meet each moment with fresh attention. As I wobble in a balance, I may have a flash of "I'm going to fall", but if I can let that thought pass and refocus, most often my body will balance itself. But if I react, thinking "Why can't I balance? I've been practicing for 8 years!" - then I fall.

Another paragraph that caught my attention:
“The interest in this has just taken off,” said Zindel Segal, a psychologist at the Center of Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto... “And I think a big part of it is that more and more therapists are practicing some form of contemplation themselves and want to bring that into therapy.”
I rejoice to read that more therapists are meditating. How can you help others with their minds if you yourself are not actively studying and training your own mind? Ideally, meditation would be a required element of any training program for psychotherapists (or any healing profession, really).

For an excellent discussion of the intersection of Buddhism and psychotherapy, I recommend the work of Mark Epstein. See the Books page of my website for other suggestions.

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