Monday, April 30, 2012

The Healing Power of the Non-Conceptual

'…it’s only when we’re able to reside in the physical experience of no ground—no longer clinging to our fantasies of how life is supposed to be—that the power of our attachments begins to diminish. This is the path of practice. When we see through our attachments, that is, when we fully experience them, the result is freedom. When we see without the filters of our judgments and desires, the result is appreciation and the quiet joy of being. When we see through our fears, the result is love.'  What Matters Most, by Ezra Bayda and Elizabeth Hamilton, 

The above quote is taken from the article cited written by a couple who are also Zen practitioners. They are discussing their relationship challenges in the context of the woman recovering from breast cancer. I 'hit' this article through my Google search on the 'healing power of the non-conceptual', a pre-occupation of mine that has evolved over many years training and study in the field of mental health and psychotherapy studies. My 20 years research into western psychological therapies uncovered a culturally dominant dualism governing most theories and practices that, through a deeply ingrained dependence on language and concepts, seemed to hold as much potential to fragment a person's experience as to heal them. My practice in nursing and social work as a young adult at the coal face of mental health services in London, had also taught me that simple breathing exercises based on mindfulness meditation often had an immediate calming effect upon people in overwhelming mental distress. So, over the years, I became interested in the healing power of 'resting the mind', by which I mean learning to reside in the non-conceptual, observing awareness we cultivate through mindfulness, that enables us to let go of thinking. My experience of using these techniques to manage stress in my own life and as clinical practitioner in 'front line' services,  also bore testimony to their power. But this pre-occupation of mine began in the 1980's, at a time when the subject of meditation and breath work was thought to be a dangerous fringe practice by the mental health community at large, especially in the UK.

Now, over 20 years later, mindfulness- based interventions are employed in a whole range of health and social care contexts, including pain management, stress, depression and substance abuse. They have an irrefutable evidence base supporting their effectiveness in helping us to manage and all kinds of suffering of mind and body. Yet the cultivation of non-conceptual awareness has not been much explored as the point of experiential transformation common to all cognitive, affective and physiological changes effected by mindfulness. I am trying to find out more. We know these interventions work but how exactly? It seems that mindfulness exercises are much more effective once we acquire the skills that enable us to let go of thinking, of concepts and just 'be'. For most people this is easier said than done. We need to be able to shift our attention to what Professor Steven C Hayes calls 'self as context', rather than 'self as content', or Dr Russ Harris calls 'the observer self', - that part of us that remains a silent witness to all of our experience,  aware and non-judgemental, free of concepts. 

It seems to me that resting the mind in this spacious awareness is key to all forms of deep psychological transformation that result in new levels of sustained integration. Yet what is happening during this process remains elusive to the conceptual mind. We must experience it directly, through practice. Our counselling students will be invited to keep diaries of their meditation and mindfulness practices when they study with us. It will be interesting to see if we can pinpoint what happens when we shift from thinking to observation, from conceptual processing to awareness. By learning to 'let go and let be' we honour the resting place in ourselves, and by honouring it, we also cultivate it by experiencing it. It may be that all that's needed to heal is to give ourselves time to retreat to that resting place, to bear witness to pain as a healthy response to human suffering. Perhaps we can reframe our pain as a message, that now is time to rest in the sanctuary of spacious awareness for as long as we are able. By resting there we can allow non-conceptual space to take care of us, by loosening the rigidity of our previously conceptualised experiences, that cannot equip us to cope with sudden bereavement, trauma, overwhelming stress and pain. In traumatic cicumstances we may experience this process as a kind of conceptual melt down, a temporary shift into a state of hot fluidity where our most treasured frameworks may no longer be able to serve us, and no longer make sense. By breathing into the heat of traumatic experience with awareness, we can venthilate it, cool it down and begin to acquire the skill of mindful acceptance. When we have melted, cooled, and made some space in our old conceptual frameworks, then perhaps a fresh integration can take place.

