I am a researcher and therapist with a doctorate (Ph.D.) in clinical psychology, an Instructor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, and an independent consultant in several areas. (For professional information about me, please see my home page.)
Most important here, I have studied and practiced meditation for more than 20 years, and my ongoing efforts to cultivate mindfulness and kindness have greatly benefitted my personal and professional lives and relationships.
I created this web page to share some of what I’ve learned, with anyone who might find these perspectives and resources helpful.
Table of Contents
This will orient you to this extensive webpage, via some opening comments and brief descriptions of each section.
Opening Comments and Suggestions
Is this page for you? You’ll have to see, but some of the people I’m hoping to reach and benefit:
People who are curious about mindfulness, but have read little or nothing about it and never tried meditating.
People seeking new ways to overcome childhood hurts, depression, addiction, and other all-too-human problems.
Meditators interested in the insights of a fellow meditator who happens to be a therapist, clinical psychology and psychiatric neuroscience researcher, as well as a husband and parent.
Therapists interested in bringing mindfulness and meditation into their clinical practices.
A message to those who will begin reading and find themselves thinking, “I can’t see myself doing mindfulness meditation practices, so I might as well stop reading now and not bother coming back to this later”:
Simply reading this page (whether you try meditating or not) will introduce you to new, and potentially very transformative and healing, ways of thinking about, experiencing and responding to your own emotional and other mental and brain processes. Just learning these concepts and perspectives (without ever meditating), has proved extremely helpful to many people, including those struggling with a great deal of emotional suffering. I can’t guarantee that will happen for you, but I would like to encourage you to take the time, at some point, to find out for yourself.
A suggestion: If you discover that you are really interested in what you’re reading, print the entire page. At 34 printed pages, it’s too long for most people to read on the computer.
Descriptions of Each Section
What is Mindfulness? defines mindfulness by expanding on an often-quoted definition of Jon Kabat-Zinn. My elaboration speaks to struggles that we all have, with overcoming ‘bad habits’ that cause problems and suffering in our relationships, our work, and the most private parts of our lives. My definition also addresses common misconceptions about mindfulness by clarifying what it is not.
How Could Mindfulness Help Me?describes several ways that mindfulness can help people overcome habitual and automatic ways of responding to experiences that are either strongly unwanted (from emotionally uncomfortable to traumatic) or strongly wanted (including addictive). These include loosening the grip of habitual responses that cause suffering, quieting and calming the mind, and fostering greater awareness, enjoyment and cultivation of healthy positive experiences.
How Can I Cultivate Greater Mindfulness?begins with a few comments about meditation and Buddhism, followed by instructions for a standard mindfulness of breathing meditation. It then discusses some key issues, including the distinction between concepts and skills, daily versus intensive mindfulness practice, and formal practice versus weaving mindfulness into daily life. It ends by addressing some common questions and concerns about the cultivation of mindfulness in daily life and relationships.
Caution: Mindfulness Includes Pain, and Requires Readinessis a very important section, particularly for those who can become overwhelmed by unwanted emotions. It discusses the need for a solid foundation of self-regulation skills before practicing mindfulness meditation, and how this is essential for people who struggle with certain problems.
Kindness – An Essential Companion of Mindfulnessexplains why cultivating mindfulness is necessary but not sufficient, and how cultivating kindness promotes acceptance, peace, freedom, and happiness. It also includes some simple but very effective practices for cultivating key aspects of kindness.
Resources for Learning To Be More Mindfulprovides very specific advice for how and where you can learn to become more mindful. It has immediately useful information about books, tapes, online mindfulness meditation courses, and meditation centers. It also includes suggestions and resources for those who need more help cultivating self-regulation skills, or for whom more movement-oriented practices such as yoga or Tai Chi will be most effective.
Recommended Books, CDs/Tapes/MP3s, and Articles includes recommendations for everyone as well as therapists in particular.
Links to Other Resources on Mindfulness and Meditationhas a small number of highly recommended sites.
What is Mindfulness?
Psychologist and mindfulness meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn has simply defined mindfulness in this way:
“paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”This sounds simple, but mindfulness is a skill that takes practice to cultivate and maintain. Why? Let’s consider the different parts of the definition…
- “Paying attention”
- How much of the time are you really paying attention to what’s happening in your life – as opposed to thinking about something else, remembering things, imagining possible futures, and acting out habitual patterns or, more accurately, reactingto people and situations based on old habits of perceiving, thinking, feeling, and behaving?
- Paying conscious attention can be especially hard when a current interaction reminds us of past hurts or betrayals – and before even realizing it, we can automatically and defensively responded as if those old experiences were happening again.
- All of us have our habitual patterns, our vulnerabilities to automatic reactions based on past experiences of hurt, our “buttons” that can get “pushed.” This is particularly true when we are already stressed and/or in a hurry. Truly paying attention in our lives is a challenge for anyone.
- “On purpose”
- It takes a conscious decision, and effort by one’s mind and brain, to pay attention to what’s happening in the present. In fact, such choices and efforts are required over and over again, since we are continually pulled back into habitual ways of processing information and responding to things.
- Too often we’re on “auto pilot,” not even trying to pay attention to what’s actually happening in the unique situations and interactions that make up our lives.
- “In the present moment”
- Most of us, most of the time, are absorbed in memories of the past or visions and plans for the future.
- For most people, it is rare to be aware, without some amount of distraction or multi-tasking, of what is actually occurring in the present moment.
- Particularly when strong emotions arise, people often respond not to situations as they are, but to reactive perceptions and thoughts based on painful experiences in the past. In the most extreme instances, one may not be “here” in the present, but “back there,” reliving the past through responses to present situations.
- This is one of the hardest things to achieve. We so often react intensely to our experiences, particularly unwanted experiences, and to our initial responses to them.
- “This is horrible!” ”What an idiot!” ”How could I do that?!” ”I can’t take this any more!” ”Here I go again.” You know the ways you can instantaneously and automatically judge situations, other people, and your own thoughts, feelings and behaviors – often in a chain reaction of increasing judgment and distress.
- “I need…” ”I want…” ”I deserve…” Positive judgments and the cravings they evoke can also be a problem, particularly when they are automatic and intense. We can lose our focus, forget what’s important, get caught in cycles of addiction, selfishly take advantage of others, etc.
- In contrast, the non-judgmental quality of mindfulness brings great freedom– to see things more clearly, to evaluate situations with some distance from our habitual emotional reactions and impulses, to observe emotions and impulses as they arise without either trying to escape them or letting them carry us away.
- We all have at least glimpses of this potential, when we are feeling so positive and relaxed that something which would normally cause strong judgment and negative emotions is seen as no big deal, more clearly for what it is: a passing unwanted experience or temptation to indulge.
- But to bring this non-judgmental quality into our daily lives, consistently, even at very stressful times, this is something many of us can hardly imagine. Yet it is possible, by practicing mindfulness (and kindness).
- And for those who are vulnerable to remembering and reliving painful experiences from the past, to strong waves of emotion, to intense self-criticism – the cultivation of non-judgmental mindfulness can bring tremendous relief and freedom from old patterns.
In addition to defining what mindfulness is, it’s important to define what it is not. Here are two common misconceptions:
- Paying attention mindfully is not about detaching from your experience and failing to emotionally engage with your life. It does not cause apathy. It does not kill passion. In fact, mindfulness allows one to engage more fully with one’s emotions and other experiences, rather than simply reacting to them with habitual patterns of avoidance or acting out.
- For positive emotions, this means having more access to them and greater ability to put them into beneficial action.
- For negative emotions, such direct and open engagement is a foundation for making them more manageable, a protection against attempting immediate escape or impulsively acting out. (Of course, more access to negative emotions can be difficult, and requires emotion-regulation skills, as discussed below, in the section, “Caution: Mindfulness Includes Pain, and Requires Readiness.”)
- Non-judgmental awareness is not the same as passively accepting whatever happens, including harmful things. It does not mean failing to evaluate whether others’ actions or your own are harmful, or failing to protect yourself from victimization, or failing to prevent yourself from causing harm. Quite the opposite: non-judgmental mindfulness enables one to respond to such situations from awareness and thoughtfulness rather than habit, over-reaction, compulsion, addiction, etc.
How Could Mindfulness Help Me?
As the subtitle of this web page indicates, mindfulness is an inner capacity or resource that everyone can cultivate, and one that can be very helpful for overcoming suffering and achieving greater freedom and happiness. Of course, other important capacities and abilities, including emotion regulation skills and kindness toward oneself and other people (see below), are also necessary to overcome habitual patterns developed to cope with unwanted experiences and emotions. Mindfulness is nota “miracle cure” that single-handedly eliminates suffering-causing habits of perceiving, thinking, feeling and behaving which may have been ingrained since childhood. Still, it can help a lot…
There are several ways that mindfulness can help reduce the intensity, duration, and frequency of unhelpful habitual response patterns.The following outlines how some of these effects can occur and accumulate. (The next section of this page gives an overview of how people can cultivate mindfulness over the short and long term.)
- Loosening the grip of habitual responses that cause (additional) suffering.
- Learning to bring one’s attention back to the present moment, including the ever-present process of breathing, over and over again, involves learning to catch oneself entering into habitual patterns that prevent clear awareness of the present moment. With continued practice and increasing development of mindfulness, one becomes increasingly able to notice those habitual reactions – to unwanted and wanted but unhealthy experiences and emotions – that prevent one from responding consciously and constructively.
For example, instead of realizing 5-10 minutes later that you’ve been lost in bad memories or fantasies of revenge, you can catch yourself after only 30-60 seconds. Better yet, you can learn to catch yourself in the process of getting lost in a memory or fantasy. In time, you can increasingly observe these habitual responses as they arise, and choose to respond in other, more skillful ways.
- Learning to non-judgmentally observe such habitual responses loosens their grip too. Again, after bringing your wandering attention back to the breath thousands of times, you are less likely to beat up on yourself for getting distracted. Instead, you can simply observe that some distracting habit of perceiving, thinking, feeling or behaving has occurred, and come back to your breathing in the present moment. Over time, you will be increasingly able to bring the same non-judgmental awareness to the various unhelpful habitual responses you have to experiences in daily life.
For example, instead of getting really angry at yourself for feeling helpless and sad when someone makes a harsh comment, or feeling guilty when you start thinking of harsh replies, you might notice, without judgment, that you have the habit of responding to harsh comments with (a) feelings of helplessness and sadness, followed by (b) angry thoughts of come-backs, followed by (c) anger and guilt about those initial responses. Once you notice such common human responses in yourself without judgment, you can choose to bring your attention back to what’s actually happening in the conversation now, to consider whether and how you might redirect or end the conversation without creating more negative feelings, etc.
