20 Nov

On Mindfulness

This article examines what I consider to be one of the primary limits to a richer understanding and utilization of Mindfulness.

Historically rooted in the enlightenment teachings of Buddhism and Taoism, I see the proper practice of Mindfulness as offering a genuine pathway to psychological and spiritual growth.

In terms of its current level of cultural acceptance, Mindfulness has come a long way in the last 25 years. It is also my view however, that today’s mainstream practice of Mindfulness does not yet properly serve as a vehicle for accelerating or encouraging such growth and development.

Let me be clear that after 25 years of clinical practice as a psychologist, I understand that for most people there are much more important and pressing issues than trying to grasp the nature of consciousness,  or to truly appreciate  what it means when we talk about “our self”, or “others”.

Most people do not genuinely seek answers to questions such as “Who am I”? “How do I live my life so it feels meaningful to me”? “Why do I keep doing things that hurt me and don’t stop”? , “Why do I hurt the people I love”? And so on.

So this is precisely why, when individuals do arrive at a place in their life where they are willing to allow someone to help with their concerns, or to find answers to such questions, it seems so unfortunate that the value of Mindfulness in term of teaching them how to nurture their psychological growth is seldom being offered.

There are of course, many issues involved here.  But one of the central challenges I see relates to how  we over-identify our thought processes as being the central quality of our “mind”, and subsequently, our “self”.

This is a widely held attitude most easily exemplified in Descartes dictum “I think, therefore I am”.  Indeed it seems to be a socially accepted assumption that we experience our world through our thoughts ; that we define our self  in terms of such thoughts and those thoughts are the primary drivers of our experiences, and ultimately our actions.

This idea, this working connection between who “I” am and what I do because of what and how I think, seems so ingrained into our culture that it now has the status of an unquestionable truth. The result is that interest in “self” and “mind” is all too often restricted to consideration of thought process,  primarily in terms of how to change them.

Consider this explanation for example,

The core skill of mindfulness is teaching you to recognize your thought patterns. Doing this enables you to break away from the false constructs of your mind; those words which are most troublesome to you. These false constructs are what I call Big Lies that you have come to accept as true in spite of all evidence to the contrary. It is your response to the Big Lies stored in your mind that creates hurtful and painful reactions. When practicing mindfulness you become able to redefine the false constructs present in your mind. To reinterpret how you experience certain psychological events.”

I agree with this notion of “Big Lies”; those false constructs we create in our mind. And I also agree with the description of the manner in which harmful reactions and behaviours effects flow from them.

We certainly do seem to create meaning of our self, our world, and our relationships from our thoughts. And our behaviours certainly do seem to flow from such constructions.  Who would question this?

Indeed, I would support the position that if am depressed and am encouraged to pay attention to the type and quality of thoughts I am having, then my experiences of being depressed will shift. There is enough research evidence to validate this approach that it would seem to be pointless to dispute the evidence. And I am not disputing that evidence.

Part of what I am arguing however, is that strictly speaking, these changes are not occurring because I have changed my negative thoughts.  Rather, it is because through awareness I have altered my relationship with my thoughts such that the fundamental basis and dynamic for the experience of depression in the first place has changed.

Another way to describe this relationship change is to say that in the very act of becoming aware of my negative thoughts, I am now identifying with them, or relating to them, in a fundamentally different manner because  I am no longer struggling with them. Descriptively, I am now interested in them, essentially orienting myself towards rather than away from them.

Likewise, if  I was instructed to pay attention to my breathing rather than paying attention to my depressing thought,  then I would also be altering my relationship to my thinking.

Accordingly, it is  therefore accurate to say that  if  I am absorbed in my thoughts (by definition meaning I have  little awareness) and I am  telling myself how bad things,  then this will affect my experiences.

So in the process of activating my awareness, (regardless of what I am becoming aware of) I am actually shifting my relationship to those experiences.  And in so doing, the fundamental quality of those experience changes. It has to.

