My personal experience of mindfulness was cultivated through a ten-day silent meditation retreat at a Vipassana meditation centre. The retreat was essentially a course conducted in silence; without any interpersonal interaction, and involved extended periods of meditation practice. All daily activities were performed in silence and used as opportunities to practice mindfulness. The following paper is an attempt to create meaning of the experience using information on the philosophy behind Vipassana and Mindfulness-Based Therapy (MBT). It goes on to explore how the meaning made from this experience is likely to inform my future mental health practice.
A Personal Mindfulness Experience
‘Focus on your breath’, the teacher would say; ‘focus on the sensation of breathing’. It seemed simple enough, but I could not help but get caught up in thought: ‘I am not good at this’; ‘my back hurts’; ‘when do we go back to our room?’ ‘How are the others doing?’ Everyone else seemed to be in perfect posture. Forty men and women on the way to enlightenment, and there I was stuck with a sore back and thoughts about my inability to pay attention, past trauma, and all my failures in life. Thinking, thinking, thinking. My thoughts were so loud. They turned themselves into tiny pins puncturing my head and telling me to leave. ‘I should leave… this was a bad idea. Maybe this is not for me. Maybe I am not the person I thought I was…’. The teacher went on to say the same thing he had been saying: ‘focus on the breath, on the sensation of breathing…’. The first 3 days involved this struggle with the ‘concentration meditation’ called ‘anapanha’. This is a technique aimed at developing concentration and calm through focus on the breath (Siegl et al., 2009) and preparing the mind for the Vipassana mindfulness technique (Vipassana, 2016). The instruction was to notice when my mind had wandered, and then gently bring it back to the breath (Siegl et al., 2009).
From day 4 onwards, the instruction for meditation shifted from ‘anapanha’ to Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation. We were to scan the body – noticing whatever predominated in awareness from moment to moment (Siegl et al., 2009). This silent observation of internal phenomenon allowed focused exploration on the ever-changing experience of being human. For two whole hours at a time, I noticed my bodily sensations ‘arising and passing away’ (Vipassana Meditation, 2016). Initially, the burden of my body felt like dead weight; solidified sensations; hands, feet, a head… then sounds, taste, touch, pressure, heat – subtler sensations previously lost to a lack of awareness. I tried hard not to react to any pain or discomfort that arose. Even if a mosquito was feasting on my body, I was not to react – but to ‘observe objectively’, knowing that the discomfort would eventually pass (Vipassana Meditation, 2016).
At some point, I finally surrendered to the process. Suddenly, behind closed eyes, something began to happen. It was as if someone turned up the volume of my heartbeat and sounds that were absent before. Deep, penetrating vibrations pounded my body – a body. I was dissolving; my sense of self almost entirely evaporating. ‘Am I hallucinating?’ I sat still. Thoughts were mere images, floating through my mind’s eye – appearing like clouds on a sunny day. I had no attachment to them – simply watching them float by. I was in a state of fearlessness, but also, without happiness (at least the way happiness is usually perceived). It was entirely new – something that just ‘was’. ‘Wait a second’. A deep and profound awareness catapulted throughout the room. ‘There is no me’, I thought. I felt at peace. I did not want it to end…’. Then came the clinging, the identifier, the ‘me’, the story… I felt my sense of identity come back as I screamed inside my head ‘don’t go! Please stay this way!’ The more I clung, the more it disappeared… till I was back on the cushion identifying with every thought process. ‘Are other people experiencing this?’ Everyone looked at ease, completely unaware of what just happened. I touched my hand to my cheeks to find tears. The girl named Maria was back. However, things felt profoundly different.
Personal Analysis of Vipassana Mindfulness Experience
The concept of ‘mindfulness’ is based on the Buddhist meditation technique of Vipassana (Delgado-Pastor et al., 2013). The two key tenets of the Vipassana mindfulness technique are ‘awareness’ and ‘acceptance’ (Ray, 2016; Siegl et al., 2009). These keys tenets are what cultivated an ability for me to focus my attention on my inner processes and experiences in the present moment, and to simply observe and accept (rather than judge or avoid) those streams of thought (Goenka and Hart, 2000). It took practice to develop awareness and continually bring my mind back to the present moment (Ray, 2016). As highlighted by Siegl et al. (2009), the first few days of such a retreat are ‘like being trapped in a phone booth with a lunatic.’ My thoughts seemed to be louder than ever because I could not talk – and had not for days. I got to vividly see how the mind – my mind – creates its own suffering, despite being in an environment where all my needs were tended to (Siegl et al., 2009). I discovered how difficult it is to be fully present and how alarmingly active and restless my mind was – spinning stories about how well I was doing and comparing myself to others (Siegl et al., 2009). I cultivated insight into the nature of my personal conditioning (Siegl et al., 2009), witnessed my tendency for escapism, and realised the unrealistic expectations I held that only lead to frustration (Goenka and Hart, 2000).