Another example: Rather than coming home from work really stressed out and, when you get the chance, reaching for alcohol (or marijuana or porn or whatever) to escape the stress and bad feelings, you could set aside some time to simply observe the unpleasant emotions and physical sensations of your “stress,” including the thoughts, images and impulses to seek escape (perhaps in ways that cause stress and shame in their own right).
- Clearly such changes in one’s awareness and attention, which loosen the grip of habitual response patterns, bring greater freedom to choose how one responds to the inevitable unpleasant and unwanted experiences of life and relationships.
- Reducing the intensity of unhelpful habitual responses.Some of the ways mindfulness helps with this are obvious from the comments above, and others are worth mentioning as well.
- The less time a habitual response has to develop, the less likely it will become intense. Of course, some habitual responses happen extremely quickly and almost instantaneously reach high levels of emotional intensity and behavioral impulsiveness. But most of the time, it takes a few seconds for a habitual response to reach a high level of intensity, and “nipping it in the bud” prevents a full flowering of destructive emotion.
- If within the first few seconds you can recognize, with some reflective awareness, that the habitual response is occurring, then you have an opportunity to prevent further escalation. After all, these are chain reactions in the mind and body, and if you can break an early link, you can stop the process.
- The less judgment one has toward a habitual response, the less likely it will become intense. This doesn’t mean that one simply accepts one’s habitual responses. Rather, it means that you neither accept nor condemn. Instead, you simply observe them for what they are: habitual and, however quirky or bizarre, quite human responses to unwanted experiences. If you can observe these responses without judgment, no matter how immature or unhelpful they may be, you can avoid adding more emotional fuel to the fire.
There are several ways that mindfulness can help to quiet and calm the mind, which increases the occurrence of positive feelings like enjoyment, appreciation, gratitude and general happiness. Similarly, by cultivating positive emotions, particularly ones involving kindness toward yourself and others, you help calm your mind. You can learn to make this healing and happiness promoting cycle work for you.
The following outlines how these effects can occur and accumulate, and offers some exercises that help bring these benefits.
- Slowing the pace of thoughts.
- The more one practices just noticing thoughts and bringing attention back to the breath (or other current sensations in the body), the more “gaps” occur between chains of thoughts and the individual thoughts within them. Your thoughts become less compelling and demanding of your attention and energy. The continual inner “chatter” and images of the past and future don’t go away, since that’s the nature of the human mind. But they do “settle down.” And this slowing and settling down of mental processes, particularly when you don’t need them to be moving quickly, brings relaxation, and brings the freedom to choose what to think about rather than being dragged along. This effect is often experienced after only 10 or 15 minutes of mindful attention to one’s breathing.
One way to convey this is imagining your mind as an excited puppy – running after every bone it sees, even sticks and rocks, anything that gets its attention, scurrying from one to the next as fast as it can. Like the immature puppy, your mind needs training to slow down and serve your needs rather than being carried away by emotions and distractions.
- If you can cultivate the ability to slow down your mind by practicing mindfulness, you can bring this ability to times of pain and suffering. Instead of jumping quickly from an experience in which you feel sad (or helpless or disrespected or whatever) to feelings of anger, shame and guilt – and before you know it finding yourself in a blizzard of negative thoughts, feelings and memories – the outcome can be different. You might notice the chaining of one brief negative mental state to another, and the links and gaps between them, and be able to choose another direction, like calming yourself, reminding yourself to focus on what brought up the negative feelings in the first place, or bringing your attention back to the current situation and your goals for it.
- Increasing the spaciousness of present awareness.
- Think of a time you were really stressed recently. Not only were your thoughts moving really fast, and probably somewhat out of control, but your current awareness was “clogged” with negative thoughts, feelings, memories, images, etc. For most people, most of the time, not just when they’re stressed, their current awareness is virtually packed with thoughts, feelings, images, etc. – and not only about what they’re currently doing. Consider driving. You may be noticing the road enough to navigate, but you’re also thinking about the past, reliving conversations and interactions, planning the future, etc. On top of all that, the radio could be on. In fact, much of the time people are not aware of the present moment, but only a small and dim glimmer of the present surrounded by a fog of thoughts and images of the past and future.
- By practicing focusing your attention on the present, and gently coming back to the present when you’ve wandered into the past and future again, you can expand your present awareness. Not only does the present moment become more vivid and fresh, but your awareness becomes more spacious, less clogged with extra and unnecessary thoughts, feelings and images. You can probably remember what this experience is like, by remembering a time when you were calm, relaxed, and not under pressure to do anything – maybe lying on the beach several days into a vacation, or on a long and relaxing hike in nature.
- Also, the more spacious your present awareness, the less likely that negative thoughts, feelings, and memories, when they inevitably arise, will dominate your experience and become overwhelming. With a more spacious awareness, you can have unwanted and painful experiences but have enough “mental space” to remember and experience positive and healthythoughts, memories, and images of your future. You can tap into larger perspectives on your life and who you are, what you have accomplished, and what you are capable of achieving.
- Try a “big mind” exercise with a difficult response or emotion (but not yet one that’s really difficult). As the negative experience arises, close your eyes and imagine your mind getting bigger and bigger to hold it. Imagine your mind as wide as the sky. When you feel your mind as wide as the sky, where is the difficulty then? What happens to it? How does it feel in this “big mind?” This is an experience and ability that, with practice, you can bring to increasingly difficult and painful experiences.
- Functionally, making the mind bigger is like this: If you put a teaspoon of salt into a glass of water it will taste very salty and be hard to drink. But if you put that salt into a lake, you won’t even be able to taste it. Like the “big mind” practice, mindfulness is about expanding the container for difficult emotions, like pouring salty water from a glass into a lake. When you have that more spacious mind, watch how thoughts come and go and come and go. Thoughts and feelings are always arising and passing away. It is their nature to do this. In some ways, simply seeing this can help us relax and not worry about them. Spaciousness of mind allows this to happen.
- If you have a spacious experience of the present moment, or can let go of unnecessary thoughts and allow that spaciousness to emerge, you will also have more room to experience the fullness of positivefeelings, the fullness of what you’re seeing and hearing, of whatever situation you’re in. Of course we all need to focus our attention sometimes, but the calmer and more spacious our present awareness, the more fully alive to the present we are when really focused concentration isn’t needed. Practicing mindfulness can show you just what these words are describing, even when you’re feeling down.
- Noticing, enjoying and cultivating positive experiences and emotions.
- Stressful times, and too much of life in general, can involve repeatedly focusing on difficult experiences and unpleasant emotions. It’s extremely important to train the mind to notice and enhance positive emotions too.
- Mindfulness can help you notice the positive emotions that spontaneously arise in your experience. If you’re going through your life feeling down much of the time, reexperiencing negative emotions resulting from past negative experiences, it can become hard even to notice positive emotions. Or positive emotions can be swamped and overwhelmed by more familiar negative ones before you even notice. Also, sometimes people actually dismiss positive feelings, because they’re afraid to get their hopes up. They think to themselves, “it won’t last, so why bother focusing on it?”
- Practicing bringing your attention to whatever arises in the present moment, and noticing it without judgment, makes you much more likely to notice positive experiences and emotions and much less likely to judge or dismiss them. Particularly when your mind is moving more slowly, and is relatively spacious, positive feelings have an opportunity to grow, last longer and lead to other positive feelings. And many positive emotions, particularly feelings of appreciation, kindness and love, help to enhance the mind’s calmness.
- Thus mindfulness, on its own, is not enough – even to cultivate and sustain mindfulness. To increase the likelihood of being mindful, it is necessary to increase the likelihood of experiencing positive emotions that lead to mental calm and spaciousness. As discussed kindness is an essential companion of mindfulness. But as you certainly know, many other positive emotions are good for your mind and body, in many ways besides promoting mindfulness. For many people, particularly who had painful childhoods, active and disciplined efforts are necessary to generate and nurture positive feelings. To play a musical instrument, or be successful at a sport, we must practice. That’s how our brains work. So of course it can be helpful to practice cultivating and maintaining positive emotions.
- For starters, you might try this exercise: Make a list of positive emotions. Take a day to practice noticing positive emotions as they occur. When did you feel joy today? Curiosity? Ease? Pleasure? Humor? Affection? Even in the most depressed person, positive emotions happen many times a day. Just noticing these can challenge such assumptions as “I’m sad all the time,” or “I was anxious all day.” It is also useful to look for neutral moments. Were there moments today when you didn’t feel difficult emotions? When you were brushing your teeth? Drinking a glass of water? Reading?
- For more on cultivating positive emotions, see the sections below, “Kindness – An Essential Companion of Mindfulness,” and “Recommended Books, CDs/Tapes, and Articles.”)
One more benefit of mindfulness is worth mentioning here. Mindfulness can help you see and make connections that weren’t there before. By this point, as you read what’s below, it will be clear how this benefit both promotes and is promoted by those mentioned above.
- Many people have learned to block out feelings, or never learned how to be aware of some, which means they often don’t recognize an emotion in themselves until it’s become extreme. This does not mean that one lacks emotional responses to things that happen, just that one’s emotions are mostly operating out of awareness and on “autopilot.” This can be particularly true for people who have numbed themselves to their emotions with addictive relationships to alcohol, drugs, food, pornography and other “fixes.”
- If one doesn’t notice or pay attention to one’s emotions and they run on autopilot, many opportunities for observing and working with emotional chain reactions are lost. But that’s how our minds and emotions tend to work: Based on past conditioning, current situations and stimuli – both external and internal – trigger emotional associations and reactions. Such triggering happens automatically, without our having any say in the matter.
- Mindfulness helps people to notice these associations and triggerings as they occur, or at least before a chain of them results in overwhelming emotions or impulsive actions. That is, mindfulness can help you see and make connections between perceptions, thoughts, memories, emotions and impulses – connections that have always been there, but operating outside of your relatively limited awareness – in a way that prevents your mind and body from going out of control without you knowing why. In short, while you have no say over the initial conditioned responses that you have, once you’re aware of them and not judging them, you can have a lot of influence over what happens next.
How Can I Cultivate Greater Mindfulness?
In this section, I first make a few comments about meditation and Buddhism, then provide instructions for a standard mindfulness of breathing meditation, discuss some key concepts, and address some common questions about the cultivation of mindfulness in daily life and relationships.
