Mindfulness and Psychotherapy

While I was on retreat at Spirit Rock during March, Winnie Nazarka gave a Dharma talk about the 3rd Foundation of Mindfulness that is well worth adapting for our sangha. Before the retreat, I gave some talks about Joseph Goldstein’s inspiring book Mindfulness, which investigates the Four Foundations of body, feeling tone, mind, and dhammas (or categories of experience).

Guarding and protecting what we call “the mind door” is one of the most challenging aspects of Insight or Vipassana Meditation practice. It is hard to track when the attention shifts from focusing on the breath to noting thoughts and emotions that arise in the mind. With sufficient mindfulness and concentration, we can know in present time whether the causes of suffering—greed, hatred or delusion—are operating or not.

The purpose of meditation is not to investigate if I am an angry person or where angry emotions come from. The Buddha avoided using personal referents such as “my anger” or “my grief.” Instead, he instructed practitioners to note both skillful and unskillful mental states without taking ownership of any experience. As we meditate, we attempt to notice what is actually arising, without adding a story line.

In our daily lives, we may be unaware of how many times anger, fear, sadness and happiness arise and pass away. Mindfulness entails learning to observe thoughts and feelings and to give everything equal valence, even though we habitually prefer pleasant mental states to unpleasant ones.  In practice, we try not to let preferences confuse our recognition of what is truly happening.  Gradually, we learn to stay with whatever is arising in real time, observing its manifestation and its passing away as impermanent. Over time, we begin to see how unpleasant, painful and difficult thoughts arise in connection with greed, ill will or delusion.

Winnie recalled leading a retreat for adolescents, who were embroiled in emotionally stormy relationships and intense viewpoints. She taught them, “You are not your thoughts. They are not consistent. You vow to do your homework, so your mother won’t be angry. Then you smoke pot instead.” One student asked, “If your thoughts are not reliable, how do you know which ones are true?” She responded, “When your body and mind feel free and at peace inwardly.”

It is possible to use the mind to see the workings of our heart-mind and to liberate the mind. Mindfulness helps us see how suffering is created and how to release ourselves from suffering. As the mind is turned towards its own process, we learn not to attach our identity to anything. We understand that thoughts and emotions are not under our control.

Although many Dharma students and teachers (except monastics) have done a good amount of psychotherapy to try to understand turbulent and conflicting emotional states, there are differences between mindfulness and psychotherapy:

Mindfulness is in the present tense, investigating what is arising, while psychotherapy explores, “Where did it come from?” and “Why is it arising?”   Whereas mindfulness is matter-of-fact, psychotherapy encourages interpretation and analysis of the source of what’s occurring. With mindfulness, we note emerging events such as thinking or sensing, in order to let go of craving and to end suffering. The goals of psychotherapy are to relieve specific, personal suffering related to a sense of “me” or “mine,” and to look at the past for meaningful explanations about why “I” am suffering now.

Increasingly, mindfulness techniques are being integrated into psychotherapy: Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy is one example.

Somatic Experiencing uses mindfulness of the body to let go of fight-freeze-or-flight patterns caused by trauma. But people who go on meditation retreats, with hopes of fixing themselves or doing therapeutic healing, may become confused as they try to get rid of what they consider to be unhealthy personal habits. Meditation teachers give instructions to accept all that arises, while noting what is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Mindfulness practice involves observing when a narrative of the self is happening, tracking any related sensations in the body, and noting, “remembering” instead of following a story line about the past. During individual practice discussions on retreat, teachers interrupt students’ narratives to ask about immediate experiences in body, feeling tone, attitude, and connection to Dharma teachings.

As we practice mindfulness, we understand that we cannot cut unpleasant thoughts from the mind stream, because they arise from causes and conditions beyond our control. Once mindfulness is established and the mind is open, balanced and receptive, psychological insights arise naturally and spontaneously. On retreats, I have felt blessed as I become liberated from restrictive beliefs and viewpoints that had been constricting me. Through dedicated mindfulness practice, I have been able to forgive family members who treated me harshly or unfairly due to their own difficult causes and conditions. It is a huge relief to no longer carry the burden of hatred and resentment towards them.

As Winnie says, “Mindfulness is good for everything, but it may not be the best tool for a particular person, time, or situation. Mindfulness can support therapy, stress reduction, or pain management as you learn to be present and to tolerate uncomfortable experiences.” Sometimes at the end of a retreat, a Dharma teacher will suggest to particular students that they pursue psychotherapy for support with challenging issues that have arisen. Ideally, as we follow the Dharma path, we will have both mindfulness and psychotherapy available, sensing when each is indicated.