Polish psychiatrist and psychologist KazimierzDabrowski coined a special term for this process, which he said is often mistaken for a psychoneurotic illness. He called it 'positive disintegration'.  His work suggested that we can progress to new levels of integration and acheive a more subtle conceptual understanding of what it means to be healthy, when we surrender to the need to process psychological and physiological pain in this 'melt down', and accept this as a necessary component of being fully human. Meditation and mindfulness are evidenced based methods of facilitating this fluidity, other methods may include creative arts practice, yoga or even gardening. Anything that can connect us holistically to the present moment is likely to be beneficial. Each person will be suited to a variety of methods that can release us temporarily from the tyranny of concepts, from the story lines that only compound our pain when they can no longer make sense of our experience. These skills can be applied to managing change in various circumstances, whether it's being diagnosed with cancer, as in the article above, losing a job, managing panic attacks or navigating a divorce.

I would like to share more on the intersection of Dabrowski, mindfulness and creative arts practice in the next post. Meanwhile, your comments and thoughts on this are very welcome, from whatever perpsepctive.
© Clinical Dhamma

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Dualism and the game of feelings- overcoming loneliness and letting go.

by Jo Nash PhD
In 2005 Zoketsu Norman Fischer, a teacher in the Soto Zen tradition, gave a series of 3 talks on Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche's 'Glimpses of Abhidhamma', a book of transcribed talks delivered from a Tibetan Buddhist Mahayanist perspective with Trungpa's characteristically humorous flourish. When listening to Zoketsu's commentary again, I was struck by some ideas expressed about the problem of loneliness, now a psychosocial plague in the modern West. In the clinical and social work I did over many years in the UK, chronic loneliness often seemed to be at the root of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and self-harm- and the fear of chronic loneliness the reason people often used to justify staying in clearly abusive relationships. My work in South Asia revealed a different context in which the fear of not belonging to a primary group (community, family, religious organisation) may result in the overriding of values related to individual fulfilment. The consequence of this fear of loneliness being allowed to drive our life choices may either be the 'loneliness in the crowd' feeling, caused by not being 'seen' by those we spend time with, or a compartmentalised life, where some of our values may only be expressed away from those who may object, including our families, neighbours and religious communities. Chronic loneliness seems to be less of a problem in South Asian communities where acceptance of duties and responsibilities towards others is high. However the fear of loneliness seems to drive people to make unhealthy compromises that can crush their values in both Eastern and Western cultural contexts.

Much of my work is involved with helping people to clarify their values, and develop strategies for integrating their healthy expression in all areas of their lives. To do this successfully people need to acquire the life skills necessary to deal with the temporarily uncomfortable consequences of making such life changes. I use a mindfulness based approach that also teaches acceptance and commitment strategies, and set homework along those lines for my clients. The aim is to support them choosing to live a life in line with their own values rather than somebody else's. Research evidence shows that this clinical approach, called ACT, increases vitality, productivity and fulfilment, and undermines lethargy, loneliness and anxiety. Trungpa's book and Fischer's commentary led me a step further towards connecting this work with my Buddhist spiritual practice. Trungpa connects the five Skandhas or aggregates of Buddhist Abhidhamma with progression down the spiritual path at what he calls a 'kitchen sink level'. In other words, he is instructing his students on how an application of Buddhist psychological principles to our everyday problems can help make mundane life more fulfilling. I wish to begin with his reflections upon the skandha of 'feeling'- meaning that part of our mind that processes emotions and our thoughts about our emotions. He writes,

 'Feeling involves the pretence that you are involved with somebody… (but) there is no answer to feeling's search… this is why buddhadharma is an atheistic teaching. We have to accept that ours' is a lonely journey... '

Here Trungpa is saying something very radical- that when we feel for someone or about something, there is nothing there really, at an emotional level, except the products of our own minds. We find ourselves desiring, craving, frustrated, resentful in relation to others and situations, and so we move on to other targets to satisfy our feelings, in the hope they will be more pleasing. Then the same old story sets in. As familiarity and intimacy increases so do our issues with what is happening and our usual reactiveness arises. In reality however, what we are doing is relating emotionally to our own projections of what we want, and inability to accept the other person as they are and make choices accordingly. We take their behaviour too personally. We make our difficulties all about 'me' or 'us' and 'them', and move on to yet another person or situation in the mistaken belief that we can better satisfy our feelings there. Buddha Dharma says we cannot ever satisfy our basic craving this way. This grasping at targets in the hope they will relieve our desire never satisfies us for long. However, if we can see this and we can accept this -that we are alone with others who are also alone, then we have another problem often. We begin to feel lonely. Zoketsu Norman Fischer responds to this development by reminding us of  anatta, or  'not self' teaching of Abhidhamma saying: 

