by Barbara Van Zoeren LICSW
Elisa Pearmain, M.A., M.Ed, is a licensed mental health counselor and professional storyteller and author. She is trained in both MBSR and MBCT and works both at the Eliot Clinic and in private practice in Concord, MA. Her special interest is in forgiveness and she has recently published a CD program on understanding and practicing forgiveness taught through the lens
of story. www.elisapearmain.com
Elisa will be speaking at the next IMP Buddhist Psychology Lecture Series date, January 6th at The Arlington Center. I spoke to her about her personal path that led her to mindfulness and psychotherapy and her expertise in the area of forgiveness.
Barbara: What drew you to the intersection between mindfulness and psychotherapy?
Elisa: Well, It's quite personal for me, which I'm sure it is for many. In 1987 I had a pretty bad experience of depression and anxiety. It was so strong that I couldn't go to work for a while or ride the subway. It was very difficult and initially very shaming. The question in my mind was "what's wrong with me?"
I somehow began to say to myself, "This is what's here," to look at what I was feeling. When I stopped fighting it and stopped looking for what was wrong with me and started to say "This is what's here," to the crazy thoughts and fears that were coming up, I would feel better. It just sort of came to me. To stop asking why, and to stay with what was happening. This realization just shifted it. I was so amazed and grateful at this shift. Early on I must have heard some language of "befriending" but I don't know exactly where it came from. I started reading Jon Kabat -Zinn, and took a meditation course. My interest in mindfulness grew out of all that. That was my strongest sense, of turning toward pain instead of away as being so helpful.
Barbara: And you came to it from being in pain?
Elisa: Yes and it's so helpful in sitting with people to really know the agony that they are in and how essential it is to open your heart to your experience. We hold for them the faith that it will change eventually and that they can get through it.
Barbara: You've had some extensive training in mindfulness-based treatments since your start?
Elisa: In 2005 I did the first IMP training in Barre, before it was the certificate program. I then did the MBSR professional training and later the MBCT training with Zindel Siegel, which felt the most natural to me.
Barbara: Can you talk about how you present mindfulness skills in your work with clients?
Elisa: Very basically, I tell them that we can have a very different relationship to our thoughts. We can become more aware of what stories we tell ourselves and learn to see the habits in our thoughts. We can learn to calm our reactions to those thoughts and come back to the present. I suggest that this can be a helpful tool in managing depression, anxiety and even psychosis.
Barbara: It does have amazing effects doesn't it?
Elisa: With some folks I teach a more formal kind of meditation and others just observing. I am a strong proponent of the kindness and curiosity aspects of mindfulness. I really emphasize cultivating the observer and cultivating the kindness in that observer. That seems to be really hard. Most of us have such critical task-masters inside. Long before I was a therapist I was a story-teller and a dancer. The group I was involved with told stories through dance. After watching another dancer tell her story of incest survival I recognized I had a story of my own to tell. I had been physically and emotionally battered in my first adult relationship. I was worn down and scared and came out of it with so much shame. With my story telling group, we created a program for a battered women's shelter and while doing that I was able to really get in touch with my shame and move through it to understand and be kind to myself, grieve it and let go of the shame.
Barbara: You work with forgiveness. Was that part of what started that work for you?
Elisa: That was the root of my work with forgiveness. I didn't name it at the time but now I can see that is where it started. That's where I learned about the power of the forgiveness process. This forgiveness project brings together the story telling and therapy. I believe that every single client I see is working on resentments/hurts either towards themselves or others and it's really interfering with their well being. People don't know how to forgive. There are so many tasks involved, from grieving the losses to how we can find more empathy for ourselves, and empathy for others that lets us take it less personally. In the Buddhist Lecture Series talk I will focus on what gets in the way of forgiving. Why do we hold onto resentments, revenge fantasies etc? And how do we do what's healthy for us? How can we give ourselves what we long for and deserve? Almost all resentments that are held turn out to be resentment towards the self at being in the position to be hurt so badly.
Barbara: So how would you work with someone who couldn't forgive themselves?
Elisa: I help clients to understand who they were at the time of the injury with some empathy. Narrative therapy is part of what I do and there's a natural intersection with mindfulness. Being able to be with our story and to love the person who went through our story. To understand them (ourselves) as a human being trying to meet needs. When we can shift how we see our stories we can love who we were and be liberated.
Barbara: I look forward to your talk in January. Thank you Elisa.