Mindfulness Meditation Therapy: An OutlinePeter Strong, PhD
ONLINE COUNSELING THERAPY
DIRECT APPLICATION means that the individual trains to establish and sustain a quality of relationship with the inner experience of an emotion, called the Mindfulness Based Relationship. The quality of the MBR is the key factor that will determine the successful outcome of MMT.
MINDFULNESS describes direct attention and awareness that is best described by the term ENGAGED PRESENCE. When we are mindful, we are fully awake and aware of what is happening as it is happening, without any thinking about the experience or any emotional reaction to the experience. We simply "sit" with the experience and observe it with a keen interest as we might have when listening to a favorite piece of classical music. But mindfulness also has a quality of engagement in which we investigate the structure of the experience. All mindfulness involves moving beyond the superficial and initial appearance of experience and uncovering the finer and more subtle inner structure of experience. When we listen to an orchestra with this sense of rapture and keen interest, we are likely to become aware of individual instruments and gain a new appreciation of the piece of music that exceeds our previous experience. When this kind of mindfulness is developed, then every time we listen to the music we always discover it anew, even though we have heard it a thousand times. This is the kind of attitude and approach to experience that we are attempting to cultivate in our practice of The Path of Mindfulness and MMT.
The term PRESENT FELT SENSE of an emotional complex is the general quality of feeling that surrounds the emotion. An emotion is different than a feeling, because it has form. An emotion is a constellation of thinking, physical sensations, actions and speech. If you think of anger as an example, to be angry requires changes in facial expression, tightening in various muscle groups throughout the body, an increase in heart rate and changes in behavior. These actions are aggregated around a collage of different feelings, beliefs and patterns of thinking. All of these components are part of the emotional reaction we call anger. A feeling does not have form, but is a property in the same way that the color yellow is a property of a lemon. An emotion has a certain felt sense, a certain quality of feeling energy, called vedana. In Buddhist terms, this general undifferentiated feeling energy can be positive, negative or neutral. The negative form is called dukkhavedana and is the feeling sense that accompanies dukkha or emotional suffering and agitation.
What the Buddha discovered over 2500 years ago, is that this very process of listening with mindfulness and opening to the unfolding orchestra of our own experience, including the experience of emotional suffering, or dukkha, creates the right conditions for transformation. All emotional suffering is comprised of psychological feeling energy, vedana that has become locked into specific mental formations, sankharas that take the form of an emotional reaction, a behavioral reaction or even a bodily reaction. Dukkha is a state of psychological instability and the psyche will always move in a direction that leads to the resolution of this instability, if given the freedom to change. This automatic tendency towards resolution, I call Psychological Homeostasis and which corresponds to the same principle of physiological, biochemical and immunological homeostasis that occurs spontaneously in the body. However, the absolutely essential factor required for homeostasis to work in either the body or the mind is FREEDOM: the freedom to move and change in an intelligent direction that leads towards the resolution of instability and the cessation of dukkha. Mindfulness is the perfection of relationship to our experience that brings this essential quality of freedom to dukkha and creates the ideal conditions in which emotional conflict can transform and resolve itself. A therapeutic space opens around the dukkha and the dukkha responds by changing, transforming in a direction that leads towards resolution. We can feel this process transformation as it is occurring by monitoring changes in feeling tone. When transformation leads to resolution there is a felt shift from dukkhavedana to sukhavedana, the more positive form of feeling energy. Eventually, when resolution is complete, the feeling energy changes further to a state of greater stability in which the felt sense is neutral, balanced and in equilibrium and this is called upekkhavedana. This latter quality of feeling is accompanied by a sense of well-being and vitality as energy is released back into the psyche.
