|Welcome to the Spring 2013 issue of Cushion and Couch!
In this issue (click on a link to go straight to the story):
Tim Desmond, LMFT, On Self- Criticism
by Barbara Van Zoeren, LICSW
Tim Desmond is a licensed marriage and family counselor and co-founder of the Morning Sun Mindfulness Center in Alstead NH, who spoke last October at the Buddhist Psychology Lecture Series. In 2005 he was ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh in the Order of Interbeing, after over ten years of practice in the Plum Village School of Buddhism. He writes and speaks about self-criticism, which is so pervasive in our culture and in our clients. I asked him about himself and this work:
BVZ: Hello Tim. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
TD: I moved from California to New Hampshire about 1� years ago to co-found the Morning Sun Mindfulness Center in Alstead NH . The center will be a practice and retreat center specifically focused on incorporating a residential community. In the Plum Village tradition, the practice centers are all monasteries so we are creating a "lay practice center."
BVZ: I read a quote by you that read, "Issues can be resolved when a client can create a compelling and non-destructive meaning of their formative experiences." What are the meanings that people create?
TD: Well, one thing I like to talk about is that if two people are mugged and one person decides that what it means is "my neighborhood is not safe enough and I need to do something about it," and another decides that it means that "the world is not safe and I can be hurt at any moment," one person will be a lot more likely to develop traumatic symptoms. So essentially, we don't have control over changing objective events from the past, but we do have control over what we make them mean to us, the meaning we create out of them. It can be helpful to give clients a range of different ways to create positive meaning. A range of different strategies that work for different people and then they'll create something that feels compelling to them. So suffering being the source for all compassion is a very compelling meaning for some people, but others may think that my suffering is going to motivate me to do something good in the world.
BVZ: So motivating themselves by their experience, to teach, help someone else?
TD: Yes, or just being able to see some positive characteristic or virtue that they may have been able to develop through this or what kind of positive characteristics or virtues would you have to develop in order to be able to cope with this. And then just being able to see "when I get through this I am going to be a person with a real strong sense of whatever those characteristics are for that person."
What I started with is that for so many different symptoms of the clients we're working with, whether it's depression, anxiety or relationship issues, self- criticism can be at the root of them. A lot of the time we are taught that when we are experiencing self-criticism that the antidote to that is self-compassion or loving kindness. But for a lot of us if we are having a hard day and sit down to try to send ourselves some kindness, the voice that comes up is, "You don't deserve loving kindness, what have you done all day?" There's a really strong block or obstacle. It's the emanation of the inner critic that says you shouldn't be sitting here, you should be accomplishing something else, or helping others etc...
BVZ: Shame comes up.
TD: Yes, shame. That powerful, shaming, critical, voice. So my talk focused on what would it be like to apply our practice of mindfulness to that experience? Mindfulness as it's described in all the sutras has elements of warmth, kindness, love, respect and all of these positive characteristics.
BVZ: So it's really about evoking that?
TD: When it's not there... yes. My teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn, has two core metaphors for talking about mindfulness. The first is of a mother holding her crying baby. For many of us, we might like to hold that inner critical voice like a crying baby but when what it looks like is a little monster, we're not giving compassion or warmth toward that part of ourselves. Thich Naht Hanh says love and understanding are the same thing. That if we don't understand we can't truly love, and when we understand something the natural response is love and compassion. When there's a part of us, especially a self-critical or self -sabotaging part that feels so difficult to love or have compassion for, it's because we don't understand it. My belief is that the type of understanding that leads to compassion is understanding the positive intention in any sort of mental activity whether it's in another person or in ourselves. Though often in psychology we like thinking of things as habits or just things we've been conditioned to do. In Buddhism we're taught that all mental activity has a universal activity of intention. All mental activity contains Buddha nature at its core so putting those two things together. I would say that at the core of any activity there is a positive intention. The question is can you find it?
BVZ: So, people have to adopt that belief?
TD: If you start with the belief that there isn't something there you won't look very hard. You need to start with the belief that if I look hard and long enough I will find a positive intention. Also, believing that to find compassion one needs to find the positive intention then you'll really try to look. So the training comes in looking for the positive intention.
I offer several inquiry practices: If you are meditating and trying to send yourself some compassion and your critic is on a rampage then ask that part of yourself:
What is it that you need me to hear, what is your job? How are you trying to help? Or what is it that you need? If you hear, "Well, my job is to make you suffer," you ask again. So why is it important that I suffer? How is that going to help? With almost everyone that I've worked with, you usually get a positive intention with the first question if you ask the first question in a way that expects a positive intention. An intention that you can see some humanity in, and from there to being able to find some compassion and from there some reconciliation with that part of ourselves.
So if you're working with a kid and you ask that kid why they did something and they can see it all over your face that you're thinking "why are you such a little jerk?" they're not going to cooperate with you or share how they feel. And if they can see it on your face that you know they are actually a good kid, and they must be maybe confused, but must be trying to take care of themselves, that they must have a valid need then it's a lot more likely that they'll tell you. It's the same thing with ourselves.