The practice of Vipassana merely harnesses observation to explicate personal experience. Through this observation, memories of undigested emotional events surfaced, along with elaborate fantasies about the future (Siegl et al., 2009). I learned that I am not my thoughts (Goenka and Hart, 2000) – which gave me a sense of choice of whether or not to identify with the narratives playing out in my mind. By carefully observing things ‘as they are’ – whatever has manifested itself and is experienced within the framework of one’s body – one explores the reality within oneself (Fleischman, 2005; Goenka and Hart, 2000; Vipassana Meditation, 2016). This reality encompasses the physical and mental structure; the combination of what we call “I, me, mine” which we generate a tremendous amount of attachment to, and as a result become miserable (Goenka and Hart, 2000; Vipassana Meditation, 2016).
The experience helped me learn how to ease into an uncomfortable space; how to sit with change, uncertainty, disappointment and pain – all the while knowing that it will not last (Goenka and Hart, 2000) and that it may be insignificant in the greater scheme of things. It was incredible that, by simply surrendering to and accepting whatever was in the present moment, I obtained agency over it. I exercised a choice to not take life too seriously. Highly transformative insights were gained, and brought much value to my life. The experience was one which truly shifted my entire perspective of life. It fostered an awareness of the universality of suffering and helped me see more clearly the interconnection with all existence, and connect so much more compassionately to myself and others.
My experiential account of what impermanence felt like left me curious. I was aware that the experience of ‘nonself’ might be construed as pathological by Western psychological standards (Dor-Ziderman et al. 2013; Fulton and Siegel 2005) and wondered whether I had lost my mind. However, the meditation teacher later helped me make sense of the experience in light of Buddhist teachings, which consider the experience to have been one of transcendental insight and a positive sign of spiritual progress (Mahasi 2016). The teacher was surprised that I got to have an experience usually only obtained by advanced mindfulness practitioners (e.g. Dor-Ziderman et al. 2013). I myself was surprised. Having an advanced practitioner explain the process to me helped me integrate the experience in a way where it was no longer frightening. In fact, research suggests that incorporating Buddhist teachings and ethics into mindfulness-based interventions may enhance understanding and implementation of meditation techniques (Elicit et al., 2020). Though, this may not be for everyone, it certainly helped me.
Empirical Evidence and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
The philosophy behind the practice of mindfulness has been shifting into mainstream science and medicine as a pivotal therapeutic technique. As scientific research is catching up with meditative mindfulness practice, it is finding its way into psychotherapy (Siegl et al., 2009). It’s emergence in Western Psychological culture is attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts medical school, who during the late 1970s, studied mindfulness under several Buddhist teachers and went on to develop a program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to treat chronic pain (Kabat-Zinn & Hanh, 2009). Kabat-Zinn observed how patients would try to avoid their pain, and how that avoidance would lead to deeper distress. Practicing mindfulness proved to be a more successful approach (Kabat-Zinn & Hanh, 2009). It has now been integrated into “third wave” behaviour therapy interventions, such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (Hunot et al, 2014).
These current third wave interventions have sought new strategies by which to achieve change (Segal 2002 as cited in Hunot et al, 2014). They take therapy beyond focusing on stimulus and response – in classical and operant conditioning – or the rational challenging of thoughts which is a principal feature of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) interventions – to mindfulness and acceptance-based therapy (Hayes et al, 2004 as cited by Siegl et al., 2009; Longmore 2007 as cited in Hunot et al, 2014). By using strategies such as mindfulness exercises, acceptance of unwanted thoughts and feelings, and cognitive diffusion (stepping back and seeing thoughts as just thoughts), third wave strategies aim to elicit change in the thinking process (Hunot et al, 2014). They are delivered in an experiential manner, rather than the didactic manner featured in traditional therapies (Hayes 2006 as cited in Hunot et al, 2014) and encourage active practice of ideal ways of solving problems, of interacting with others, and participating in society (Fleischman, 2005).