If you have never meditated, and maybe even if you have, you will have some questions about what meditation is. There are many different kinds of meditation, from many different traditions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. If you want to learn about mindfulness meditation before trying the basic meditation practice below, read What Meditation Isn’t and What Meditation Is. The first addresses 11 common misconceptions about meditation, and the second explains mindfulness meditation of the Buddhist Vipassana tradition, including some basic Buddhist concepts. Both are chapters in a book that’s free on the web, Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Gunaratana, who has been teaching meditation and Buddhism to Americans, including college and graduate students, for many years. (Links open in new windows.)
As with meditation, unless you have seriously studied Buddhism, you are likely to have some questions and misconceptions about it. I have read many books over the years, and used many practices from different Buddhist traditions. However, I am not an expert on Buddhism, so I will limit comments here to these two:
- Buddhist ideas and practices related to mindfulness have been developed and refined within an extremely rigorous research tradition. This tradition is focused on transforming one’s attention into a suitable tool for directly investigating the nature of mind and experience, with the goal of reducing and eliminating ignorance, confusion, and suffering – and increasing freedom and happiness. The focus on training and refining one’s own mind is very different from the research traditions of Western science, which have developed powerful methods for studying other people’s minds and brains. But the two approaches are absolutely compatible. Even more important, they are complementary – as increasing numbers of psychology and neuroscience researchers are discovering. (For example, the Mind and Life Institute includes many leading neuroscientists, and some exemplary research is featured in the scholarly articlesthat I recommend below.)
- Buddhist ideas and practices related to mindfulness are completely compatible with faith in or practice of any other religion, or atheism or agnosticism. They are tools for taming, understanding, and increasing the freedom of your own mind; therefore, they can increase your ability to live according to the principles of any religion, or any system of values and morals.
A Mindfulness of Breathing Practice
Important: If you have a tendency to become overwhelmed by anxiety, painful feelings or memories when you are not “keeping busy” or otherwise distracted from such experiences, the practice below could result in becoming overwhelmed. In that case, before trying the practice, please read the section below, Caution: Mindfulness Includes Pain, and Requires Readiness. At a minimum, be prepared to stop at any time and do something you can rely on to calm you down.
- Sit comfortably with your spine straight, in a relaxed way, on a straight-backed chair or cushion on the floor. It is important that your spine is straight and your body relaxed, to promote mental alertness and clarity. Sitting this way may be a new experience, and you may need to experiment a bit. (If you feel that you need more detailed instructions on posture, see What To Do With Your Body, a brief chapter in Mindfulness in Plain English.)
- Establish a proper motivation before beginning the practice. For example, you might affirm the intention to simply use your breath as an anchor for being mindfully aware of your experience in each moment, with a sincere desire to learn something new, with an attitude of open-minded curiosity.
- Close your eyes. (If this doesn’t feel comfortable, or feels like too much vulnerability to internal sensations, keep your eyes open and gaze at the floor about 5 feet in front of you with a soft focus, not attending to anything in particular.) As you inhale and exhale naturally, bring your attention to the sensations of your flowing breath, either at the tip of your nostrils or in your abdomen.
- Take a moment to notice the sensations of touch and pressure where your body makes contact with the chair or cushion and the floor, and any sensations that might indicate tension in your body. Just notice these sensations with curiosity and acceptance. If you need to slightly adjust your posture, that’s fine, but if some tension or pressure won’t go away, that’s OK too, so long as it’s not painful (in which case you may need to try sitting on something else).
- Consciously and deliberately take a few deep breaths, but do not strain. The idea is to emphasize the movement and sensations, to clarify what you are attending to.
- Now allow the breath to find its own natural rhythm. Allow the body to breath on its own, without attempting to change it in any way. Shallow or deep, fast or slow, it’s OK. Allow the inhalations and exhalations to come and go, just noticing the sensations of your flowing breath at the tip of your nostrils or in your abdomen. You may notice the slight pauses between each in-breath and out-breath
- Gently and without wavering, allow your attention to rest or float on the changing rhythms of your in-breaths and out-breaths. Whenever your attention wanders or loses its alertness – and it often will – gently but firmly bring your awareness back to the breath, and observe with fresh curiosity the sensations as they arise and pass away. It is totally natural for your mind to wander, and nothing to be concerned about. Again, when you notice that you mind has wandered, gently and firmly bring it back to the breath with fresh curiosity and alertness. If you find yourself judging yourself when you discover that your mind has wandered, instead briefly congratulate yourself for making the discovery – then go gently and firmly back to your breath…
- Continue with this practice for 15-20 minutes, or just 10 minutes or less if that feels like enough for the first time. During this time, sometimes when you find that your attention has wandered, you might remind yourself of your intention: simply to use your breath as an anchor for being mindfully aware of your experience in each moment. If at any time you find yourself becoming not just perturbed but overwhelmed by feelings or memories, immediately stop and do something (healthy) that you would normally do to cope with these experiences. Then read the section below, Caution: Mindfulness Includes Pain, and Requires Readiness.
To understand how one gets from sitting and observing one’s breath to the many benefits described in the previous section of this page, a few ideas and distinctions are helpful.
- From concepts and methods to reliable skills.Like everything else that requires practice, the development of mindfulness first involves learning some concepts, and some methods to practice. The methods are practiced over and over again, first only in very structured situations, eventually in all kinds of situations. In this way, what were initially only concepts become realities – real skills that one can reliably and flexibly apply in all kinds of situations. The concepts are pointers, guides, and “training wheels” that become less and less necessary as one’s skills are strengthened.If you have read the previous section of this page, you have already encountered some key concepts and skills associated with the cultivation of mindfulness. There, they were woven into descriptions of mental processes. Here, I explicitly define and describe them. At first these may “only” be concepts, though quite powerful and helpful ones. But with the practice of mindfulness in one’s daily life, those concepts are increasingly accompanied by very effective skills for relating to your experiences, including difficult and painful ones. Ultimately, the skills become reliable ways of responding with freedom, wisdom and kindness to a greater and greater range of human experience.
Bare attention – Attending to sensory experiences that arise with an object of attention, without distraction or cognitive elaboration.
For example, when attending to your breathing with bare attention, you just notice the sensations of breathing and nothing else. When this is occurring, many subtleties and nuances of breathing, and patterns in these, reveal themselves to you. Also, you are just noticing these sensations as they arise and pass away in the present moment – not thinking about them, not labeling them with language, not associating them with other sensations or patterns you may have experienced before, etc.
With practice, bare attention can be applied to bodily and emotional responses, including those triggered by very painful or traumatic experiences. For example, a person might attend to the sensations in her chest, throat, and face that arise when someone raises their voice in anger and reminds her of a hurtful parent or step-parent. Focusing on emotions as bodily events while “dropping the story” of verbal thoughts and remembered images and sounds, she can attend with bare attention to what is actually happening in her body now, in the present moment. This opens new opportunities for learning about her emotional and bodily responses, accepting these as conditioned reactions that arise and pass away, and responding to them in new ways.Labeling – Mentally applying a word or brief phrase to a particular content of experience.
Not all mindfulness meditation instructions include this practice, but many do. The idea is to help oneself simply notice something arising in your experience, without judgment, so that you can get back to observing the flow of experiences arising and passing away. This practice can also eliminate the control of particularly “sticky” thoughts and feelings over one’s attention.
For example, one might use the labels “sadness” or “anger” when these emotions arise; or “planning,” “worrying,” or “remembering” when those common cognitive processes arise. More specific phrases can be used for other experiences, for example, “remembering something painful” or “fearing how others see me.” Some repetitive patterns of thought may be compared to “tapes” playing in the mind, and labeled with phrases like, “there’s the ‘it’s my fault’ tape,” “there’s the ‘I don’t deserve this’ tape,” or “there’s the ‘he’s such a jerk’ tape.”
Acceptance – Accepting the reality of one’s current experience.
This concept is addressed in a later section of this page, “Kindness – An Essential Companion of Mindfulness.” Here, I will just make two points. First, accepting the reality of one’s current experience is particularly important when it comes to potentially intense negative emotional responses. Once such emotional responses have arisen in one’s current experience, neither mindlessly being carried away by them nor attempting to suppress them will be particularly helpful. Acceptance allows one to see them more clearly for what they are – unwanted and intense, but passing experiences – and choose how to respond to them, perhaps with acceptance and nothing more.
Second, accepting rather than rejecting what is happening in the current moment does not mean believing or “accepting” that one can do nothing to prevent the situation from continuing or getting worse in the next moment. Nor does it mean accepting and allowing one’s own automatic and habitual responses – no matter how compelling or “justified” such responses may initially feel. Just the opposite: accepting the current moment enables you not to allow the external situation, or your internal reactions, to rob your capacity for freedom in the next moment.
Non-reactivity – Responding to experiences, including emotions and impulses, without getting carried away by them or trying to suppress them.
All organisms, including human beings, are conditioned to react automatically to most of the experiences they have. We grasp at what we want and like, and push away what we don’t want or like. Before we even know it, such conditioned responses to stimuli and emotions carry us away. Mindfulness involves the skill of non-reactively observing split-second conditioned reactions, which provides the option of not acting out the entire chain reaction that would normally follow. This non-reactivity opens up space for new observations, reflections, learning, and freedom. It also saves one from a lot of regrets later.
Curiosity – An attitude of interest in learning about the nature of one’s experience and mind.
Through mindfulness, this quality of mind can be brought to a much greater range of experience than we ordinarily do. When it comes to things we want, we tend to just go after them based on prior conditioning. When it comes to experiences that we don’t want, including painful memories and emotions, we tend to just push them away and avoid them, again based on our conditioning. We tend to reserve curiosity for things and experiences that are new and at least somewhat positive. But with mindfulness, we can bring curiosity to the full range of our experience, and discover much that is new and enlightening. We can discover that experiences which would ordinarily just evoke automatic conditioned responses are opportunities to apply curiosity and learn a great deal about how our mind works, including how it can increase our suffering by imposing old conditioning on new situations – or increase our happiness when freed from such habits.
For example, it is possible to bring curiosity to the way a reminder of past betrayal by someone we loved triggers memories, which in turn trigger automatic responses like sadness, shame, or anger, and/or craving for alcohol, sex, or some other “fix.” When such reactions are experienced with mindful curiosity, they can become opportunities for learning, for being gentle and kind toward oneself in the midst of such responses, and for discovering new ways of responding.
