Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy
 and Couch
Winter 2013
Top_of_pageWelcome to the Winter 2013 issue of Cushion and Couch, the journal for IMP members!

In this issue:

Lauri_KleinInterview with Elisa Pearmain

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.


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.




The Wisdom of the Body

by Kristyn Willis yoga-man.jpg


Since getting her degree in social work, Kristyn has worked in both a hospital setting (with people living with heart disease and breast cancer) and doing individual therapy - originally at Brookline Community Mental Health Center and more recently, in private practice. She enjoys utilizing her mindfulness training while working with people during uncertain times. Specific areas of interest include body-centered awareness and self-compassion.

Once on a meditation retreat, I posed a question to a teacher. He looked at me with a gentle but determined expression and asked, "What does your body say?"  I did not know.  He asked again, encouraging me to expand my attention to a body-centered awareness. When I continued to look confused, he said very simply, "The body never lies. The mind lies all the time, but the body knows."


I sometimes remember this moment when sitting with clients. When I first ask a new client what is happening in the body as they tell me what is happening in the mind, I am often on the receiving end of the same blank expression. It's a vacant look that reminds me of what my own face must have looked like during that retreat many years ago. The truth is that many of us have little awareness of our bodies, yet they tend to hold much of the wisdom we seek.


With encouragement to pay attention to the body, a client might start to notice that there is a knot-like feeling in the abdomen or a pulsing around the heart. The body temperature may rise or fall based on what is being discussed. A feeling of nausea may visit when a topic arises that is difficult to talk about. Likewise, a feeling of warmth could take over after someone is able to say aloud in a safe environment something that they feared would be met with judgment or shame. 


It sounds quite simple - just check in and notice the body - but it's a skill that requires attention and practice, and just tuning in may not be enough. For many people, the noticing can feel uncomfortable, foreign, and even frightening. We spend so much of our lives in our heads that expanding awareness to the rest of the body might feel overwhelming. When what we notice is painful, what can help us stay with the discomfort?


A good starting point is to ask your legs and feet to help anchor the thoughts and emotions coursing through your mind and body. Staying connected to the ground in this way is a supportive tool when thoughts and feelings become difficult to tolerate. As one of my former clients once said, "I like to go to my feet when things get overwhelming - they are as far from my head as I can get."  So, how is this connection established?


In either a standing or seated position, start to focus on the connection between the feet and the floor. Imagine your legs and your feet as the root system of a tree. When the wind blows the branches of a tree, the leaves may move, but the trunk of the tree stays rooted in the ground. In this way, coming back to the connection with the ground can be helpful when the mind is whipped around like branches in the wind. If trying to feel your feet proves too difficult, move the soles of your feet back and forth on the ground. This helps create an increased feeling of contact. Taking your shoes off can also help increase the feeling of rootedness. 


If staying grounded helps us hold difficult emotions, then self-compassion may allow us to investigate that which we may not deem worthy of exploration - feelings like shame, self-hatred, and insecurity. In some sense, self-compassion gives flexibility to the rigid root system, allowing the tree to bend and sway as we gently lean into these threatening spaces. To establish needed flexibility, I suggest that clients approach themselves with the same attitude they might approach a small child in pain: "What if you could sit here with your feet firmly planted and extend to yourself the same concern that you would provide a small child who was noticeably scared?"  


This is not to say that any of this is easy.  For some people, incorporating the body to address mental processes may not make sense at first. Like any skill-set, it takes time to learn how to notice and interpret physical sensations. There is no rush. When met with resistance, I might suggest just sitting quietly and investigating different physical sensations as the client slowly becomes attuned to the body over time.   


Staying grounded with a non-judgmental attitude creates an environment that allows us to interpret the messages our bodies constantly transmit. It reminds us to pay attention to the body and to remain supportive of ourselves. Placing a hand over the heart and the abdomen with feet firmly planted on the ground, one may feel more equipped for the exploration, which begins with the question, "What does your body say?"




MBCTBook Review  

by Laura Fisher, Psy.D.


How to Meditate: A practical guide to making friends with your mind 

by Pema Chodron


As an independent clinical psychologist in private practice, I am always looking for a short, straightforward and compelling book that I can give to my clients who express an interest in starting a mindfulness practice. Unfortunately, many of the books currently on the market are not necessarily good "beginner" books and can be a bit unwieldy- at times turning off a would-be practitioner.  Pema Chodron's recent book, How to Meditate: A practical guide to making friends with your mind meets this need and then some. She does a wonderful job of simultaneously demystifying the process of meditation while also breaking it down into manageable chunks for the basic beginner. She also does not bog down the reader with philosophy (which is interesting once you get more into meditation as I am sure most readers of this e-newsletter would attest, but may make a meditation practice more daunting for the beginner). This book does a nice job with both the nuts and bolts (e.g. how to sit comfortably) as well as the more complex aspects of meditation (e.g. dealing effectively with difficult thoughts or emotions that may arise). She also offers clear and concise "meditation in practice" examples so that a beginning meditator could slowly and consistently build on his or her practice over time.  


Pema Chodron breaks down this short (175 pages total) guide into snippets that build upon themselves. She starts with issues of technique, including creating a space for meditation within one's home, reviewing the basics of good postural alignment, dealing with frustrations and boredom of beginning a practice, and relying on one's own instinct and inner voice as a guide in the process. She then moves to more nuanced discussions such as working with thoughts and quieting "the monkey mind," using thoughts as an object of attention in meditation, and understanding the limits of our own personal stories that we create. Continuing chapters move into the realm of emotions and the impact of emotions both within and outside of one's meditation practice. Here, Chodron focuses almost exclusively on the concept of staying with emotion instead of creating meaning and/or expressing or repressing the emotional state. She also gives a fairly easy meditation practice that utilizes stronger emotions as the focus of the meditation practice (e.g. using a painful memory from the past). Finally, she rounds out the book with more practical exercises, including a breakdown of how to use sense perceptions in a series of meditation techniques. These exercises include the famous "eating a raisin" technique often quoted in meditation teachings. The final chapters are more philosophically based, and allow readers to dip a toe into the more esoteric practices of meditation - possibly whetting their appetite for more.  All in all, a good beginner book for clients who have limited knowledge of meditation and its benefits and who are looking for a clear and concise way to implement meditation into their daily lives. I strongly recommend this little gem!




About Us
The Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy (IMP) is a non-profit organization dedicated to the education and training of mental health professionals in the integration of mindfulness meditation and psychotherapy.