At the Center for Mindfulness Psychotherapy in Boulder, Colorado, its founder Peter Strong has developed a unique strategy for working with persistent emotional problems such as depression, anxiety and trauma-related anxiety called Mindfulness Meditation Therapy.
Emotions like depression and anxiety, or excessive worrying and fear, depend on negative core beliefs and ruminative negative thinking. Ultimately, we need to neutralize these negative beliefs and replace them with more functional positive and life-supporting beliefs and thinking. The issue, of course, is how do we do this? It is not sufficient to simply tell yourself to stop worrying or to stop having negative thoughts. If it was that easy then you would have corrected the problem long ago. We must take a deeper look at the mechanics of depression and negative beliefs if we are to make a beneficial change.
Fundamentally, negative thinking and associated beliefs are a form of habitual mental reactivity that has become established and that operates unconsciously, without our choice or input. An event happens and a thought or emotional reaction arises in consciousness and then we automatically believe and identify with the reaction. He says such and such and a reaction of anger or hurt or disappointment arises in the mind. We then become the anger or hurt or disappointment. This is the nature of habitual reactivity: There is a trigger, which is an objective phenomenon; there is a subjective reaction to that phenomenon; and then there is identification with the subjective cognitive or emotional reaction followed by becoming the emotional reaction. This whole reactive sequence from trigger to becoming depends on two factors: Ignorance, or unawareness, and blind identification, or attachment with your subjective reactions.
The first step in Mindfulness Meditation Therapy (MMT) is to develop a clear and profound understanding that you do not have to become your reactions, and that you do not have to be victimized by your mental reactions. There is no law that condemns you to feel depressed because a depressing thought arose in your mind; or worried, because a worrying thought arose; or angry, because an angry thought arose. It is only because of our blind habitual identification with these mental objects that we become their victims. Therefore, the first and most important task is to awaken to what is going on and become aware of mental reactions as and when they arise. This is the first function of mindfulness training: learning to become vigilant and recognize a reaction as a reaction and stop right there, before it has the chance to proliferate into a full blown cognitive and emotional reaction. Catch the reactions at their initial stage, when they are still little more than an impulse. Learn to recognize the anger impulse and stop at that flash of recognition and before the impulse has a chance to manifest as a bodily reaction with accompanying angry thinking, angry speaking and angry actions. This is a skill that has to be developed, and success depends on catching the reaction early enough. But with practice, you will become more and more familiar with the subtle undercurrents and signs of an impending emotional reaction.
Depression feeds on negative thoughts that generate anxiety and a feeling of helplessness or loneliness or emptiness. Don’t be a victim of these mental objects, but take the initiative to learn to cultivate mindfulness of these mental reactions and catch them before they take hold. The same with fear reactions, worry reactions, stress reactions; reactions of disappointment, loss, sorrow, regret; anger, envy and jealousy; dislike, hatred, disapproval; or insatiable longing and wanting things to be a certain way. Rather than being a victim of your thoughts and emotions, learn to become an expert in recognizing what arises in your mind.
The second part of MMT is to learn how to respond to all these mental reactions after you have learned to recognize them when they arise. After Recognition comes Response and after Response comes Relationship.
The response phase of mindfulness starts by understanding that thoughts, emotions, beliefs, memories, perceptions, and, in fact, any contents that arise in the mind are simply that: contents, mental objects, things that take on a particular form depending on past conditioning. Ultimately, you are not your thoughts or emotions or any other of the bewildering variety of mental objects that arise in the mind through conditioning. Learning to see your emotions like this, as objects, rather than as you, introduces a very important shift in perception that is profoundly liberating. Suddenly, you begin to get the sense that you are actually much, much larger than your depression, anxiety, anger or other of the objects that form the contents of your mind. The reality of your being is more like the ocean or sky, neither of which can be equated to the fish or birds that arise in it. The ocean is not its contents; it is the space that is able to contain objects, and the variety of objects that it can contain is infinite; you are infinite. Needless to say, developing a sense of this new perspective about your true identity will have profound consequences on your general state of happiness. So much of our unhappiness and mental suffering comes from a very contracted sense of identity in which we cling to our habitual reactions, believing that we are our anxiety, depression, anger and fear.
Thus, the first part of the response phase of mindfulness is to see contents as objects to which we can relate, examine, investigate and hold in our awareness. The next part of the response of mindfulness describes the quality of that response. First and foremost, the mindful-response does not involve further reactions of thinking or emotions; it is a response on non-reactivity. The mindful-response is a process of opening to our experience, opening to our pain and suffering, our fear and depression or any of the objects that we have recognized as arising in consciousness. We learn to greet these objects as visitors, as guests that have something to teach us. We learn to hold our inner suffering as a mother holds her baby, with care and attention and lots of patience, and above all love. We make a space for the worry-thought, or the anger, or grief or sorrow. Just like the ocean or sky, there is plenty of room for all.
In Buddhist psychology, the response of mindfulness is described by the term metta, loving-kindness and friendliness. This is not a fuzzy idealistic kind of love, but a clear understanding that you can never overcome suffering with aversion and aggression. Pain will not go away through resistance and will power. Mettameans turning towards your pain, facing your pain with open arms, or what is commonly called, “getting in touch with your feelings.” We all know the importance of doing this, but seldom know how to do it. The mindfulness response gives us a very direct way to get in touch with the feelings and other mental objects that make up our depression or anxiety or feelings of helplessness and emptiness.
Through mindfulness we have learned how to recognize our depression-causing reactions and how to respond to them as objects to be known fully and held in the safe spaciousness of metta. Next comes the development and cultivation of this compassionate and open relationship with suffering. Actually, we have done most of the hard work already in getting to this point. Now we simply maintain and sustain this quality of engaged-presence with the emotion. This is why we call the process Mindfulness Meditation Therapy, because we make the emotional object the very center of our meditation for contemplation and investigation. We now embark on the profound work of listening, based on mindfulness, mettaand stillness. The mindful-relationship is not about doing or trying to analyze or fix things, but about listening with an open heart and mind. Its about allowing our inner emotions to unfold and express themselves in the way that they need to change, rather than according to any plan that we might have for them. When you listen to a friend who is in pain, you don’t immediately respond by giving them advice. It is always better to listen first and create a safe space in which the person can express himself. It is the same with our emotions. Create a safe space for them and they will reward you by loosening their grip on you. Give them freedom and they will give you freedom. Often this simple action of non-doing, but rather responding by being fully present is sufficient to defuse the emotion. It unwinds and loses its compulsive energy, and eventually resolves by itself. It is not what we do that matters as much as the quality of how we relate to our core emotions, whether we react out of ignorance and unawareness or respond with mindfulness and full awareness.
In practice, I teach clients to recognize their emotional reactions and then respond with mindfulness and to do this throughout the day in mini meditation sessions of 2-5 minutes. Simply take a few minutes out to sit with your emotions and be completely there for them as you would for a child or for your friend. Learn to cradle your emotions and reactions with love and attention, rather than ignoring them or resisting them, which is our usual reaction. Do this many times throughout the day and see for yourself the difference that it makes.
It all begins by recognizing that you are not your thoughts and then proceeds to a caring relationship in which you respond to your thoughts and emotions with mindfulness and take the time to develop a relationship with your inner visitors as welcome guests to be embraced and attended to with love and attention. You do not have to change them, but you do have to be completely present with them. When this relationship takes form, the suffering will heal by itself, or if it does not heal immediately, then you will have established a therapeutic relationship that will facilitate healing in one way or another.