Patience – Accepting a slow pace of change; bearing unwanted, difficult or painful experiences with calmness.
As soon as we attempt to follow the sensations of breathing without distraction, we discover just how out of control our minds are. Even after years of mindfulness meditation practice, most people will not have unbroken control over where their attention is directed for more than a few moments at a time. But experiencing this fact over and over again, and repeatedly observing – with acceptance, non-reactivity, and curiosity – that one’s mind has wondered or been carried away in a chain reaction of conditioned thoughts and feelings, is a wonderful way to cultivate patience. And these experiences can translate to daily life, enabling us to become more patient with ourselves and others as we all continue to fall into habitual responses that increase our suffering.
Another meaning of “patience” refers to calmly bearing unwanted, difficult or painful experiences. In the Buddhist tradition, the term “equanimity” is often used. Mindfulness practice provides repeated opportunities to observe the arising of unwanted, difficult and painful experiences and one’s habitual reactions to them. Again, as the observation of such experiences increasingly includes acceptance, non-reactivity and curiosity, one’s patience grows and can be spread to other experiences in one’s daily life.
Thoughts and feelings as events, not facts
We often respond to our thoughts and feelings as if they were facts or truths that “demand” or “justify” particular responses. However, it is also possible to understand and experience our thoughts and feelings as events that arise under certain conditions, and then pass away. This is true of all sensations, perceptions, feelings, memories, fantasies about the future, and other mental experiences.
Understanding and experiencing our thoughts and feelings in this way opens up some “space” around them. Instead of the thoughts and feelings having you, and carrying you away, you can experience yourself as having certain thoughts and feelings under certain conditions, and as having options about how you respond to them. One of the most liberating options is to simply observe thoughts and feelings as arising under certain conditions, and as capable of passing away without you having to do anything else but observe them.
Of course, this isn’t always the best approach. The useful and necessary functions of our thoughts and feelings include accurate description and evoking quick reactions to situations that demand them. But mindful observation of thoughts and feelings as passing events provides many great opportunities for learning about how our minds work, particularly our habitual patterns of reactivity to emotionally charged experiences and memories. People who cultivate mindfulness are pleasantly surprised when they discover just how many thoughts and feelings that previously seemed so compelling, and seemed to absolutely require and justify habitual reactions, are much better understood and experienced as sources of information about mental habits which have actually been increasing their suffering.
For example, consider an emotionally charged thought that often arises in the mind of someone who was deeply hurt as a child: “There must be something about me, something wrong with me that made him (or her) pick me to abuse.” It is possible, with practice, for this person to recognize this thought as common and normal, and one that is likely to arise at times of self-doubt and depression. Then, instead of getting caught up with the thought, one can attend to the emotional needs – perhaps for support, help, and encouragement – that created fertile soil for that thought to arise in the first place. Embracing such thoughts and beating up on oneself, or trying to push them away or argue with them in your mind, will tend to increase their grip on you. Viewing such thoughts as an event, and as sources of informationabout your current state of mind and body, and what will be helpful to you in that state, opens up all kinds of healthy possibilities and options.
Attending to process vs. attending to content
Most of the time, most of us are lost in the contents of what is running through our minds. Though fears, cravings and various emotions drive our thought processes, we tend to get lost in the specifics and details of our thoughts and memories. Mindfulness meditation teaches us how to observe the processes of our minds and how they work.
For example, when we are experiencing a pain in our body, or a painful memory, we tend to focus on the content of the pain experience and relate to it as something solid and unchanging. When that happens, the pain or memory is experienced the same way we always experience it, with the same predictable results. However, if we truly attend to the process by which sensations of pain or aspects of remembering arise and change from moment to moment, the experience tends to lose its grip over our awareness and become more tolerable and workable. When we can attend to a painful memory as a process that arises and plays out in our mind, we notice how the images, thoughts, feelings and bodily experiences change from moment to moment, and that experience of remembering involves new learning and opportunities for healing.
Another example: Rather than jumping, without even realizing it, from thinking about a negative interaction with a friend to memories of betrayals by other friends or loved ones in the past, it is possible to notice the process by which a fresh negative memory is linked to an old painful memory, which continues as a chain reaction of negative feelings, thoughts, and memories that carry one’s mind away. Attending to our experiences in this way enables us to notice and learn about such processes, quite apart from what the particular memories, feelings, and thoughts happen to be at any particular time.
Certainly there are times when attending to the contents of our experiences are necessary. However, it is often possible and quite helpful to alternate between attending to the contents and the processes of our experiences. And to the extent that we only attend to contents without awareness of process, we dig deeper holes of confusion and suffering.
Importantly, what enables us to attend to such processes, and do so in ways that bring learning and healing, are the qualities of mindfulness described above: bare attention, acceptance, non-reactivity, curiosity, and patience.
Repeatedly attending to the processes of one’s mind in daily meditation practice, one can become more mindful and more skilled at noticing the processes of experiences in daily life – and choosing not to get lost in the contents of experiences. This creates many opportunities for insight and freedom. The transformative and healing power of this shift in how we attend to our experience really is amazing, though it does take practice and discipline. Most important, this is a skill that truly can only be experienced directly, and only hinted at with words and concepts like these.
- Daily mindfulness practice vs. intensive mindfulness practice
Daily mindfulness practice typically refers to one or two 20- to 45-minute sessions of sitting meditation every day. The practice is along the lines of that described above: attending to the sensations of one’s breathing, and repeatedly bringing one’s attention back to the breath after discovering that it has wondered. It also includes noticing – with acceptance and curiosity, and without judgment – where one’s attention wondered to, and perhaps quickly labeling the experience or mental process before bringing one’s attention back to the breath.In general, practicing in the morning is best, as this increases the likelihood that mindfulness will be present over the coming day. Early in one’s practice, just 10-20 minutes per sitting may be enough, and it’s important not to push oneself too hard or otherwise make the practice a chore or an ordeal. As noted above and in other sections of this page, there are many resources for learning how to develop and maintain a daily mindfulness practice that works for you.
Intensive mindfulness practice refers to meditating for several hours a day, for several days or even weeks in a row, in a setting that is away from the usual pressures and demands of one’s life. One of the most common and effective ways to first experience intensive practice is to participate in a week-long silent “retreat.” This experience can really be an eye-opener. After several days of meditating in silence for 14-18 hours a day, one’s mind tends to become very calm and “settled.” The usual mental chatter slows and quiets down, and it becomes possible to observe the functioning of one’s mind with a great deal of objectivity, acceptance, non-reactivity, and curiosity. One can access inner resources and strengths that one may never have imagined existed. Many intensive retreats also include practices to cultivate kindness and compassion, which are not only very nice to experience, and virtues, but very calming of the mind and body, thus supportive of greater mindfulness and insight.
For many people, experiences during intensive meditation practice show them what mindfulness meditation could bring into their lives. Sometimes the effects last for weeks afterward, and other people may be amazed at the change that has come over them. Therefore, while disciplined dailypractice is essential, and will yield benefits like those described on this page (including patience with the pace of such developments!), intensive meditation practice can bring on deeply transformative experiences of just what mindfulness meditation has to offer.
Finally, it is important to note that intensive meditation practice isintense. Sometimes an initial calming of the mind is followed by a great deal of inner turmoil. And engaging in intensive practice before one is ready can result in becoming overwhelmed. Because very painful experiences and memories can emerge or intensify during periods of extended silent meditation, it is important to have a foundation of skills for managing such experiences before engaging in intensive practice (see the next section, “Caution: Mindfulness Includes Pain, and Requires Readiness”). Therapists who are meditators and/or experienced meditation teachers can help you determine when you are ready to engage in intensive practice. In addition, meditation retreat centers usually attempt to assess in advance for risk of such reactions, and have procedures in place to help people who need extra support.
- Formal practice vs. weaving mindfulness into daily life
Daily meditation practice and intensive meditation practices are formal practices. That is, they involve very specific and structured routines, and take place in time and space separated from one’s regular life, whether that’s a half-hour of sitting meditation in the morning after waking or a week-long meditation retreat every summer. The point of such practices, however, is not to become a better meditator in such artificial situations. The point is to transform your mind and heart in ways that bring greater kindness, freedom and happiness into all aspects of your life.Thus formal practices alone are not enough. It is essential to weave mindfulness, lovingkindness and compassion into your daily life. One way of expressing this is the distinction between “on the cushion” (formal meditation practice) and “off the cushion” (in the midst of one’s daily life and relationships and all their challenges). It is all too common for people to mindfully attend to their breathing and mental processes during formal meditation practice, greatly calming their mind and creating spaciousness, insight, etc. – then fall right back into a mindless swirl of habitual mental processes and behaviors the moment they stop meditating or encounter an unwanted experience within themselves or with someone else.
Therefore, there are many practices designed to weave mindfulness and kindness into one’s daily life. Some examples include:
- Attending whole-heartedly to an activity that you perform every day but don’t actually pay attention to, like brushing your teeth or washing the dishes. Just doing such an activity every day for a week without getting lost in thoughts about the past and future gives one a taste of what mindfulness is like, and how it can be present during basic activities of one’s daily life.
- Using simple but common everyday experiences as reminders to be mindful. For example, instead of automatically answering a phone, you can use the first ring as an opportunity to check in with your current level of stress and mindfulness, and the next ring as an opportunity to take a breath and become more mindful before answering.
- Reading the examples above, you might think, “Come on, that’s silly. How can little things like that make any difference?” But if it’s all about reconditioning your mind and brain, then every time you tap into the inner resource of mindfulness, you’ve conditioned your mind and brain in that moment, which shapes the conditions of the next moment, and increases the probability that mindfulness will arise when you need it in the future…
- Using driving as an opportunity to cultivate mindfulness in daily life. For many people, driving typically involves not just driving but listening to the radio, talking on the phone, getting lost in memories and plans, etc. Especially if you are in a rush, driving can create stress and even result in anger and aggression toward other drivers. But driving can be an opportunity to whole-heartedly pay attention to the experience of driving, including how you react to the behavior of other drivers. When used as an opportunity to practice mindfulness and kindness (e.g., thinking toward other drivers, even aggressive ones, “may you be happy, may you be free of stress”), driving can be an opportunity to neutralize bad habits, cultivate helpful skills, and arrive at your destination more mindful, calm, and kind than when you got into your car. Again, though some this may sound corny at first, with the right motivation and some discipline, you really can begin changing the way your mind and brain act in response to things that would normally stress you out and stir up negative emotions and memories.