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is increasingly gaining in popularity (Teasdale, 2011 as cited in Hunot et al, 2014). There is a growing body of evidence supporting the clinical effectiveness of mindfulness and meditation (Delgado-Pastor et al., 2013; Hunot et al, 2014). The effects of mindfulness training, through Buddhist mindfulness practices such as Vipassana meditation or MBCT, have been shown to have a positive impact on cognitive and emotional processing (Tang et al. 2015) and psychological well-being (Eberth and Sedlmeier 2012; Sedlmeier et al. 2012). It has been found that training the mind through meditation literally changes the structure and functioning of the brain (Begley, 2007). Brain imaging and neuroplasticity are now able to show this change (Siegel, 2007). For example, the mental activity of meditation has been found to activate and enlarge specific regions of the brain, such as the areas associated with introspection and attention (Sara Lazar et al., 2005 as cited by Siegl et al., 2009). Even more dramatic changes have been found in the brains of people who practice meditation for much longer – such as Tibetan monks who have over 10,000 hours of meditation practice (Lutz, Grelschar, Rawlings, Richard, & Davidson, 2004).
Mindfulness training has also been found to be effective in treating a wide range of conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression (Brantley, 2005; Chiesa and Serretti 2009; Davidson et al, 2016; Hargus et al., 2010; Khoury et al., 2013; Williams et al., 2007). It has been suggested, however, that people with acute depression (who suffer from intensely negative thinking and low concentration) may find it difficult to fully participate in MBCT (Segal et al, 2002, as cited in Hunot et al, 2014). Nonetheless, mindfulness meditation has been used to treat incarcerated individuals (Ariel and Menahemi, 1997; Chandiramani, et al, 1998) with all sorts of issues, such as Post Traumatic Stress (PTSD) symptoms and substance use disorders (Ariel and Menahemi, 1997; Bowen et al., 2006; Chandiramani et al., 1998; Marlatt. et al., 2004; Simpson et al., 2007). Mindfulness training has proven to have positive effects on behavioural addiction (Chiesa and Serretti 2014; Leigh et al, 2005; Shonin et al. 2014; Siegl et al., 2009, p.11), chronic pain (Hilton et al. 2017), anger and hostile behaviour (Shonin et al. 2013) as well as to facilitate adaptive behaviours, such as improved job performance (Van Gordon et al. 2014).
Meditation increases immunity and feelings of well-being (Davidson et al., 2003 as cited by Siegl et al., 2009). It helps to cultivate emotional regulation (Luberto et al, 2012; Thayer and Lane, 2000) – gifting clients with the self-efficacy to cope with, transform, and come to psychological acceptance of all kinds of inevitable human suffering (Herbert et al., 2009; Kabat-Zinn, 1982; Teasdale & Chaskalson, 2011). Research has found that meditation can alter psychosomatic diseases, as well as basic functions like weight, heartrate, or alertness (Fleischman, 2005). Moreover, mindfulness gains tend to be maintained after treatment and at follow-up (Hofmann et al., 2010, Khoury et al., 2013).
Findings recommend that a psychotherapist needs to experience mindfulness in order to integrate it into their clinical practice and provide effective MBCT treatment (Grepmair et al., 2007; Khoury et al, 2013; Pradhanet al., 2007; Siegel et al., 2009). Seeing that I have experienced an intensive mindfulness experience, I should be able to integrate the insights gained into my work with clients. As a therapist, my understanding of psychopathology and the causes of human suffering would be informed by result of having observed my own mind in meditation practice and having gathered insights on the arbitrary and conditioned nature of thought, the counterproductive effects of trying to avoid difficult experience, and the painful consequences of trying to buttress a sense of separate self. These factors are all likely to have an impact on how I might approach my client’s problems.
As my experience showed me, mindfulness works when we are willing to direct attention to our suffering. This does not mean that we need to get caught in our personal histories, but learn how to address that history (going to the root cause; the most unconscious level of the mind) so that we can actually free ourselves from the big and painful “blocks” of the past (Kornfield, 2012). Such healing work is often best done in a therapeutic relationship with another person (Kornfield, 2012). My experience at the centre was an internal one, filled with many insights. It was followed by externalisation and integrating of those silent realizations, with help from the teacher. Similarly, in psychology, a deep and therapeutic relationship with another person can help one to process their experiential reality (Jungers & Gregorie, 2013).
