Author: Ronald D. Siegel, PsyD
The current mindfulness craze—if we take it seriously enough—may just change who we think we are and what we’re trying to do in therapy. It can lead us, and our clients, away from our comfortable constructs and toward a radical reappraisal of who we are and what our life is all about, upending our psychotherapy practices in the process.
We can discover through sustained mindfulness practice that our sense of being a separate, coherent, enduring self is actually a delusion maintained by our constant inner chatter—chatter that generally features “me” at its center. From mundane decisions (“I think I should get the salmon with wilted spinach tonight—I’ve been eating too much junk lately”) to existential fears (“What will I do if the lump is malignant?”), this chatter fills our waking hours. Listening to this inner narrative all day long we come to believe that the hero of this drama must of course exist. After all, I’ve been thinking about “me” and my desires for as long as I can remember. So when emotions arise in my awareness, I naturally assume that they’re mine.
But if we practice mindfulness long and often enough, this conventional sense of self can start to unravel. By repeatedly bringing out attention to sensory experience in the present moment, we see that all that actually arises in consciousness is a kaleidoscope of sensations and images, regularly narrated by subvocal words that themselves arise and pass. We never find the little homunculus, the heroic man or woman inside, the stable and coherent “I” so regularly mentioned in our passing thoughts. Rather there’s just a continual flux of experience.
Seeing this in action can pull the rug out from under us, and our clients, in alarming, though potentially very liberating ways. Here’s one way that it can shift our approach to psychotherapy.
Who Is Having the Feeling?
What, exactly, is an emotion? If we were to ask a modern cognitive scientist, he or she would say it’s an experience of somatic arousal accompanied by either a thought, an image, or both. When we practice mindfulness, this is exactly what we see.
You can check this out right now. Generate a little sadness. Place your hand over the part of your body where you feel the sensation. Close your eyes for a few seconds and notice all the different sensations involved.
Next try this with fear, and then anger. (Since I don’t know you that well, I won’t ask you to try it with lust.) Notice that these emotions all involve somatic sensations accompanied by thoughts and/or images? How might this simple observation play out in psychotherapy?
Let’s say my friend, to whom I feel I’ve been particularly generous, does something selfish. I’m likely to think, “What a jerk. I can’t believe you did this to me after all I’ve done for you.” And with each repetition of that thought, I’d feel more bodily arousal, and review more and more reasons why he’s bad and I’m good. Each wave of arousal will trigger more thoughts, and each thought will trigger more arousal.
If, in contrast, I’ve cultivated enough mindfulness to step out of the thought stream and stay with moment-to-moment experience in the body, I might simply notice my back and neck muscles tensing, my heart and respiration rate increasing, and images of decapitating my former friend dancing across the screen of awareness. This all starts to unfold as an impersonal process—waves of psychophysiological arousal, accompanied by images and subvocal words.
The more deeply we practice mindfulness, the more we experience emotions this way—as bodily sensations accompanied by subvocal words or and/or images. And the more we experience them as impersonal bodily events, the easier emotions are to tolerate. There are at least two reasons for this.
First, practicing mindfulness, we develop the skill of being with bodily discomfort rather than compulsively trying to alleviate it. We do this first with itches, aches, and other unpleasant sensations that arise during meditation. We notice that by bringing loving attention to the sensations, they tend to arise and pass without intervention. We see that sensations, like all phenomena, are impermanent.
Second, we observe that when an emotion isn’t reinforced by ruminative thoughts, it tends to pass more quickly. There’s a trope among mindfulness practitioners that asks, “How long does an emotion last if not reinforced by a thought?” Most people say a minute or two. Seeing that they’re transient makes us less afraid of painful emotions, and freer to make life choices that risk arousing them.
Hearing this perspective, some therapists ask, “What about owning feelings? Isn’t that an important aspect of treatment?” We’ve all been there. Mr. Smith comes into therapy saying, “You know the way some guys get pissed when their wives put them down in front of their buddies?” And after several weeks of careful, empathic work, Mr. Smith comes in and says, “I feel hurt and angry when my wife puts me down in front of my friends!” Indeed, this is therapeutic progress—to move from defending against emotions to owning them.
But what we see through mindfulness practice is that owning feelings is only one step on the path to psychological freedom. Once we’re able to own our emotions, we can work on realizing that they, and we, are actually all part of changing impersonal processes. And this can lead to even greater psychological freedom.