- There are many practices designed to transform experiences of negative emotions into opportunities to experience and cultivate mindfulness, lovingkindness and compassion. For example, in Pema Chodron’s books and tapes (see the section, “Recommended Books, CDs/Tapes, and Articles”), she teaches practices that work with imagination and breathing to transform experiences of sadness, helplessness or anger into experiences of empathy for yourself – and the millions of other people around the world who are experiencing that same feeling at that same moment. Maybe that sounds far-fetched right now. But with a foundation of mindfulness practice and a disciplined effort to remember such practices when you most need them, in your daily life and relationships, it really is possible to use unwanted and painful experiences to cultivate greater kindness toward yourself and others.
- For some people, particularly some males, reading the above descriptions may result in the arising of conditioned thoughts like, “What touchy-feely garbage!” or “Come on, what am I supposed to do, just become a wimp who is nice and sends love to everyone?!” If this is true for you, consider this: If you want to be strong and powerful, then you might start by mastering your own attention, which these days is easily carried away by just about any distracting thought or emotion. To truly be strong and powerful, you can’t have a mind that’s out of control. To be strong and powerful, you need to free yourself from enslavement to conditioning and habitual reactions shaped by experiences in the past (especially ones where you felt weak and vulnerable). Mindfulness is about, among many other things, increasingly mastering your attention and freeing your mind, about being free to choose positive and constructive actions, no matter what anyone else has done or is trying to do to you. There is a lot more that could be said about the power of mindfulness and kindness, but it would be better for you to think about these things for yourself.
A few comments on the path leading to increasing mindfulness and its many benefits
Many people have thoughts or concerns like the following:
- “OK, maybe mindfulness is great, but I’ll never meditate regularly.”
- “I just don’t see myself having the discipline or, considering where I live, finding the support and guidance I would need to really bring mindfulness into my daily life.”
- “I tried meditating for a while years ago, and it did calm me down and reduce my stress level somewhat. But that was about it, and pretty soon those effects wore off.”
- “Truly cultivating mindfulness would take years, and there’s just no way I’ll ever get that far, given everything I have to deal with in my life.”
These are very common, understandable, and legitimate concerns. I personally have struggled with each one and other similar issues over two decades since first taking up mindfulness and other meditation practices, including months and even years with no formal practice at all. I’d like to offer a few reflections and suggestions that I believe could be helpful. They are based on my own experiences, as well as conversations with meditation teachers and fellow mindfulness meditators, and readings I’ve done.
First of all, it can help to see mindfulness as a trait and potential that we all have, to some extent, and that can always be increased. In terms of an individual life with its many moments, days, weeks and years, mindfulness is not an all-or-nothing thing, either you have it or you don’t. Thus it can help to view mindfulness as being on a continuum, and the extent to which one is mindful as waxing and waning over time, but always capable of being cultivated further (especially when this goes along with cultivating lovingkindness and compassion).
Second, it’s important to remember that the cultivation of mindfulness is a lifelong path and adventure. Just as everyone has his or her own unique path through life, so too with the path of cultivating mindfulness. There will almost inevitably be roadblocks and set-backs. Just about everyone will sometimes have maps that work and other times feel as if they are flying blind or by sheer intuition or trial and error.
Third, the journey of increasing mindfulness need not be taken alone. As I emphasize in the section “Learning to Be More Mindful,” most people need regular contact with a meditation teacher and others on the path. Everyone will sometimes need a teacher and supportive group or community. There is much to be learned from comparing notes, sharing struggles and stories, and many lessons only become clear and useful much later.
Cultivating mindfulness is about cultivating healthy mental skills (the Pali term “bhavana,” which has been translated as “meditation,” literally means “mental cultivation”). It’s exercise for your brain, a way to transform your brain so it is more healthy and free. And like physical exercise, people often struggle with developing the discipline of meditating regularly, then slacking off, then not enjoying being mentally out of shape and getting back to regular practice again. This is true for both formal meditation practice and the practices of mindfulness in daily life and interactions with others.
Ultimately, each individual needs to discover, in her or his own life, that the more mindfulness is practiced consistently in daily life, not only with discipline but increasing enjoyment and insight, the more beneficial and mutually strengthening these skills become. This is especially so when mindfulness is used to focus on reducing behaviors that cause suffering to oneself and others and increasing those that bring happiness, peace, love, and freedom.
Caution: Mindfulness Includes Pain, and Requires Readiness
To better understand this section, a preliminary discussion of pain and suffering is necessary. Physical and emotional pain are inevitable parts of life. Our brains are designed to experience pain as a source of crucial information (e.g., this is harming me, I need to avoid doing that again, that part of my body needs care, etc.). While our brains are wired to avoid pain, the function of this avoidance is not to avoid pain itself, but rather to avoid causesof pain that are harmful to our well-being. And after harm has occurred, causes of pain are avoided because they can slow or prevent recovery from the harm that has already occurred.
A simple example of physical pain’s function: When you cut your finger, the initial pain informs you of the harm, leads you to care for your finger, then to think about how this occurred so you can avoid it happening again. Later, after the initial first aid, pain lets you know that your finger is vulnerable, that it needs extra caution in how you move and use it, or (“ouch!”) that you’ve just done something that may be slowing or preventing healing.
Emotional pain is different from physical pain. When someone is experiencing physical and emotional pain at the same time, different areas of the brain process the physical sensations of pain and the emotional pain, even though these may be subjectively experienced as inseparable.
Emotional pain is sometimes referred to as “emotional suffering,” or just “suffering.” Most of us have observed, to some extent in ourselves and others, that the experience of physical pain may or may not be associated with emotional suffering. And of course, emotional pain may arise on its own in the absence of physical pain. For example, experiences of sexual, physical or emotional abuse, and memories of abuse of various kinds, can be associated with extreme emotional pain.
Experiences of emotional and physical pain can be altered by the nature of our attention. We’ve all learned that ignoring (or attempting to ignore) pain can reduce our experience of it, and that focusing on experiences of pain can amplify them. An important difference between emotional and physical pain makes emotional pain more capable of being altered by attention: emotional pain usually involves an interweaving of feelings and thoughts. The thoughts can take many forms, but typically involve interpretation and judgment – about the emotional pain itself, about the events the pain is associated with, about oneself, or about others involved in the experience: “This is horrible!” “How could he have done that to me?” “I can’t take this any more!” “I wish she would drop dead!” “There’s no hope for me.” In fact, such thoughts may even be the cause of emotional pain arising in the first place.
And like attention, thoughts can increase emotional pain. The greatest amplification of suffering comes from focusing one’s attention on the pain while thinking thoughts that escalate the pain. Such thoughts can take many forms, including interpretations, judgments, and memories. Many of the thoughts that escalate pain and suffering are stories that we tell ourselves – about the past, the present, and the imagined future. The stories can be very involved and elaborate, and may revolve around themes of betrayal, rejection, failure, punishment or revenge that are guaranteed to generate more negative emotions and suffering.
We all know how such cycles of thinking, feeling, remembering, and imagining can spiral out of control, and sometimes lead to drastic attempts at escape (which can become causes of new physical and emotion pains).
As described above, mindfulness can help, by allowing you to catch these cycles of suffering early on, and to cut through the automatically unfolding chains of associated feeling, thinking, remembering, fantasizing and story-telling. The present-focused, non-judgmental attention of mindfulness allows one to directly observe the separateness of feelings and thoughts, to attend to feelings without running off into associated memories, stories, etc. The following techniques may help you to catch yourself in the midst of this and interupt the cycle of escalation by creating a moment of mindful reflection:
- Stop and ask yourself, quite directly, “Can I know, absolutely, that these thoughts are true?” If you can’t answer “yes” with certainty, then it’s probably a story you’re telling yourself.
- When things aren’t going well and you’re in danger of escalating further, try asking yourself periodically, “Aside from the unwanted emotions I am experiencing, however unpleasant they are, am I otherwise OK right now?” This simple reality check can show that while you may not be feeling good, in that moment your mind is prolonging the suffering, or even creating additional misery.
However, this is where the caution comes in: Only a solid foundation of self-regulation skills, and disciplined practice, will enable one to attend to emotional pain with a sustained mindfulness that does not bring escalation – as opposed to having one’s attention grabbed, dragged, and swept away in escalating cycles of suffering.
That is, for someone who (a) lacks skills for tolerating and regulating the intensity of painful feelings, and (b) typically copes by escaping or acting impulsively, practicing mindfulness can bring a flood of intolerable painful feelings into awareness. For some, it will be necessary to learn mindfulness practices in the context of a therapy relationship.
Important: If you have any of the following problems at times, then practicing mindfulness before you are ready will tend to make them worse or create new problems:
- Tendencies to become overwhelmed and “flooded” by painful feelings and memories, due to underdeveloped self-regulation and coping skills. For people with histories of traumatic child abuse, this is common and normal during the “first stage” of recovery, when learning such skills and establishing safety and stability in one’s life are the main tasks. (To learn more about the “stages of recovery” from child abuse, see the About Therapy and Recovery section of my Child Abuse page and Judith Herman’s book, Trauma and Recovery– links open as new pages.)
- Tendencies to “dissociate” – that is, blank out, space out, leave one’s body, etc. – in stressful or upsetting situations. These are not uncommon experiences among those with histories of severe child abuse, and can become automatic and habitual. Originally self-protective in otherwise inescapable situations, dissociation can later cause many problems. For beginning meditators with abuse histories, dissociative states are sometimes confused with mindfulness. Learning “grounding techniques” and other emotion-regulation skills will probably be necessary first steps toward cultivating mindfulness.
- Tendencies to get “lost in your own world” and withdraw from relating to others, or to not even bother trying to connect with others. In this case, mindfulness practices could possibly be “co-opted” by strong habits of self-absorption and disconnection from others.
- Tendencies to hear voices in one’s head that sound like those of real other people, or to become convinced of ideas that are extremely unlikely or clearly untrue to other people. (As this can be a delicate topic for people with such experiences, and difficult to address in writing rather than thoughtful and respectful conversation, I will not write anything more.)
Even if you have one or more of the tendencies or problems above, it is possible to practice mindfulness. But to be ready, you will need a foundation of self-regulation skills.
Good therapists can help you improve your self-regulation skills. For people with histories of child abuse (an area of expertise for me), excellent self-help resources are available too. I highly recommend those below, and the first one is particularly helpful if you struggle with dissociation.
How does a mindfulness meditator learn to feel strong emotions and bodily sensations without getting overwhelmed or dissociating?
