Journey to the East

Mandala - Journey to the East
There is no escape

Editor’s note:  this is a summary of research findings that Donna Rockwell, PsyD, will present in China at the Second International Conference on Existential Psychology on mindfulness in clinical psychology training, May 24 – 27, in Shanghai.

I am taking mindfulness to the East.

It is something that I am rather excited about, and would never have imagined twenty years ago when, as a former TV news producer and then stay-at-home mom, I came upon a book by meditation teacher, Pema Chodron. I read this book voraciously, claiming it as the Holy Grail I had always sought. The book was called The Wisdom of No Escape. “Get it?” I used to say to people. “The wisdom? Of no escape? Get it?” Despite the quizzical looks I would get from pretty much everybody, after that nothing in my life was ever the same.

Pema Chodron is an ordained Tibetan nun and wildly successful author in the self-help, meditation section of most bookstores. Her teacher was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, best known for founding Naropa University and Shambhala meditation centers, who taught his own edgy brand of mindfulness. Ironically, Ana Pema, or Dear Teacher, as the moniker connotes, started out as no other than Deirdre Blomfield-Brown from New York City, who through her own existential hardships, sought wisdom as the salve to her crises, and found her way to Buddhist psychology. So, I take heart. Perhaps my American, suburban New Jersey roots don’t preclude my natural extension to a journey to the East, taking the results of my mindfulness research to the Second International Conference on Existential Psychology in Shanghai, China this Spring.

My curiosity about meditation and its psychotherapeutic value began in those dog-eared pages of Pema’s book. How is all of this not psychology, I asked myself countless times while reading it. Now, two decades later, I have conducted a research study, which I believes goes a long way in describing ways in which mindfulness is a valuable tool in psychotherapy, as well as a method of self-discovery that prepares clinical psychologists for the arduous work of psychotherapy, and the presence necessary for the psychotherapeutic encounter.

In the study, entitled Mindfulness in Doctoral Training in Clinical Psychology: Well-being, self-care, and interpersonal presence: A 3-year study: three consecutive cohorts of 3rd year PsyD students (2008, 2009, 2010) took part in a non-elective, 2-hour, 10-week course: Mindfulness & Psychotherapy, in which they were exposed in each class to at least 20 minutes of sitting meditation practice, periods of walking meditation, ample time for journal writing, discussion time, lectures, dyads, and group and individual research projects. The three cohorts (n=15, n=20, n=22) took a pre-test: on the first day of class, and two post-tests: one on the last day of class, and the second, seven months later to assess potential lasting value of the mindfulness training.

Interestingly, what Pema Chodron taught me all those years ago within the covers of her thin volume, is the same thing that organizers Louis Hoffman, PhD, Xuefu Wang, PhD, and Mark Yang, PsyD are pointing to in the upcoming China conference, exploring The Meaning and Application of Zhi Mian. Loosely translated as “courage” or “existence,” Zhi Mian is a form of psychotherapy practiced in China. How do we work with the existential hands we are dealt, uniquely as well as collectively, and muster the courage and confidence to face existential givens directly, rather than hiding in psychological coping mechanisms, like mental hibernation or emotional malaise? Mindfulness, instead, is rooted in a humanistic-existential reality check, entering into an investigation of self, an examination of mind, and a willingness to “face directly,” as Zhi Mian psychotherapy asks of clinicians and clients, alike.

Similarities between the courage inherent in Zhi Mian psychotherapy and mindfulness meditation were revealed in the data from the student participants in the study. The main themes were: (1) The courage to face directly through mindfulness, (2) Facing directly in session (able to stay present with clients’ material), and (3) Facing self directly through greater self-care and greater self-love. Themes were underwritten by students coming to know themselves better through “calm abiding” and “insight,” promised by the mindful-awareness (Shamatha-Vipassana) approach to meditation practice. Verbatim quotes below, from post-test questionnaires, highlight a sampling of students’ phenomenological experiences of mindfulness, in the context of Zhi Mian. (Student ID numbers are in parentheses.)

