Mindfulness as taught in Mindfulness Psychotherapy and Online Mindfulness Therapy, is a particular awareness skill that teaches us to be aware of what is happening while it is happening. Through diligent practice, we begin to recognize reactions as they arise form moment to moment throughout the day. We learn to respond to each reaction with the simple formula: STOP, LOOK and LISTEN. When a reaction arises we simply greet it with: “No. Not now. I choose not to go down that path.” In the very act of recognition of a reaction, we are given a brief moment of choice about whether we want to react or not. The habit to react may be very ingrained, but through persistent mindfulness practice, we can open up this space in which there is choice and freedom, such that it becomes longer in duration and more frequent during the day.
This is the active part of mindfulness. However, we don’t stop there, because mindfulness also has a passive and receptive dimension, which allows us to respond, rather than react, to the experiences that we encounter. In that moment of recognition, we can choose to respond by forming a relationship with the emotion. This is the relationship of mindful listening and investigation. The power of simply being 100% present, not reacting and not even thinking about the emotion that has arisen, is the heart of successful therapy. If you want to change anxiety or depression, you must establish this kind of relationship in which you allow the emotion to exist in the safe space of mindful awareness. Through mindfulness we can maintain this relationship, without becoming caught up in the emotion, or in resisting or fighting the emotion. We learn to just sit with the inner pain as you would sit with a friend in pain. When you have established this kind of mindful-relationship and provide a safe inner space around the emotion, it will respond by changing. The more present you are, the more it will unfold, unwind and transform.
One of the most interesting ways that emotions unfold is through experiential imagery. This is a very special kind of imagery that arises from the mindful-awareness of an inner emotion. This is what makes it “experiential,” meaning that it arises from our inner intuitive experience, rather than as the product of deliberate visualization. The psyche thinks in pictures, not words, and uses imagery to organize memories and emotions. Experiential imagery is found at the core of all emotions, and the feeling energy of an emotion is encoded in the detailed sub-modalities of color, shape, position, movement and other properties of the imagery. For example, the emotion of depression and anxiety is very often encoded in the color black; anger in red; the feeling of calmness is associated with green; and healing is associated with pink. Through mindfulness, we can uncover the detailed structure of this inner imagery, and in the freedom of mindful-consciousness, the imagery will undergo a process of transformation. Our inner innate intelligence, called satipanna by the Buddha, actually uses this experiential imagery to make changes that lead to the resolution of emotional suffering, called dukkha. The psyche is more than capable of healing itself if given the freedom of conscious awareness in which to change, and this is precisely what happens, when we sustain mindfulness and make the emotion of anxiety the very object of our mindfulness meditation.
One woman, had been experiencing chronic anxiety and panic attacks that led to a phobia of flying, which was a big problem for her, since she had to fly to Sydney on business. She came for a session of Mindfulness Meditation Therapy to work on her anxiety. I had her close her eyes and focus mindfulness on the inner feeling of anxiety, and simply watch to see what emerged. Within five minutes, she noticed the image of a dark, menacing black object that seemed to sit in front of her left shoulder. This was her inner image of her panic and anxiety. When she focused on this black object, she noticed brown tendrils that extended outwards to her throat, literally strangling her. I directed her to keep watching the scene and to ask the black object what it needed from her. To her amazement, it answered her with, “I want to be allowed to die.” She continued to be mindful and simply watched the unfolding scene, and in so doing, gave the black object permission to change, and die. It did this very gracefully, transforming into a pile of white ash that eventually blew away. When she refocused attention on her anxiety and panic, she found that they had greatly diminished to little more than butterflies in the stomach. Interestingly, her fear of flying also subsided and she was able to make that trip to Australia.
In another session of Mindfulness Meditation Therapy, a young man in his late twenties, wanted to overcome intense anxiety and sadness about an upcoming move, away from his home. He felt a general anxiety about the unknown and unfamiliar and this had intensified to such an extent that he would experience panic attacks in crowded places, such as the supermarket. When he focused mindfully on the felt-sense of this emotion, he noticed a black sphere in the middle of his inner visual field. As he continued to investigate this abstract image, he further noticed that there was a yellow layer on the rim of the black sphere. After further mindful-investigation, he was surprised to notice that a second sphere arose, but this was yellow on the inside and black on the outside. As he continued to focus on the unfolding imagery, yet a third object appeared, which he described as a “pink and fuzzy” cloud. When asked what needed to happen, the pink cloud enveloped the two black and yellow spheres, which eventually lost their rigidity and simply evaporated like a cloud of steam. This led to a tremendous upwelling of feeling of inner strength and calm. When he focused his attention back on the thoughts about the upcoming move, he noticed that the anxiety and sadness had become significantly less intense and he felt better able to meet the challenges that lay ahead.
We continued to work on this new sense of inner strength and calm. Interestingly, the imagery changed yet again into the inner image of a large green tree. As he focused mindfully on this inner picture, noticing the leaves and branches, his feeling of inner strength and security increased. The feelings were literally encoded in the green leaves that symbolized calmness, and in the solid branches that could support him. When he was asked to imagine visiting a supermarket, he imagined being there in that crowded and chaotic environment, but now protected by the awareness of his inner tree! He no longer felt the panic and anxiety associated with the unknown.
These two examples show the unique contribution that mindfulness training can make to facilitate successful psychotherapy for anxiety and depression. We are taught that we have to fix our problems and get rid of negative thoughts and feelings, but actually if we simply learn to be present with the underlying emotional energy that powers these reactions, we create the ideal conditions in which inner suffering will transform itself quite naturally, and under the healing influence of our innate intuitive wisdom-intelligence. The answer always lies within the problem; the trick is to learn to listen, and mindfulness is the perfection of this skill.
Imagery is the natural language of the psyche and frequently arises during Mindfulness Therapy. When we observe this natural, experiential imagery with mindfulness, the imagery always changes in response to our attention. If we let it change, without the interference or distractions of the thinking mind, it will change in a way that resolves inner emotional suffering. Mindfulness, which is the alive-sensitivity to our present experience, allows us to uncover the experiential imagery at the core of our emotions, providing a very rich medium for inner transformation and healing. In this rich inner environment of experiential imagery, the psyche finds ways to resolve inner suffering and conflict. Our job is to stay mindfulness and allow this natural transformational healing to unfold.