- First, choose an object of attention that can provide a “base” and “safe place” to come back to when experiences threaten to become overwhelming. People often choose their hands, feet, or the center of their belly as a comfortable or neutral place. For others the breath will work, or a comforting phrase, or an image or memory of a safe place or person. Practice gently bringing your attention back to this base whenever it becomes distracted or pulled along by something else.
- In all meditation traditions, cultivation of focused attention precedes cultivation of the open attention associated with mindfulness. For people who can become overwhelmed by “opening” to whatever arises in their experience, including painful feelings and memories, it is even more important to practice focusing one’s attention on one object and repeatedly bringing attention back to it. The idea is not that you will never get distracted (only very advanced meditators achieve this), but that you will usually be able to bring your attention back soon after it has wandered (i.e., within 10-20 seconds), and sooner when it wanders into emotionally painful territory (i.e., 1-5 seconds).
- Once you have achieved some skill at concentration, when a difficult emotion, sensation or memory arises during meditation, you can chooseto “touch up against it” in small increments. Briefly touch the pain with your attention, and then back off and return to your safe object of attention until you feel the strength and presence to touch the difficult experience again.
- Other ways to back off include opening your eyes and focusing on something you can see, or switching to a lovingkindness or compassion practice (see below).
- Such gradual, tolerable and deliberate re-experiencing of painful feelings and memories can modulate their intensity and foster increasing confidence and mastery. It really is possible to relate to painful experiences and memories without trying to escape or becoming overwhelmed.
For many people, it is necessary to work with a therapist and/or meditation teacher who is experienced at helping people deal with the four problems listed above. One therapy that can be extremely beneficial is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). This treatment approach incorporates mindfulness into a comprehensive individual and group program designed to cultivate skills of emotion tolerance, emotion regulation and interpersonal effectiveness. (For more information on DBT, see the section, “Resources for Learning to Be More Mindful”)
Finally, some people need to take medication for severe depression, anxiety, posttraumatic or other symptoms. A group of long-term meditators who are also physicians – Roger Walsh, Robin Bitner, Bruce Victor and Lorena Hillman – have written a very thoughtful article on this issue, Medicate or Meditate?They discuss preliminary research findings on potential benefits of anti-depressants for meditators who suffer from major depression.
Kindness – An Essential Companion of Mindfulness
The non-judgmental quality of mindfulness discussed above is very important. However, the absence of judgment toward unwanted experiences is necessary but not sufficient. People also need to cultivate the presence of kindness– toward themselves, toward others, and toward the inevitable unwanted, painful and otherwise distressing experiences in life.
There are two especially important forms of basic human kindness, which Buddhists refer to as “lovingkindness” and “compassion.” These are ways of relating to ourselves and others that promote acceptance, calmness, happiness, and freedom (especially from reactivity and compulsivity). While lovingkindness and compassion are (moral and ethical) ideals for relating to others, they are also mental qualities essentialfor achieving greater peace, freedom, and happiness. Therefore, encouraging oneself or others to cultivate these qualities – as I’m doing here – is not about “preaching” or “moralizing” or pushing people to be “good” or “nice.” Rather, the encouragement and suggestions that follow are intended to help you to discover how cultivating these qualities will help you to achieve much greater freedom and happiness in your life.
“Lovingkindness”is an English translation of the word “metta” from Pali, a language used to record the early teachings of Buddhism. The word has two root meanings, “gentle” and “friend,” and the foundation of lovingkindness is being a gentle friend to yourself, no matter what kind of experience you happen to be having in the moment.
Lovingkindness refers to an unconditional and open love. This is not the kind of “love” that has requirements and conditions attached to it (“I love you because…”, “I’ll love you if…”), or that only accepts pleasant experiences and thus distorts one’s perceptions based on wishes and illusions. Lovingkindness is not bound up with personal agendas or desire. Lovingkindness does not want things – including unwanted experiences – to be anything other than they actually are, in the present moment. Instead, the present moment and current experience are embraced. Paradoxically, this makes even unwanted and painful situations more “workable,” by providing other options for responding than automatic and habitual reactions which cause more problems and suffering.
In the Buddhist tradition, it is said that practices designed to cultivate lovingkindness were first taught to help people to overcome fear. Such practices can be extremely helpful to people with histories of childhood hurt and betrayal, or anyone else who continues to struggle with fear in their lives. In fact, many of the automatic and habitual reactions that make situations worse are based on fear of being hurt, exploited or otherwise mistreated, even if one is not aware of this at the time.
Before going further, it is important to clarify what lovingkindness is not. It is not about accepting or condoning other people’s hurtful behavior. It does not mean becoming more vulnerable because you no longer experience or respect your fear or anger and simply “let down your guard.” As suggested above, exactly the opposite is true:
- The mental quality of lovingkindness allows one to accept the reality of what is happening in the present moment, including one’s potentially intense negative emotional responses.
- Accepting rather than rejecting what is happening in the current moment does not mean believing or “accepting” that one can do nothing to prevent the situation from continuing or getting worse in the next moment. Nor does it mean blindly accepting and simply allowing one’s own automatic and habitual responses – no matter how compelling or “justified” such responses may initially feel. Just the opposite: accepting the current moment enables you notto allow the external situation, or your internal reactions, to rob your capacity for freedom in the next moment.
- It’s not about “letting down your guard,” but rather guarding your mind– guarding it from being carried away with automatic, habitual, and unhelpful responses based on reactions to past hurts; guarding it from being consumed by fear and self-defense rather than being supported by clear perception, effective reasoning and wise choices about how to respond skillfully and without worsening the situation.
- With lovingkindness, taking care of oneself and responding compassionately to others are notin conflict, but go hand in hand. Most of us sometimes “defend” ourselves when it’s not necessary, or respond with more extreme self-protective measures than are required or helpful in a particular situation. And most if not all of us think we were “just trying to defend myself” when attacking another person. Lovingkindness practices can reduce and eventually help to eliminate these habitual ways of thinking and behaving.
All of the descriptions above are fairly abstract, so let’s reflect on a typical experience in everyday life, and how lovingkindness can radically change it:
- You are walking down the street, partly paying attention to where you’re going but mostly focused on concerns about the past and worries about the future, when suddenly someone bumps into you. In response, you automatically do one or more of the following: (a) say something like “hey, watch where you’re going!” or “what’s wrong with you?!” (b) think to yourself something like “I can’t believe she did that!” or “People are such jerks!” or “Just another example of how I get pushed around all the time.” We’ve all had experiences like this. Our mind and brain, already in a state of distraction and stress, are vulnerable to responding automatically in ways that only increase our stress and, should we say something out loud, could escalate the situation by evoking anger and aggression in the other person. We really don’t know why the person bumped into us, but our distracted and stressed mind assumes ill intent, perceives an attack which must be defended against, and reacts by directing anger toward the other person and/or our self.
- You are walking down the street, feeling calm and happy, enjoying the sights and sounds, when suddenly someone bumps into you. As you watch the person continue past you, you notice how your body immediately swerved to the side and tensed up; how the thought, “hey, watch where you’re going!” automatically arose in your mind and is now quickly followed by attempts at explanation with thoughts like, “what a pushy person,” “maybe she’s in a hurry,” “maybe she’s distracted and stressed.” Mindfully observing the conditioned responses of your body and mind, you maintain the background of calmness and acceptance and, with an attitude of gentle friendliness, simply notice that your body has tensed and your mind is attempting to assign meaning and blame – then go back to enjoying the sights and sounds of walking down the street. You might even look at the person who bumped into you and think, “I hope you have a nice day.”
Sometimes it can be hard to feel kindness (especially if you’ve experienced a lot of hurt and betrayal in your life). Try starting with something simple:
The starting point is to imagine a person or animal that spontaneously and irresistiblyevokes feelings of kindness. Picture them in a peaceful quiet setting, like a nice field of grass.
- This could be a person – for example, a baby, a niece or nephew, another little child, or a much-loved grandparent who is still living or has passed away. If you choose a person, it’s important that it not be someone for whom you have any mixed feelings, otherwise they could get in the way.
- Or it could be a cute little puppy, kitten, or other baby animal, or a group of them.
Notice the feeling you get when you imagine this person or animal. Notice whether your body changes, any internal sensations of kindness.If you can feel this kind and warmth feelingt, give yourself a minute to continue imaging the person or animal and feeling that warmth, and the attitude of gentle friendliness that goes with it.
If you don’t feel the kindness and warmth initially, give yourself some time, and experiment with images, until you find one that helps you have some feelings of safety and comfort. Then give yourself a minute to continue having those feelings, and imagine wishing them for a lovable person or animal. Notice the kindness behind your wish, and give yourself some time to experience that kindness and feelings of warmth that go with it.
Then bring to mind an image of yourself as a young child. Move the kindness from the other person or animal to yourself. If the young image of yourself is too young for words, simply hold your hands over your heart. If you wish to use words, gently add the phrase “may I love myself just as I am” while holding your heart. Other lovingkindness phrases are, “may I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be safe, may I be free of suffering,” but feel free to make up your own, whatever works for you.
It is important not to force the lovingkindness. If you can’t feel anything or it feels routine or cold, try compassion practice instead (described below). If you have felt a great deal of pain in your life, you may be more naturally able to feel compassion. For example, as one woman with a history of severe child abuse observed, “At certain times, working with lovingkindness felt like silencing the pain. Paradoxically, though, as soon as I listened to and cared about my suffering with compassion, then the lovingkindness naturally arose.”
Also, if you sometimes don’t experience lovingkindness when you do exercises like these, it is important not to be hard on yourself, or to give in to thoughts or feelings of hopelessness that may arise. As Sharon Salzberg explains in her book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness,
“In practicing metta [lovingkindness] we do not have to make certain feelings happen. In fact, during practice we see that we feel differently at different times. Any momentary emotional tone is far less relevant than the considerable power of intention we harness as we say these phrases. As we repeat, ‘May I be happy; may all beings be happy,’ we are planting seeds by forming this powerful intention in the mind. The seed will bear fruit in its own time…”Doing metta, we plant the seeds of love, knowing that nature will take its course and in time those seeds will bear fruit. Some seeds will come to fruition quickly, some slowly, but our work is simply to plant the seeds. Every time we form the intention in the mind for our own happiness or for the happiness of others, we are doing our work; we are channeling the powerful energies of our own minds. Beyond that, we can trust the laws of nature to continually support the flowering of our love” (p.39).