Students reported that new awarenesses became apparent to them over the course of the mindfulness class, and they learned to face themselves directly. Some were shocked to discover an inner dialogue that was predominately negative:

The most obvious change has been an ability to catch myself as I think negatively or start to “awfulize.” I am able to catch myself, breathe and rethink the thought. It’s certainly changed my perception of stressful times and the ability to “be.” (3/1/01)

I feel less angry with myself now and I feel that I’m enough. I have found that my habit of negative self-talk has decreased dramatically. I am thankful that every moment is a chance to start again. (3/1/04)

After realizing the actual nature of mind during meditation practice, that the mind is either focused on future catastrophes or mulling over real or imagined past failures, many students said that they started to become more kind toward themselves, and experience life more in the present moment:

I still catch myself falling into old patterns, but I now have new tools to help me begin again. … Because I have learned to begin anew with each new breath, I have also learned to ask my anxiety or any emotion that feels overwhelming at the time, “What do you need from me?” it has increased my level of awareness and allowed me to be gentler with myself. (1/1/12)

The doctoral students in clinical training also reported that mindfulness meditation helped in their work as psychotherapists. By “facing directly” in meditation, students learned to “face directly” in session, and reported that they were able to stay more present with their clients’ material.

I am more aware of the moment-to-moment flow in the course of a therapy session. I feel more clear-headed and more attuned to the client’s experience-in-the-moment. And I am much less apt to form judgments in the moment about the client’s experience. (2/1/04)

…I am aware of how my presence can have an effect on the therapeutic process. My feeling of being overwhelmed by school and work may come across in my way of being with clients. It is important for me to take a few relaxing breaths in order to center myself between clients and other schedules. (2/2/10)

I am able to focus and stay more present within the session. But also notice & define more readily what is present within me emotionally, physically, mentally & spiritually. Attunement has increased. (3/2/20)

Through the practice of meditation, students said that facing themselves directly, not only in session, but then in a larger more universal way, helped them arrive at increased capacity for self-care.

The mindfulness course has affected my self-care as a therapist in that it prompted me to pay more attention to my self-care levels, where before I may have avoided or ignored them. (2/2/08)

I am more aware of what I want out of my life in terms of my own health, emotional and physical. I have been trying to meditate for 10-15 minutes per day. I have started working out to stay fit. I feel better over all; I do not get overwhelmed with my clients’ impossible situations. My relationship with my spouse and child is improved too. … When I finally embraced mindfulness I found myself sleeping better and feeling better about myself in general. (3/1/13)

When self-care is increased, levels of self-compassion also rise. Students reported that during the mindfulness course, as well as seven months later, as reflected in the second post-test results, they felt greater levels self-love, and tenderness toward themselves, what Buddhist psychology calls loving-kindness, or maitri.

Mindfulness has helped my sense of well being because it continues my focus on looking at how I think and things I think about. This enables me to remain a participant observer of my thoughts and [not] a reactionary victim of my thinking. Distancing myself from my thoughts creates a pause that is freeing because in that pause lies choice of how I will shape the next moment of awareness. (3/1/16)

I have been far more aware of the positives available to me at some of my darkest moments since and it has been extraordinarily helpful in assisting my efforts to sustain myself. … The mindfulness course has provided me with the insight to focus my energies on the positive aspects of my life and accomplishments when confronted with problems and dilemmas. … It has greatly enhanced my sense of well-being and my sense of self-worth.

Self-worth. That is what I learned all those years ago from Pema Chodron, who made very clear that there was no point in trying to escape, and, in fact, to the contrary, there is wisdom in realizing that any hopes at escape are obviously futile. Existential realities remain. It is up to us, instead, to figure out how to best face them with a sense of quiet bravery and self-confidence. How can we, therapists, help our clients similarly enlarge their existential “containers,” making them big enough to hold all of their experiences, and not just the ones they purportedly “want.” Stuck between “wanting” and “not wanting,” we watch our clients missing the beauty of the present moment.

That’s the greatest value of mindfulness for clinical psychologists. Like watching a movie of our own minds, meditation practice reveals to us our hidden plots and mental slights of hand, and our own subconscious gossip of wanting and not wanting. Sooner or later, we can no longer fool ourselves, lie to ourselves, or avoid self-apparent truths. We know ourselves too well. Through calm abiding and insight, we’ve got our own number. The jig is up, and lo and behold, we become more genuine, compassionate, authentic individuals. We learn to “face directly” in mindfulness meditation, rather than running away. Knowing it ourselves, we can now help our clients learn the wisdom of no escape.

— Donna Rockwell

Mindfulness research generously supported by the Michigan School of Professional Psychology and Marjorie S. Fisher.

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