The mechanism of transformation and resolution is primarily experiential, which means that changes evolve from the immediate present experience of the emotion, rather than from our views and beliefs about the experience. Of course, mindfulness, or sati is all about being present for our experience as it arises and unfolds in the present moment. The path of experiential transformation and resolution is unique to each person and each session of MMT. Typically, there will be a differentiation of feelings, memories and word-symbols that seem to fit with the feelings that are experienced. Almost all clients will notice some form of experiential imagery that seems to resonate with the felt sense of the experience. The mind thinks in pictures and uses visual representations to organize experience. Many of us are not aware of this internal imagery, but when we focus mindfulness on the felt sense of an emotion we create the right state of awareness and sensitivity in which imagery will arise. Experiential imagery is imagery that arises from our present felt experience, rather than a visualization that we create and it provides an extraordinarily powerful medium for promoting the transformation and resolution of dukkha.
THE PROCESS OF MMT
The first phase of Mindfulness Meditation Therapy is primarily about learning to recognize reactions as and when they arise and replace ignorance with awareness. This is the first function of mindfulness, the factor of RECOGNITION. Without this most basic first step nothing can change, but with awareness comes the possibility of change. Recognition is the beginning of the transformational process and often this skill alone is sufficient to totally change the whole reactive dynamic between two people.
The next phase of MMT involves changing how we view the reaction and associated emotional energy. This is called REFRAMING and is one of a number of skills that is taught in the psychological science of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and which is another chief modality used in MMT. Normally, (ie when we are unaware) we blindly identify with emotional reactions and literally become the reaction. When a reaction of feeling hurt arises we become the emotional reaction of hurting. Anger arises and we become angry. We say "I am upset," or "I am angry?" because we literally take on the entire identity of the emotion. During reframing, we learn to stop this automatic process of subjective identification and see the reaction as simply an object that is not self, but simply a phenomenon that has arisen in our consciousness due to various causes and conditions. When the reaction of feeling upset arises, we now see it as an object within us, rather like a bubble rising in a pond. The bubble is not the pond, but simply an object that arises within the pond and the emotion is not our self, but simply a small part that arises within our experience. After reframing the emotion, we learn to say, "I notice a feeling of hurting within me" or "I notice anger arising in my mind." This is a very important step, because it counteracts the habitual tendency to react and opens up a sense of space and choices around the emotion. You cannot relate to something with any sense of presence and engagement if you are gripped by reactivity: reactivity inhibits relationship. Only when you can form a pure and direct relationship with an experience, including emotional suffering, will presence and engagement be possible and without complete presence, nothing can change.
The third phase of MMT, after RECOGNITION and REFRAMING is the most important step of forming a RELATIONSHIP with the internal felt-sense of the emotional reaction. Let us explore this in more detail. Once you have recognized a reaction and made it into an object that you can see and experience, then you begin to see the emotional reaction as an object to be investigated and known in its own right, rather than getting entangled in the storyline of the emotion, which is our usual tendency. The storyline may be very compelling and you may feel very offended or hurt, but indulging in negative, emotionally charged thinking is seldom an effective tool for resolving emotional conflict, internally or externally. This is the first function of mindfulness: learning to recognize a reaction, seeing it as an object and not getting seduced into further reactivity.
The kind of relationship that we cultivate in MMT is called the Mindfulness Based Relationship. This relationship has certain unique qualities. The first and most important quality is non-reactivity. By learning to recognize reactivity, we can stop the tendency to proliferate further reactivity in the form of reactive thinking, or further emotional reactions of aversion and displeasure. The second characteristic of the mindfulness-based relationship is about opening our heart and mind and developing a quality of genuine caring towards the inner pain of our anger or resentment. Instead of turning away, we turn towards our suffering or the suffering of others. This does not mean that we indulge in feeling sorry for ourselves and certainly it does not mean that we indulge in reactive thinking, such as worrying. Rather, we learn to be fully present with our inner felt experience of an emotion with a keen level of attention. The third quality of mindfulness is investigation. We turn towards our pain, we become attentive and then we take this further step and investigate the deeper inner structure of the experience. This has a profound effect on whatever is observed and the observed responds by differentiating into its component parts. What seemed like the solid emotion of anger or resentment, fear or anxiety begins to unfold into a complex interior landscape of subtle feelings and memories and very often, some form of experiential imagery.