“Compassion” is an English translation of the Pali term “karuna.” As Sharon Salzberg explains, karuna means “experiencing a trembling or quivering of the heart in response to a being’s pain.” The compassionate response of the heart involves engaging with pain – gently, with acceptance and strength – notbeing overwhelmed by it. Many of us have learned first hand that being overwhelmed by pain can lead to depression and despair, even anger and aggression directed against our self or others. Such conditioned responses, while understandable, especially if one was hurt as a child and has not yet learned to respond compassionately to one’s own suffering, must not be confused with compassion.
There is much to learn about developing compassion, from books like those listed below, from teachers of compassion-cultivating meditation practices, from therapists, and from many experiences in life and relationships.
Here are some compassion practices to try out and experiment with. Remember, don’t try to force things, and give the practices and yourself some time. It’s not helpful to judge yourself or give up hope – but if judgments or hopeless thoughts and feelings arise, don’t judge yourself for having them or lose hope!
- Simply repeat, with a genuine intention, a few phrases of kindness and compassion toward yourself. Some commonly used phrases are, “May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be free of suffering.” Another option is, “May I have a calm, gentle, and loving mind.” Or you can make up phrases of your own, experimenting until you find ones that work for you. After a few minutes of repeating these phrases, and continually reconnecting with the intention behind saying them, you may find that feelings of kindness and love, a state of calm, and/or other nice things are happening in your mind and body. Doing this practice for 10 to 20 minutes once a day can be very powerful, and can create a resource to draw on during particularly stressful times.
- Offer compassion to your painful feelings. A common phrase to use is, “I care about my pain.” Again, you may be surprised to discover the power of simply repeating a phrase like this with a sincere intention.
- When difficult emotions arise, try holding them like you would a crying child. Hold the fear like you would hold a fearful child. Hold the anger as you would hold an angry child. Ultimately, it’s about learning to meet each one of your thoughts and mind-body states with this unconditional love, like welcoming all your children home.
- Offer compassion to the hurt part of yourself. Bring to mind an image of yourself at a time of hurt and pain, and offer compassion to the child or adult you were then. You might use phrases like, “may you find peace, may you be free of suffering.”
- Try a practice known as “tonglen” (which involves “sending and receiving” coordinated with breathing). Picture yourself at a time of pain and hurt. On the in-breath, breathe in that person’s pain and suffering. On the out-breath send that person support and caring.
- Finally, try directing compassion to the quality of your own mind, or the part of you, that can be mean or cruel to yourself or others. Recall a time that you were hurtful to yourself or someone else (start with a relatively mild case). Notice how you were responding based on past conditioning, feeling like you were defending and protecting yourself, or justly punishing yourself or the other person. Offer compassion to that tendency to respond to pain or being wronged with anger and aggression. Offer compassion to yourself for how – like all human beings, especially those who have been deeply hurt – you can create more suffering because of your confusion and your limited ability to respond to pain compassionately.
These fundamental forms of human kindness, lovingkindness and compassion, are indeed essential companions to mindfulness. They will calm your mind and body. They will bring you peace, ease, and happiness. Like mindfulness, lovingkindess and compassion require practice and discipline, as well as patience with yourself. But the practice and patience are well worth it. Gradually but inevitably, you will find yourself having kind, loving and compassionate responses to a greater and greater range of experiences – ultimately even the most difficult and painful ones.
Resources for Learning to Be More Mindful
Today there are many options for learning to be more mindful. Which ones are best for you will depend on a variety of factors, including your current ability to regulate your emotions and where you live. One key question is whether to learn mindfulness skills first from a (mental) health professional, or from a teacher at a meditation center or Buddhist community.
I recommend that you do a little research: start with the resources below, then look into resources in your area, which could involve a series of calls to gather information and referrals from local clinics, therapists, and/or meditation centers.
Three important things to keep in mind:
- There is no substitute for actual mindfulness practice (especially in a daily, disciplined way).
- To maintain a regular practice, most people will need regular contact with a meditation teacher and/or supportive group or community.
- You may need to learn some emotion-regulation and other skills first, so if you haven’t yet, be sure to read Caution: Mindfulness Includes Pain, and Requires Readinessbefore reading this section.
Here are four free and inexpensive options for getting started on your own. Please don’t be discouraged, though, if you find that going it alone isn’t working for you.
- Mindfulness in Plain English, a book by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, includes detailed instruction on how to meditate, and is available free on the web or from Amazon.com.
- Mindfulness Meditation Practice CDs and Tapes, by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
- Meditation for Beginners, an audio CD by Jack Kornfield, another highly respected senior teacher in the Vipassana tradition.
- The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness(book plus CD), by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindal Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn; though focused on depression, this is a valuable resource for anyone struggling with a lot of sadness and suffering.
Other options for developing a mindfulness meditation practice largely on your own, but more structured than the options above, are self-study courses available from Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein, two of the most respected meditation teachers in the West.
The Vipassana Fellowship offers a 90-day online meditation course, taught by Andrew Quernmore, a meditation teacher in England.
Online meditation courses are also available from Wildmind Buddhist Meditation.
There are many workshop and retreat options available at conference and retreat centers in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other countries. If you’re interested in a workshop/retreat I’m leading in May of 2009 with my colleague Dana Moore, a therapist and yoga teacher, see Buddhism, Yoga, and Neuroscience: Concepts and Tools for Transforming Trauma and Addiction.
Another way to learn be more mindful is by participating in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program.
MBSR is very accessible to people who have no experience with meditation, and was originally developed to help people struggling with medical illnesses that were not responding to Western medicine. MBSR was developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, who by now have trained hundreds of practitioners around the world – including medical doctors, nurses, psychologists and other health-care professionals – who in turn are offering MBSR programs of their own. The Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society maintains a web page where you can search for MBSR Programs in the United States and other countries. To get a better sense of their approach, you might want to read Kabat-Zinn’s best-selling book, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life.
If you have great difficulty regulating your emotions, especially unwanted emotions and impulses to harm yourself (problems that are not uncommon among people with histories of child abuse and neglect), then you may benefit from learning mindfulness through Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).
This combined individual-and-group therapy approach, developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan to help people who can be said to suffer from “Borderline Personality Disorder,” is available at many mental health clinics and hospitals in the US and around the world. DBT incorporates training in mindfulness skills within a comprehensive program that cultivates skills of emotion tolerance, emotion regulation and interpersonal effectiveness. If you really do struggle with regulating negative emotions and self-harming impulses, please don’t let the term “personality disorder” scare you away: this treatment can be extremely effective at helping people who have not yet had the opportunity to learn essential emotion regulation skills. To learn more, read Dr. Cindy Sanderson’s excellent Dialectical Behavior Therapy – Frequently Asked Questions.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Buddhist tradition that has cultivated and preserved mindfulness practices for over 2500 years, and tapping into communities of Westerners practicing mindfulness and other meditation practices from this great spiritual tradition, there are many organizations and centers in the United States and around the world. Two highly respected retreat centers in the U.S. that teach mindfulness meditation are the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. The IMS web site has two pages of links to web sites of other centers, possibly one near you (for the second page of links, follow the “more centers” link on the first page).
For some people, standard sitting and walking versions of mindfulness meditation are not appropriate, at least initially. Focusing on the breath might cause intense anxiety to arise, or scatter attention, leaving one “ungrounded.” Or a more physically active and movement-oriented approach might be a better match. (However, some just assume “I could never sit still and meditate for half an hour!” then actually discover that sitting meditation is not only possible for them, but quite beneficial.) Also, more active and movement-based approaches can be extremely helpful if you don’t feel at home in your body and often lack awareness of bodily sensations and needs. If so, Iyengar yoga or Qigong practices like Tai Chi may be great ways to begin cultivating mindfulness. Unlike some popular yoga methods, Iyengar strongly emphasizes mindfulness of bodily and breathing sensations. Iyengar Yoga Resources includes a very clear description (What is Iyengar yoga?) and a directory of Iyengar yoga centers worldwide. The National Qigong (Chi Kung) Association explains What is Qigong and allows you to search for teachersnear you.
Finally, increasing numbers of therapists and counselors are also mindfulness meditators, and many incorporate teaching of mindfulness skills into therapy. Therapists who are meditators will also tend to know about other local options for learning mindfulness – and just a couple of consultation sessions with such a therapist could be extremely helpful for sorting out your options. A few phone calls to local therapists or clinics might be enough to find such a therapist or counselor in your area.
Recommended Books, CDs/Tapes/MP3s, and Articles
Most of the recommendations here are for materials specifically focused on the cultivation of mindfulness, lovingkindness and compassion as originally taught in the Buddhist Vipassana tradition.This tradition’s methods and concepts have been incorporated into the scientifically supported treatments of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression.
Work by teachers and writers from Tibetan and other Buddhist traditions are recommended too, and a few key scholarly and research papers are listed and linked to as well.
Finally, first I recommend books for everyone, then books specifically written for therapists.
Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana – Free on the web or Amazon.com
The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Thich Nhat Hanh
What the Buddha Taught, by Walpola Rahula
Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom, by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius
Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom, by Joseph Goldstein
Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body, by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, 2011.
The Compassionate Mind: A New Approach to Life’s Challenges, by Paul Gilbert
Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, by Kristin Neff, 2011.
Finding Life After Trauma: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Heal from Post-Traumatic Stress and Trauma-Related Problems, by Victoria Follette and Jacqueline Pistorello, 2007.
The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions, by Christopher Germer
Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation, by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield
A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, by Jack Kornfield (also available on audio CD)
Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha, by Tara Brach
Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, by Christopher Germer, Ronald Siegel, and Paul Fulton (Editors). Written for therapists, but accessible to those familiar with therapy concepts and principles.
The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness (includes CD), by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindal Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn
Peaceful Mind: Using Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Psychology to Overcome Depression, by John McQuaid and Paula Carmona
Mindful Recovery: A Spiritual Path to Healing from Addiction, by Thomas and Beverly Bien
The Lost Art of Compassion: Discovering the Practice of Happiness in the Meeting of Buddhism and Psychology, by Lorne Ladner
The Force of Kindness: Change Your Life with Love & Compassion, and Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, by Sharon Salzberg
Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living, by Pema Chodron
Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, by Myla Kabat-Zinn and Jon Kabat-Zinn
Buddhism for Mothers: A Calm Approach to Caring for Yourself and Your Children, by Sarah Napthali
Mindful Parenting: Meditations, Verses, and Visualizations for a More Joyful Life, by Scott Rogers
As noted above, for some people, including those with histories of major hurt and betrayal in childhood, mindfulness practices will not be helpful until a foundation of self-regulation skills has been established (and before then could even increase suffering). The self-help books below are excellent, though professional help may be necessary too.