BVZ: Do you have a sense of why this is so hard for people to talk about self-
TD: I think in our culture, we come from a core metaphor of the hero as the person who vanquishes, defeats and destroys their enemy. So if you have an enemy, you kill them. And that's what it means to be a hero. The culture of the peacemaker, or the mediator, or the resolver of conflict, is not the one we know. So we have a general orientation that if something is against you, you try to fight or defeat it, rather than try to make peace with it. All I know is that it's something that many of us struggle with and that using a metaphor or orientation of reconciliation is a much more effective way than trying to dictate or squash or avoid.
BVZ: Thank you so much for talking with me today Tim.
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by Katherine Herzog, PsyD
February 24th dawned with snow in the forecast, and snow it did towards mid-day: this snowfall almost perfectly timed to mark the beginning of IMP's first Sangha Sunday. I can now admit that the inauspicious weather was almost enough of an excuse for me to skip this event altogether: the allure of remaining snug and comfortable by the fireplace with my old dog's chin resting on my foot, combined with an almost automatic reluctance to go to gatherings where I will have to meet new people (thus wrestling with my own brand of social anxiety) resulted in a powerful desire to stay put at home!
However, once arrived at The Arlington Center it was a wonderful surprise to see so many fellow IMP members present - almost 30 by my very rough count. Clearly, the opportunity to sit and meditate with others was a powerful motivator. To witness this many people take precious time out of their weekend, and persevere despite bad weather was both uplifting and inspiring.
We arranged ourselves in a large circle: someone had been thoughtful enough to bring some fresh flowers, and as we waited to get started I gazed upon their delicate petals thinking about what a long journey they must have travelled to arrive here amongst us in the midst of a Massachusetts winter. The President of IMP, Susan Pollak, opened the sit, and we all introduced ourselves. At her suggestion, we spoke our names, and then a word that described a quality or intention we would like to bring to the meditation that day. I can't remember all the words spoken; but among them were "generosity," "compassion," "curiosity," and "willingness." We then had a period of sitting meditation together.
Tom Pedulla gave instruction for the walking meditation, and the group spread out using both of the large rooms at The Arlington Center. I had not done walking meditation in a long time, and savored the awareness of the uneven feeling of the lacquered wooden floor beneath my feet, the subtle differences in temperature about the room, and the details of a large ficus-like tree set in a corner. My senses seemed to be much sharper, crisper, and in more focus.
After some time, we came back together in the large circle again. Jan Surrey gave an excellent Dharma talk on spiritual friendship. The talk seemed to me to be perfectly congruent with what we were doing that day: coming together to meditate, and connect on many different levels. The possibility of being joined together, despite the relative isolation of the work that we do, buoyed me with optimism and hope. It was a wonderful thought that even as we sit in our offices, or other work places, we are connected.
The meditation/contemplative portion of our day ended with Susan Pollak leading the group in a Metta meditation. For me, this experience served to deepen my sense of connectedness with the group. Jan Surrey brought her statue of Quan Yin, the goddess of Compassion, and we each held her as we said a few words to the group. At this moment, I felt flooded with gratitude: grateful to IMP for organizing such an event, and grateful to everyone who was there for having brought their spirit and their energy to that moment in time.
There was time for tea and socializing, but I did not linger long. I wanted to enjoy the feelings that had developed over the course of an afternoon of meditating in the company of other good people: hoping to bring this feeling home with me, if only for a little while.
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The Transformative Impact of Mindfulness Based Programs
by Lauri Klein, LICSW
Sitting in my office anticipating meeting with potential participants for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program beginning in two weeks. Excited. Noticing at the same time, a relaxed feeling in both body and mind. Teaching this program is a precious gift to me. It is a significant component of my personal mindfulness practice.
Teaching mindfulness based curricula requires ongoing intention and commitment. To be a good instructor, I have to embody what I am teaching. It is in this embodiment that I recurrently re - form my own skills and equanimity.
As I have integrated mindfulness, directly or indirectly into the treatment hour I am seeing more self discovery and insight. When my clients take MBSR alongside individual therapy their progress seems to gain momentum. They relate to and work with their pain in a different way. Witnessing this is moving and sometimes, dazzling.
The program was a great fit for one of my clients who was in the throes of anxiety that had started after birth of her second baby. MBSR gave her tools to explore the nature of her anxiety and the landscape of her mind. She watched her patterns of thinking and reacting. She developed an ability to calmly observe and hold thoughts that historically triggered anxiety.
Three trees fell across her driveway during the recent blizzard. Trapped in her home, pregnant, with two young children and no electricity for 24 hours, she remained considerably calm throughout. "I had a moment (of anxiety arising )" she said, " but then I found my breath. It showed up for me." Her relationship to
stressful situations, and thoughts, to both inner and outer storms, has changed significantly.
My schedule this past September included teaching two sections of MBCT, Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings and one eight week MBSR program on Monday evenings.