Within this  framework of understanding the human process, it is not surprising that cognitive therapy should be effective in helping people  with depression, or anxiety, or almost any other form of human suffering.

Likewise, there would seem to be a real value in a Mindfulness practice in which people are encouraged to identify with their thought processes as a means of effecting changes in their behaviour.

But believing that our thoughts are the primary determinant of my experience, or my behaviour, misses this vital relational connection.

Moreover,  I would argue that over-identification with our thought processes actually creates a form of relationship which disconnects us from our wider experiential self.  The very act of doing so  supports the illusion of an isolated and separate ego,  and potentially reignites and reinforces the very fears and reactive behaviours that cause so much pain and suffering in the first place.

It also creates a relational disconnect between myself and others, as well as a disconnect to the world in which I live.  Since my behaviour towards myself, others, and this world is informed by my experiences,  then my behaviour cannot help but reflect this fundamental disconnect.

With proper mindfulness and awareness practices however, we can do something about this.  With proper instruction in awareness, we can directly see why we need to care about all of these relationships.

When we achieve such understanding through our own direct experiences, we no longer need to be convinced by anyone or anything.  And as this happen, the very basis for our moral code and the actions which flow from it begins to reformulate itself.

It is this theme I intend to explain more fully in the upcoming series of articles. And in so doing, it is my wish that a more useful mode of working with Mindfulness can be achieved.  I also hope that these articles might open a dialogue between others on this notion such that between all of us, we can help bring that horizon of understanding, wisdom and compassion, even closer.

02 Jan

Introduction: Let’s Talk About Love

As a psychologist specializing in working with couples struggling in their relationships, I often hear individuals tell me that even though they are angry or frustrated with their partner, they still love them and believe they are loved in return.

When I ask them how they actually experience this love within the relationship, they often offer explanations such as, “because we’ve stayed together this long”, or “even though he get’s angry at me he can also be really kind and gentle”, or “because she tells me  she loves me” and so on.

My intention here is not to criticize these explanations, but to use them to reflect something that strikes me as quite remarkable.

My clinical and personal experiences suggests that most people seem to have given very little thought or reflection about this thing called love.

It seems odd to me that something most of us would argue is essential and important for us in our relationships, and which we generally consider to be such a powerful source of motivation in our lives, receives so little consideration on our part.

Without question the experience of love is a complex, powerful, and mysterious process. Many knowledgeable and learned individuals have discussed this topic from innumerable angles, and I am not suggesting that we should be scholars in this area.

In fact I would even argue that it does not matter one bit what one “knows” about love at the intellectual level in order for that person to be loving.

But I would argue that there are many things we do in the name of love, which have nothing to do with love at all, and can even be harmful and destructive.

When we equate love with having security and comfort for example, or when we confuse love with being possessiveness and controlling, it becomes very difficult to see what we are doing to others, or what is being done to us.

I will offer some of my reflections on this complex topic of love over this next series of articles.

My primary purpose is not to enter into an intellectual discussion of love but rather to discuss a particular way of looking at this subject which I hope will provide a clear and useful way of looking at our relationships and our life.

I hope it will also help clarify many other terms which are relevant to relationships such as power and control, discipline, responsibility, and honesty and truth, just to name a few.

I would also hope that this viewpoint will offer some direction and guidelines for parents in terms of caring for their children, and ideally, will perhaps help each of us learn healthier, more productive ways of relating to each other, to ourselves, and to our world.

Unless I am mistaken, it looks like were going to need it.

29 Feb

When Love Fails

My clinical experience in working with couples and individuals over the years suggests a fundamental lack of understanding of what it even means to have a truly loving relationship.

In my previous article “Yes, But Do You Really Love Me,” I referred to a specific type of struggle that arises in relationships when one partner is seeking to establish a more meaningful and connected type of relationship, but the other is unable or unwilling to reciprocate.

This article looks more closely at some of the difficulties that arise under these conditions.

There is one basic struggle that seems to arise repeatedly between couples, especially when the commitment level to the relationship begins to deepen. This conflict occurs when one of the partners is seeking a more connected and deeper form of love from their relationship than the other.