This is the fourth phase of MMT: EXPERIENTIAL TRANSFORMATION. The term "experiential" is a very important term in mindfulness work and MMT and has a very specific meaning. By "experiential" we mean that we allow experience to unfold in its own way and in its own time without any interference or agenda or beliefs about what should happen. Mindfulness provides the ideal therapeutic space in which experiential unfolding can occur, because of its open and non-judgemental quality. What unfolds is often unexpected and unpredictable, but has a very clear felt meaning and felt sense of being relevant and important. The exact nature of what unfolds is unique to each person and cannot be predicted. There is no attempt made to interpret what arises, only to fully experience it with mindfulness and full presence of mind. The effect of becoming aware of this inner detailed structure that arises naturally as we focus mindfully on an emotion is highly transformational. Often, beneath anger there is sadness and beneath resentment there is fear. These more subtle feelings may give rise to further feelings and experience. During the process of transformation, emotions literally dissolve into many small parts, which can be more readily digested and re-integrated by the psyche and our innate intelligence into something more stable.
Besides the differentiation of feelings and associated memories, people will frequently encounter some form of experiential imagery. It may be in the form of a memory image, a picture from the past. Experiential imagery often takes on a more abstract form of shifting colors and shapes. Whatever form the imagery takes, the approach is always to sit with the present experience and felt sense associated with the imagery and allow it to unfold and change in its own unique way. One person focusing on anger first notices a red color, which takes on the form of a hard, rough rock. With continued mindfulness, the rock begins to change shape and color and dissolves into a pile of white sand. This is not visualization, because there was no deliberate effort to create the imagery; they arose experientially. The process of unfolding and transformation of experiential imagery is one of the most powerful events that can occur during MMT and is one of the most effective means of producing change at the deepest level of our emotional suffering. How this works is not well understood, but it is generally agreed that the mind thinks in pictures and organizes memory and particularly the affective dimension of memory through visual imagery. Why the anger took on the form of a red colored rock is interesting and of course red is often associated with anger, as is hardness. Why it changed into white sand is also interesting and similarly we can make interpretations of what it means: white sand symbolizes tranquility and fluidity. However, interpretation is not the purpose of MMT; what is important is the full conscious experience of this process of change in the inner structure of our experience. It is this conscious awareness of the process that is transformational, not an understanding of the contents that arise.
The final step of MMT is RESOLUTION. Resolution is said to have occurred when the emotional energy that powers a pattern of emotional reactivity has dissipated and returned to the psyche, providing energy for new and more positive responses. Resolution is the state of equilibrium, accompanied by a felt sense of uppekhavedana, which although neutral can lead to very euphoric feelings that can be simply described as the taste of freedom. Any form of emotional suffering, or dukkha, as it is called in Buddhism, represents a state of instability and conflict in the psyche. The psyche hates instability and will always try to resolve dukkha if given the freedom to change. Mindfulness provides the therapeutic space and freedom in which transformation and resolution can occur. The guiding principle throughout MMT and the process of transformation and eventual resolution of emotional pain is called satipanna, which means the wisdom-intelligence that arises with mindfulness. This is our innate intelligence that we all possess and which is unique to each moment of experience. Just as water seems to have an innate intelligence in its relentless journey to be united with the ocean, so the psyche has an innate intelligence that will always move towards the resolution of dukkha in all its forms. Mindfulness provides the conditions of freedom and openness in which satipanna will naturally direct and guide all the subtle changes at the experiential level that lead to the resolution of dukkha. This is also described in Buddhism as the awakening or living real-time insight into the Four Noble Truths: Awakening to dukkha, the cause of dukkha, the state of non-dukkha and The Path of Mindfulness that leads to the resolution of dukkha. We start with recognizing dukkha, we form a relationship with the dukkha with mindfulness and we allow the dukkha to unfold, change and transform itself in the direction that leads to its cessation. This direction is literally encoded in the internal structure of the state of instability of dukkha in just the same way that the path that water will take is encoded in the very process of creating instability when we pour water on the top of a hill. The direction of change is always towards greater and ultimately final and absolute stability. This applies to dukkha just as much as to the water trapped on top of a hill. Given time and the freedom to change, that water will return to the ocean and the psyche will resolve dukkha and reach a place of stability.
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