The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.
Interview with Henry Shukman
A pivotal distinction when it comes to helping individuals in emotional or mental distress is the distinction between “mind” and “brain.” Is the “mind” the problem or is the “brain” the problem? The current, dominant paradigm of “diagnosing and treating mental disorders” suggests (without coming out and saying it) that these are “brain problems” that require medical (or pseudo-medical) treatment. Psychotherapy, on the other hand, generally takes the other position, that these difficulties are “mind problems.” If they are indeed mind problems, what helps with problems of the mind? Currently, one of the most popular answers is “meditation” or “mindfulness.” Here the Buddhist practitioner Henry Shukman makes that case.
EM: What’s your path or journey to Buddhism been like?
HS: I feel lucky that I stumbled into meditation relatively early in life, basically because of emotional distress. But then I had a long, hard road to finding a teacher. I didn’t really get how helpful and important a teacher could be – in Zen they say you can’t do it without one. For quite a few years, even though I was sitting regularly and attending retreats at various centers, I was also ferrying around a heavy bagful of issues from my family of origin, from lifestyle choices, from temperament etc., among which was a general distrust of authority figures. It took time and work to get better at managing and outgrowing some of these issues, to the point where I could actually receive direct help – not just from a therapist, but from a spiritual teacher and guide. Just about everything important in my life changed for the better once I did. So I was lucky there too – when I finally did find a teacher, he happened to be a very good one, who fully merited my trust.
EM: What about Buddhism supports emotional and mental health, would you say?
HS: Giving the body a chance to be still and quiet each day is great for the nervous system. It gets a chance to disengage and do something it really likes to do, which is just be. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Most people say, ‘Don't just sit there, do something.’ But we say: Don't just do something, sit there!’” If we keep at it, and sit every day, day in day out, sooner or later the mind is going to start following the body, into stillness and quiet. We start to discover that there is a still place inside us, even in the middle of a storm. To know this helps build our confidence – in ourselves, and in life itself. We are not so much in the sway of outward events as we thought. There is a center that can hold steady. That’s nice to know, and even better to experience on a regular basis. Many people sadly don't know just how pleasurable meditation can be. And for sure, that grows stronger over time, especially if we are able to get together with fellow practitioners from time to time, and receive the support of a guide.
EM: How can meditation help relieve emotional and mental distress?
HS: Firstly, it’s a chance to remember that some basic anatomical functions are going on regardless of whatever else may be happening in our lives. When we sit still and focus on the breath, we pretty quickly remember that this basic autonomic function that keeps us alive – breathing – is very kindly keeping going, all by itself. We tune in to that. As we open up to the sensations associated with breathing, we disengage from the cognitive mental processes – or thinking – that we are ordinarily caught by. There’s non-mental experience going on all the time. The mind causes us a lot of pain. But stop listening to it, and have it go quiet, and suddenly it’s as if there’s a whole other life that’s just been waiting for us to notice it. That’s a big help, whatever emotional situation we may be facing.
Secondly, over time we may open up to other dimensions of our experience from the purely phenomenal. With good guidance, Zen can be a path to some pretty radical shifts in the ways we understand and perceive things. When that starts to happen, although it may not heal all ills in one swoop, it does give us a very different perspective from which to view life. Our habitual ways of thinking and feeling may become more obsolete over time.
EM: What is “mindfulness” and how can practicing mindfulness help a person in emotional or mental distress?
HS: The word “Zen” simply means meditation. There are probably thousands of meditation techniques, but the most basic Buddhist meditation is to simply be aware of the present moment. We may focus on awareness of breath, body, mind or feeling. Jon Kabat-Zinn invented the term “mindfulness-based stress reduction” because he wanted to introduce meditation to the medical profession, and felt it would be more acceptable with the new name. “Mindfulness” and meditation are virtually interchangeable terms for the cultivation of more awareness of what is going on inside and outside us at any given moment. With only a little training, for example, we can become more aware of our reactive states, as against neutral or resting states. The more windows we have into our own condition and state in the present moment, the more we can bring our reactivity under control. Reactivity is a state of emotional distress. Once we see it, we can learn to intervene and interrupt the cognitive and physiological components of reactivity, and come back to a more constructive and effective state of being, where problem-solving is clearer, and where we don't feel so bad.
EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try, in addition to or different from Buddhist practice?
HS: If we’re talking chronic distress over months, then in addition to encouraging them to do some sitting daily, I’d suggest they find a bona fide cognitive-behavior therapist, or rational-emotive-behavior therapist. This kind of short-term, targeted, goal-oriented therapy, in which the client is taught tools to overcome negative cognitive patterns, is the therapy that has had the most rigorous testing and evaluating. Many studies have shown it to be as effective as drugs. But you need a trained and qualified therapist for it to work, and it’s not for everyone anyway.
Many people come to meditation through emotional distress. But over time things may shift, so while some mental and emotional intervention such as therapy may be called for from time to time, our priorities can shift. Zen or some other Buddhist training can become a primary focus in life, and we end up doing whatever therapy we do to support that, rather than the other way round.
Henry Shukman is the Guiding Teacher at Mountain Cloud Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He writes regularly for Tricycle and the New York Times and has published eight books of fiction, poetry and nonfiction.
Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit him at http://www.ericmaisel.com, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at http://www.thefutureofmentalhealth.com.
To learn more about and/or purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here.
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