Urban Mindfulness

Finding peace in the middle of it all.

Mindfulness and Psychotherapy: What's the Big Deal?

Why bother practicing mindfulness?

Sprouts

Who knew that these were here all winter long?

Today in the Wall Street Journal, there is an article on mindfulness and its incorporation into psychotherapy. So, what's the big deal about mindfulness anyway? Why is it being embraced by mainstream psychology, the Wall Street Journal, and Oprah, while touted as "being all that and a bag of chips"?

Previously, I've written about the "Top 10 Reasons Why Mindfulness is Cool", but today I'd like to write about its importance relative to psychotherapy and our own growth (both in and out of the city). As a psychologist, I often help my patients learn and practice mindfulness. By learning to observe their thoughts, emotions, and sensory experiences, they become less wrapped up their negative stories about themselves, other people, the world, the future, and correspondingly develop the ability to pause before acting. This pause allows them to practice new ways of being and acting in the world. So, given these experiences, you can imagine that many people are quite interested in becoming more mindful!

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To use an analogy, I see mindfulness as tilling the soil of our own psyche. Weeds and plants that have grown (i.e, our own well-established ways of thinking and acting in the world) are simply noticed, but neither watered nor neglected nor ripped out. (Inevitably, whenever we do try to "rip out" the weeds, we never get all the roots and they grow back anyway.) This process of observation allows more space in the garden (and for us as gardeners) because we're not carried away by caring for--or cursing--the plants already present. And yet, what do we do with this extra space?

Some people--academics and prominent psychologists--have suggested that we can plant something new. We can cultivate new ways of being in the world. We can decide what plants to have and them give them the care and attention that they need to grow. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), for example, there is an active articulation of our life values and pursuit of actions in accordance with them (even when it's painful). I've found this perspective to be quite enriching and liberating for many people.

Yet recently, I was struck by a comment made by a well-respected, ACT-informed colleague about going "beyond mindfulness." I think that I understood his meaning: that once we have better awareness, then we can act more purposefully in the world. Yet, there was something about his comment that troubled me: the implicit suggestion that we don't have the seeds for growth already present within us. A notion that we need to go outside of ourselves and select what to plant. If we want to be happy, compassionate, stress-free, and loving, do we need to purposefully cultivate these virtues? This perspective seems too effortful and artificial to me. Instead, I wonder if it is more desirable to "go deeper into mindfulness". As we continue to hone our ability to see how things truly are from moment to moment, then perhaps these qualities of being naturally arise within us. If we start to see our connections with others, our mutual suffering (at times), and shared joys, then care and kindness emerge almost effortlessly. Sure, we can water them once the seedlings sprout, but perhaps we already have what we've been searching for all along. We just need to give them the space to grow.

BTW, if you're interested in learning more about the intersections between Buddhism and Psychology, I'll be co-teaching a 6-week class with Ethan Nichtern, founder and director of the Interdependence Project. Starting on 1/10/11, we'll be discussing commonalities and differences between Buddhism and psychoanalysis, CBT, mindfulness-based therapies, and positive psychology. Although the class is taught in NYC, you're able to study at home as well (with readings and downloadable podcasts!). Check out the details on the class here: East meets West. I've given talks on psychotherapy at this center previously, and I've found the participants to be quite engaged and thoughtful. Also, Ethan is a very gifted teacher of Buddhism. In short, it should be a wonderful class!

Jonathan Kaplan, Ph.D., has been practicing, teaching, and writing about mindfulness for over a decade. He maintains a private practice in New York City.

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