Also as noted above, some people need to take medication for severe depression, anxiety, posttraumatic or other symptoms. Medicate or Meditate?is an excellent article on this issue, including potential benefits of anti-depressants for meditators who suffer from major depression.
Books Specifically for Therapists
Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, edited by Christopher Germer, Ronald Siegel, and Paul Fulton.
Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention for Addictive Behaviors: A Clinician’s Guide, by Sarah Bowen, Nela Chawla, and G. Alan Marlatt, 2010.
Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body, by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, 2011.
ACT Made Simple: An Easy-to-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, by Russ Harris, 2009.
Buddhist Psychology on Western Ground: Reconciling Eastern Ideals and Western Psychology, by Harvey Aronson
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse, by Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale
Mindfulness-Based Treatment Approaches: Clinician’s Guide to Evidence Base and Applications, edited by Ruth Baer
The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician’s Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration, by Daniel Siegel, 2010.
Acceptance and Mindfulness-Based Approaches to Anxiety: Conceptualization and Treatment, edited by Susan Orsillo and Lizabeth Roemer
Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings, edited by Seth Segall (summary, blurbs, contents)
Mindfulness Meditation Practice CDs and Tapes, by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Meditation for Beginners, by Jack Kornfield
A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, by Jack Kornfield (also available as a book)
Loving-Kindness Meditation: Learning to Love Through Insight Meditation, by Sharon Salzberg
Awakening Compassion: Meditation Practice for Difficult Times, by Pema Chodron
Healing Trauma: Restoring the Wisdom of the Body, by Dr. Peter Levine.
While not focused on cultivating mindfulness or lovingkindness, these audio tapes can be very helpful for understanding and working with overwhelming emotional and bodily states experienced by those dealing with the effects of traumatic experiences. Like Levine’s book, Waking the Tiger, these tapes have some great exercises, including how to “pendulate” or move back and forth between experiences of pain or fear and safety, which can help to provide a foundation for mindfulness practice.
Chaos to Freedom Skills Training Videos, by Marsha Linehan
Dr. Linehan created Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a powerful treatment for cultivating self-regulation and relationship skills. These videotapes teach very practical and effective skills, and one is specifically focused on mindfulness: This One Moment: Skills for Everyday Mindfulness: Achieving awareness of what really is.
Dharma Seed offers videos and audiotapes of talks by Western teachers in the Buddhist Vipassana tradition, including Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, and their Talkspage offers free talks in mp3 or streaming audio formats.
Audio Dharma offers free mp3 and streaming audio files of talks by Western teachers in the Buddhist Vipassana and Zen traditions, including an Introduction to Meditation Series.
Wildmind has mindfulness and lovingkindness meditation guides.
Book Plus CDs/Tapes Combinations
As mentioned above, for those who are very self-motivated and self-disciplined, there are self-study courses offered by two of the most respected teachers of mindfulness meditation in the West, Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein. If you do go this route, I encourage you also to seek out communities of other mindfulness meditators in your area, because the support of others on the path is extremely important.
For those who are academically inclined and have access to college and university libraries, a few important and informative articles are listed here. Certainly there are many others, and increasing numbers are being published in reputable psychology and medical journals. But these are a good start for those who are interested.
Baer, R.A. (2003). Mindfulness training as a clinical intervention: A conceptual and empirical review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 125-143.
This article is followed by several commentaries, by Jon Kabat-Zinn and several clinical and research psychologists who are integrating mindfulness practices into therapy interventions.
Baer, R.A., Smith, G.T., & Allen, K.B. (2004). Assessment of mindfulness by self-report: The Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills. Assessment, 11, 191-206.
This article introduces a self-report measure of four “mindfulness skills” taught in Dialectical Behavior Therapy and other interventions, and presents evidence on relationships between these mindfulness skills and aspects of personality and mental health, including psychological symptoms and emotional intelligence.
Bishop, S.R. et al. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11, 230-241.
This article is followed by several commentaries by researchers and clinical psychologists who are integrating mindfulness practices into therapy interventions.
Brown, K.W., & Ryan, R.M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 822-48.
This article introduces a unidimensional self-report measure of mindfulness, and presents results from several studies suggesting relationships between mindfulness and both physical and psychological well-being, including self-regulated behavior and positive emotional states.
Farb, N.A.S, et al. (2007). Attending to the present: Mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2, 313-322.
Nice study, brilliant paper. Shows that just 8 weeks of practicing mindfulness meditation can not only increase the capacity for mindful awareness of the present moment, but alter brain activity in ways that support such awareness. A passage from the paper’s discussion:
“Consistent with a dual-mode hypothesis of self-awareness, these results suggest a fundamental neural dissociation in modes of self-representation that support distinct, but habitually integrated, aspects of self-reference: (i) higher order self-reference characterised by neural processes supporting awareness of a self that extends across time and (ii) more basic momentary self-reference characterised by neural changes supporting awareness of the psychological present. The latter, represented by evolutionary older neural regions, may represent a return to the neural origins of identity, in which self-awareness in each moment arises from the integration of basic interoceptive and exteroceptive bodily sensory processes… In contrast, the narrative mode of self-reference may represent an overlearned mode of information processing that has become automatic through practice, consistent with established findings on training-induced automaticity.”
Farb, N.A.S, et al. (2010). Minding one’s emotions: Mindfulness training alters the neural expression of sadness. Emotion, 10, 25-33.
Another nice study and brilliant paper by Farb and colleagues. Shows that just 8 weeks of practicing mindfulness meditation can enable people to experience the bodily sensations of sadness without getting lost in self-referential verbal thoughts about it, and provides functional brain imaging evidence that corresponding greater activation of brain regions involved in somatic experience of sadness, along with less activation of regions involved in self-referential cognitive elaboration of sadness, are associated with less depressive symptoms. Key passages from the paper’s discussion:
“The neural patterns observed in the present study suggest that the reduced emotional interference associated with mindfulness may stem from the objectification of emotion as innocuous sensory information rather than as an affect-laden threat to self requiring a regulatory response…. Compared to [healthy] controls, effortful down regulation of sadness via [cognitive] reappraisal is rated as more difficult by patients with mood disorder and is shown to be less successful in decreasing limbic activation. In the presence of these disrupted neural circuits, especially in at-risk populations, strategies for generating positive affective appraisals may paradoxically reactivate existing negative appraisals…. Disengaging reappraisal of negative affective content, in favor of engaging attention toward sensory integration, would allow for the generation of novel affective appraisals rather than attempting to manipulate an existing negative cognitive set.”
Hayes, A.M., & Feldman, G. (2004). Clarifying the construct of mindfulness in the context of emotion regulation and the process of change in therapy. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11, 255-262.
This article presents a stage-oriented view of how mindfulness training can be incorporated into psychotherapy. In the first stage, mindfulness is stabilizing and promotes emotion regulation and symptom reduction, and the second stage involves “moving into suffering and difficult emotions with a foundation of mindfulness, and transforming the destructive emotions.” This approach is consistent with the “stage-oriented model” of treatment, which is the state of the art in the treatment of psychological trauma.
Lazar, S.W., et al. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. NeuroReport, 16, 1893-1897.
This study compared 20 people with extensive meditation experience (but normal lives involving work and family) to matched controls. The scientists found that the more meditatation people had done (years of regular practice and intensive “retreats”), the thicker were brain areas involved in monitoring bodily sensations and feelings. These results not only suggest that meditation practice can alter the structure of one’s brain, but fit with readily observable personal experiences of how mindfulness meditation increases bodily and emotional awareness (which in turn fosters self-understanding and freedom). Another interesting finding: the meditation group showed no “age-related thinning” of cortical areas known to be involved in the integration thoughts and feelings.
Neff, K.D. (2004). Self-compassion and psychological well-being. Constructivism in the Human Sciences, 9, 27-37.
This article explains what is meant by self-compassion, including the traditional Buddhist emphasis on how compassion for the self is a necessary foundation for being compassionate toward others. It also discusses why self-compassion is more helpful and more achievable than self-esteem, and evidence for its relationship to psychological well-being. (Other articles on self-compassion by Dr. Kristin Neff, and her scale for measuring it, are here.)
Lutz, A., et al. (2004). Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 101, 16369-16373.
Published in one of the most prestigious science journals, this article is highly technical. It reports evidence that meditation practices which cultivate lovingkindness and compassion can dramatically transform people’s brains.
Links to Other Resources on Mindfulness and Meditation
The four links below are to respected Vipassana meditation centers and organizations. Each has a links page with many other resources.
Insight Meditation Society – Barre, Massachusetts
Spirit Rock Meditation Center – Woodacre, California (near San Francisco)
Gaia House – Devon, United Kingdom
Vipassana Fellowship – Online meditation courses
The Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy – A group of Boston-area psychotherapists who are meditators, “dedicated to the education and training of mental health professionals interested in the integration of mindfulness meditation and psychotherapy, for the purpose of enhancing the therapy relationship, the quality of clinical interventions, and the well-being of the therapist.” Provides workshops around the country and online training options.
Mindfulness Research Guide – Site by USC graduate student David Black has an extensive and up-to-date list of research publications, information about assessment instruments, links to the sites of treatment and research centers, and a monthly newsletter on current mindfulness research.
Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society – Founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn and colleagues, this organization developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and has trained people to run MBSR programs around the world.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy – Site by Dr. Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale, who have developed and researched Mindfulness-Based Cogntive Therapy for Depression. About MBCT discusses the nature of depression and how mindfulness can prevent relapse.
Iyengar Yoga Resources – As explained above (Resources for Learning to Be More Mindful), this yoga method can be a good way to cultivate mindfulness for people who need a physically active and movement oriented approach and/or don’t (yet) feel at home in their bodies.
Self-Compassion – Site of Dr. Kristin Neff, focused on “a healthier way of relating to yourself,” includes scholarly research and exercises for how to increase self-compassion.
The Center for Mindful Eating – This is a “forum” for “professionals who wish to help their clients develop healthier relationships with food and eating, and to bring eating into balance with other important aspects of life.” The resources on this site are helpful for non-professionals too.
Finally, I want to recommend the website of my colleague, Amita Schmidt. A long-term meditator and teacher in the Vipassana tradition, as well as a therapist, Amita generously helped me create the original version of this page. She lives in Hawaii and offers spiritual support and mindfulness coaching by phone to people around the world.