'I am alone, but the whole point is that the 'I' that thinks she's alone is a complete fiction. The trouble is 'I' am looking for something outside of myself when the reality is that 'I' am completely joined (interdependent) with everything, all the time, so how could I possibly be lonely? We are not paying attention to that, not noticing that…'

Here, Zoketsu is pointing to our 'default' lack of awareness, our ignorance of our interconnectedness due to our clinging to self or ego, which causes a false sense of separation to arise. This dualism is a creation of the mind, rooted in a clinging to a sense of 'I'. This 'I' is a mistaken identity manifested in a sense of myself as separate from what is other or outside. This sense of separateness causes the suffering of loneliness, that when it becomes chronic, is at the root of so many mental health problems. Fischer describes this loneliness as a sense '…we are bereft because we are not getting what we think we need.'

Mindfulness is the key to overcoming this sense of being bereft, by establishing an awareness of our connectedness with what is. We do this by paying attention fully, in the present moment, without dividing our experience- without judgement. We can train our minds to do this through meditation and everyday mindfulness practices. Then we begin to watch the sense of frozen separateness thaw out. With this melting away of 'me' and 'mine' versus 'you' and 'yours',  the delusion of loneliness also dissolves. With the dissolution of dualistic experience a new openness arises, and a sense of inner confidence develops that comes from being connected to what is here, right now. This describes the turning point, the 'path forging' activity of the awakening mind. Trungpa writes: 

'The awakened attitude arises when we see there is no point in playing the game of feelings - we are not concerned with 'this or that' anymore(…)We go along very boldly, in a stubborn way. We just sail along. We have our own plough, our own tank and we are going to drive right along. No matter what happens we go on through. The whole point seems to be whether we have that bold attitude of being what we are, and are willing to disregard the duality of 'this and that'. We accept our negative side and the fact that we are a fool(...) We use it as part of the meditational process nevertheless. We are going on and on, being ashamed or being proud of it, we are just going on and on with it…'

We heal and we 'wake up' by driving on through life in line with our values, using the tried and tested tools of acceptance and mindfulness. We just keep on going. We welcome the whole gamut of our negative and positive experiences. They all contribute to the texture and taste of living fully. Everyday life becomes an adventure, rather than a chore. We accept all of it and keep going anyway, remaining connected to life as it is. Then after a while, we find we have reframed our experience of being alone with others, who are also fundamentally alone. We see this as a shared experience we all have, and that we are all connected to each other through this shared experience. Then, in time, we might find we are no longer 'lonely' in the sense of suffering a sense of separateness from others. We might find we are free to enjoy our solitude and our relatedness spontaneously, as they arise.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Welcome to Clinical Dhamma

Welcome to the new blog Clinical Dhamma - for all those interested in applications of Buddhist psychology to all types of clinical, health and social care practice. We intend to use this blog as an online forum to share information about our clinical teaching and practice at SIBA, Sri Lanka, and how it relates to scholarship, research and clinical practice in the area of applied Buddhist psychology worldwide. We are about to launch a new online Diploma in Buddhist Counselling, which students can study from anywhere in the world, at any time of day, from their desktop. The delivery of online audio, video and text teachings will be supported by 2 optional annual meditation retreats at SIBA, Sri Lanka, and occasional skills development workshops at SIBA for those who can attend.

Our vision is to establish an online hub for the exchange of information in the broad area of applied Buddhist Psychology, and a unique counselling clinic in Sri Lanka, plus clinical retreat facility for those wishing to pursue healing away from the distractions of work and home.

In future blog posts we will present a selection of interviews to introduce our staff- with Dr Sarath Chandrasekera, who is the Course Leader and Head of Buddhist Studies at SIBA,  and then with Venerable 'Bhante'  Buddharakkhita, our esteemed meditation instructor, who is an established teacher of meditation in the USA, Europe, Africa and increasingly, worldwide.
We welcome any comments, suggestions or contributions here. Email Dr Jo Nash