On a Saturday morning I do not really want to drive an hour to Charlestown to teach MBCT. Nor do I want to go out in the cold dark winter evening to teach MBSR at the yoga studio. In spite of great aversion to cold and darkness I go. I put on my hat and gloves and brave the frigid wind in my face. It is not so bad. I get up to the classroom. I greet the participants as they arrive. Everything changes from here. A feeling of relaxation comes over me. I am home.
Their names and faces still unfamiliar we share the experience of eating a raisin mindfully. I invite them to lie down on mats on the floor to take them through a thirty five minute mindful body scan.
When the body scan is done and all have come to a sitting position the inquiry begins. We explore the experience together. They talk about what it is like to pay attention to the color and taste of a raisin, to bodily sensations, to how many times their minds wander, to how many times they chastise themselves for having minds that wander. I listen while also observing my own body, mind and heart, not trying to change or interpret anything.
As they share their observations, my job is to stay present with their experience and my own; to open to, and help them to be open to whatever arises as we move through the class. I mirror their observations and encourage them to look again, to go deeper. They begin to see that it is all OK even if it does not feel
OK. Learning that all minds wander, that life is full of changes and that, for certain, nothing is permanent, can be very reassuring.
All three programs ended by Thanksgiving. In early January I found myself missing the teaching, missing the feedback loop. The equanimity with which I need to hold my own experience is more alive when I am encouraging others to be there for themselves; to accept their experience moment to moment. Keeping the judging at bay, whatever comes to their attention, pleasant unpleasant or neutral.
In individual treatment I strive to bring the same attitude of acceptance and attention. I am continually working to improve the skill of watching and listening from a mindful stance and helping them to do the same through modeling, inquiry and, at times, direct instruction.
Therapists are trained to be attentive and kind, but there is a qualitative difference in the depth of compassion and curiosity that is present in this therapeutic relationship since I started teaching MBSR and established a consistent meditation practice of my own. I am more in tune with my own thought feelings and sensations.
I am less attached to making the client well, to getting them to a certain place. I relax back more to make space available for their own self exploration and inner wisdom. Helping them to sit with their difficulties with self-compassion and curiosity enables them to move forward into healing with more ease.
We are trained to be change agents. I am more likely, now, to be an agent of acceptance. This is where change takes place. It can be very reassuring.
True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart, by Tara Brach
by Laura Fisher, PsyD
In 2003, Tara Brach shared Radical Acceptance: Embracing your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, a seminal book providing fellow meditators and laypeople alike with a pathway to freedom and acceptance from day-to-day suffering. Now, Dr. Brach, a psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher, brings us her second installation of meditation wisdom in her most recent book, True Refuge- Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart.
This down to earth approachable book follows the same style, incorporating personal stories of her own life's struggles, providing client examples from her own clinical and meditation practice, and peppering words of wisdom from other teachers such as Thich Nhat Hahn throughout the book. She also provides a structure for developing a meditation practice that tackles such topics as shame, anger, compulsive thinking and end of life issues. Dr. Brach provides both longer seated meditations as well as "in the moment" meditations that one can use on a daily basis to connect to what she describes as "refuge" - being aware, residing in truth, and living in love. In fact, there are over twenty different meditations in this book, making this work both a hands-on guide for new practitioners as well as a source of reflection and growth for more seasoned meditators.
The central theme of this book resides in the use of the acronym RAIN as a way to separate from what she describes as the "small self" ("living in a spacesuit") and instead merge with the larger concept of expanding awareness and peace. Dr. Brach believes that the path to refuge can be accomplished by the following:
"R"- recognizing what is happening in one's internal and external environment;
"A"- allowing life to just be as it is;
"I"- investigating one's inner experience with kindness; and
"N"- practicing non-identification to whatever develops.
Chapters are broken down into preparatory steps such as learning how to recognize one's own emotions, thoughts and feelings as part of a larger whole (she gives the example of a wave within an ever expanding ocean- neither the wave nor the ocean are truly separate), dealing with specific modes of operating in this world (e.g. repetitive thinking, negative core beliefs, dissociation or numbness in the body), and finding ways to limit reactionary responses. The book then moves into more heady topics such as forgiveness of self and others, as well as building compassion through self-reflection. Finally, Dr. Brach ties all of this together into a cohesive model as a gateway to true awareness and peace.
Dr. Brach is realistic in her approach to these topics and gives many real world examples to ground the reader. She encourages readers to pause often, have a consistent meditation practice, be flexible in one's approach (adapt to make it more personally meaningful), seek help and guidance as needed, be careful of doubt, and maybe most important, to be patient and sincere in one's practice. She ends the book with a beautiful sentiment that I believe makes all of the previous chapters seem feasible: "Awareness is closer than we can imagine; more profound than we can imagine; easier than we can imagine; and more wondrous than we can imagine."
May we all find peace and awareness that guides us to a little less suffering in our day-to-day lives. With Dr. Brach's help, it just might be possible.
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