I can see myself incorporating mindfulness into my work in many ways. Sometimes the application may be hidden from view to the client, such as when I am practicing meditation myself. Meditation can help me train my brain to be more effective in my own personal life and therapeutic practice; better allowing me to help my clients be more effective in their own lives. I can incorporate a brief meditation into my work day, perhaps between sessions with clients. This will help to sharpen my skills as a more competent practitioner. It is ethically important to ensure my competence through continuously understanding, developing and nurturing myself in order to best help my clients (Jungers & Gregorie, 2013; Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2001). I would better be able to experience the sight, sound, and emotional presence of my clients during psychotherapy, the physical experience of sitting face-to-face with them, and how my mind reacts to their words or their presence. The practice of mindfulness and meditation are a form of self-care which can help me prevent caretaker burnout and maximise my personal and professional competency (Jungers & Gregorie, 2013). Furthermore, with focus and awareness, I will be better able to catch and deal with uncomfortable emotions that may arise in me due to countertransference. The process of looking deep into oneself is often a confronting and challenging one (Karlsson, 2018). However, to work with people, we have to do our own work. The more self-awareness I have, the more I am able to help my future clients know themselves and grow.
To the meditator, everything is a mirror in which the self is revealed (Fleischman, 2005). When one’s self is revealed to them; when they work through and process their own hurt in life, they are better equipped to help others manage this process. Psychology also encompasses this integral view of the therapist as a mirror to their clients (Jungers & Gregorie, 2013). I see meditation practice as me polishing my mirror, for others to see themselves clearer. Therapists who practice mindfulness are better able to attend to and empathise with a patient’s experience (Siegl et al., 2009). Furthermore, feelings of needing to “fix” problems are likely to diminish as the therapist cultivates the capacity to be with another’s pain (Siegl et al., 2009). The client may, therefore, benefit from my increased capacity to be emotionally present with them in sessions (Siegl et al., 2009).
My techniques may sometimes be more explicit, such as incorporating or customising mindfulness-based psychotherapy to the client’s particular diagnosis, personality style, or life circumstance (Germer et al., 2005; Siegl et al., 2009). Different patients might require more emphasis on one element or another. Some people might benefit most from ‘acceptance’, others might be helped by focusing on ‘present moment sensations’ or greater ‘awareness’ (Siegl et al., 2009). I could apply mindfulness to a core therapeutic modality (such as psychodynamic or humanistic psychotherapy) in order to help the patient be more accepting and aware of his or her experience in the present moment (Siegl et al., 2009). It may even involve a psycho-educational component, whereby I would teach the client some techniques (such as breath work). For better efficacy, clients would have to ensure attendance to treatment and actually commit to practicing meditation (Carmody & Baer, 2008; de Vibe et al., 2012; Khoury et al.; Toneatto & Nguyen, 2007).
Buddhist Affiliations of Mindfulness
Many may be averse to involving themselves with mindfulness – especially if it seems to clash with their own religious, spiritual or personal views. The connection to the tradition of Buddhism can be explicit and problematic if declared alongside religious sectarianism. (Big Think, 2014). However, the practice of meditation does not align with a powerful external saviour (Fleischman, 2005; Vipassana Meditation, 2016). Rather, it teaches that liberation from human suffering lies in capability of each individual (Fleischman, 2005; Goenka and Hart, 2000; Vipassana Meditation, 2016). Although it may incorporate Buddhist philosophy, mindfulness meditation (and meditation itself) are not religious practice in any right (Goenka and Hart, 2000). The practice is more accurately described as an ethical psychology than as a religion (Fleischman, 2005; Vipassana Meditation, 2016). Furthermore, it is as much an activity for the mind as physical exercise is for the body (Big Think, 2014). In my practice, I would keep open communication with clients in order to ascertain whether they would be open to mindfulness practice, and if it could be beneficial to them.
To submerge oneself in Vipassana practice all day, every day, for ten days is an intense experience. I am grateful to have been exposed to the teachings of the Vipassana mindfulness meditation technique and to have learned the many insights about myself that I did throughout that experience. Further, I am pleased to be completing my training as a helping professional amidst the fertile convergence of modern scientific psychology with the ancient Buddhist psychological tradition. MBT offers a holistic approach to the main modalities in psychotherapy. Its therapeutically soundness encourages me to implement it in my work as a helping professional. By all means, it is not for everyone; nor is it a magical solution to permanently eradicate all life’s problems. For me, it opened up a space in myself I can always go back to when life becomes too overwhelming. Through personal mindfulness and meditation practice, I hope to increase my competency as a helping professional. For clients who are open to it, I am able to share some techniques and ethical philosophy behind mindfulness. I hope to bring awareness to my clients of the sense of agency they have in the midst of all which cannot be controlled in life; that everyone has a choice to react, or respond objectively.
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