It is often the case that their partner in this relationship believes they are already as loving as they could possibly be, and cannot understand why they are being asked for something to be different.

But the partner who knows, or at least feels,  that something truly important and vital is not happening in the relationship may not even be able to explain to the other why they feel so unhappy.

This can creates much confusion and distress for both parties.

The one who doesn’t understand what the problem is may feel unjustly accused, and wonder begin to resent for even raising the issue.

In response, the person raising the issue may start to believe that the problem is with them.  They may conclude (or even be told) they are too needy or that there is something wrong with them they need to solve by their self.

It is not surprising therefore, that when this struggle arises it leads to almost unresolvable conflict.

As a therapist, when I see couples in my practice there is invariably an imbalance between the two partners in terms of their comparative levels of current psychological development.  What satisfies one partner and makes them happy simply doesn’t work for the other; it is not enough.  The net result is that as one partner is pulling for the relationship to change, the other partner is resisting and often pulling for it to remain the same.

Typically, the central issue for change seems to revolve around the ability of the dissatisfied partner who wants more intimacy to properly understand what they are looking for, and to identify this to the resistant partner. Then the question becomes “To what degree can the resistant partner come on side with the wishes of the one seeking change”.

If the initially resistant partner is able and willing to change, then the transition to a higher functioning relationship tends to be fairly smooth and very rewarding for the couple.

If the resistant partner is unwilling to change or unable to do so,  then some very difficult issues arise and it is here that  challenges begin.

The next article will look at this situation is greater detail.

16 Jun

For Crying Out Loud

Several years ago I was seeing a young woman in my practice who was struggling with depression following the recent death of her mother. In spite of how sad and distressed she looked, she seemed to be struggling to let herself cry.

When I commented that she seemed to be having difficulties accepting her feelings, she responded that this was not actually the problem for her.  Rather, she was concerned that if she truly expressed what she was feeling, other people in the building would hear her and wonder if something was wrong, if perhaps she was being attacked.

She didn’t want to just cry softly.  She wanted to yell and scream and protest that her mother died too young and her loss was too painful to bare.  She wasn’t able to do this in the privacy of her apartment building, and she was also worried about doing it here. She was afraid that if she released this in my office someone might alert security or call the police and she didn’t want that to happen.

I sat in my chair for a while watching her closely and thinking about what she had said.  I could understand she was holding a lot inside and if she let it out it would probably burst like a damn and flood the room.  I was pretty sure I could listen to all of this, but I could imagine that people out side might indeed wonder what was going on and be worried.

I began to think where this woman could go and yell as loudly and as long as she wanted without worrying how others would respond. The more I thought about this the more I realized her concerns were quite valid.

It seems to be remarkably hard in our society to simply and freely express what is in our minds and in our hearts.  Even with loved ones in the privacy of our own homes there always seems to be a limit to what we can say.

Sometimes we just need to let things out.  Sometimes we just need to know that someone cares enough for us to listen to what we have to say, however we say it and whatever it sounds like. Not because we want them to fix it; we just don’t want to hold onto it any longer.

It is not just having a place to express oneself  that is important, but also learning how to do it in such a way that we can truly listen to ourselves. When we cannot experience we cannot learn. As we learn to trust rather than fear ourselves, we experience the freedom to explore further, and so we learn and grow.

When we are afraid to let others hear us it adds one more level of complexity to the already difficult struggle of finding out who we truly are.  The fear that we cannot let ourselves out anywhere to anyone is a disturbing and distressing reality.

If there is any fundamental action I try to encourage in the people I see in my practice, it is for them to find a way to express what could not be expressed before. Most people have not allowed themselves to do this since they were a child.  As adults, most people cannot do it now even if they are given the chance. And they don’t even realize it.

Without this growth there will always be pain and suffering in your life.  Although, even with growth, there will be pain.  But the pointless of it all will end. And when we activate our own compassion and acceptance for that suffering, we will  discover some of the most important lessons life has to offer.