I gave a talk yesterday at 4 a.m. on emotion-focused mindfulness therapy to One Mindful Breath, a secular Buddhist group in Wellington, New Zealand, at the invitation of Ramsey Margolis. It was 8 p.m. their time. I was labouring under the misconception that they were in Auckland which Ramsey freed me at the end of the session.
Ramsey had asked me to make the talk accessible by keeping it as free as possible of psychotherapeutic and Buddhist jargon. I focused on how emotions are adaptive and how to combine nonjudgmental awareness with responding differentially to emotions depending on whether they are helpful or unhelpful.
“You have to be somebody before you can be nobody,” Jack Engler wrote back in the 1970s. In his influential (2003) paper, “Being Somebody and Being Nobody,” he explained he had coined the phrase to emphasize how engaging in mindfulness meditation requires certain ego strengths and capacities:
There is nothing like a safe, empathic, therapeutic relationship to help people learn to become aware of, express and make sense of feelings. This is foreign terrain for lots of us and it makes sense that people need help and support in learning how to do this. A study indicated collaborative emotional processing with a therapist is associated with effective therapy outcomes in both interpersonal therapy (IPT) and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), while the other form of therapist engagement, characterized as “educative/directive,” was not (Coombs, Coleman, & Jones, 2002). Collaborative emotional processes were more often present in IPT than CBT.
We can be ferocious in the way we try to get things right and most of us bring this tendency into meditation, attempting to suppress feelings of vulnerability and to push forward to meet our own or others’ rigid expectations. But there is no one correct way to be human or to meditate — life and meditation are much more interesting than that.
Emotion-focused mindfulness therapy encourages us to explore navigating meditation and life oriented to our values and what works. Carl Rogers taught that if we respond to people with empathy, prizing, and genuineness, people have deep capacities for orienting to their own growth and direction in life. People benefit from a sense of safety and encouragement that enables them to turn inward to the implicit feel of their embodied experiencing and to make sense of what they encounter there, integrating feeling, reflection and sensory experiencing. We are then better able to sort out what we really feel about situations and what really matters to us in a way that feels empowering and we can carry into the rest of our life.
The Sinai Health System’s newsletter, This Week at Sinai Health, shared an article today on my work developing emotion-focused mindfulness therapy on the hospital website:
Mount Sinai social worker develops innovative approach to using mindfulness in therapy Corporate Communications, Sinai Health System, March 20, 2019
Bill Gayner, a social worker who works as a mental health clinician in Mount Sinai Hospital’s Psychiatry Department, has developed a unique approach to mindfulness-based therapy. It’s called emotion-focused mindfulness therapy (EFMT) and in February, Bill published his first paper about it in the journal Person-Centred and Experiential Psychotherapies…
When the Buddha sat down in the meditation that led to his awakening, he was plagued by self-doubt. The Buddhist scriptures portray this mythologically as Mara, the evil one, sending his daughters and an army of demons to disrupt the Buddha’s meditation with grasping, hesitation and fear. Who do you think you are to try to awaken?
We tend to spend a lot of time either preoccupied with thinking to the exclusion of feelings or getting too immersed in and buffeted and driven by difficult emotions and thoughts. Mindful experiencing provides an alternative, coming alive in a spacious, grounded way to the implicit, embodied feel of what is happening, what Jon Kabat-Zinn has referred to as “the bloom of the present moment.” This creates optimal conditions for reflecting on and making sense of feelings in order to better navigate and appreciate our lives, but, as I described in my paper (Gayner, 2019), mainstream clinical mindfulness does not specify or encourage this. In contrast, emotion-focused mindfulness therapy makes use of these optimal conditions to facilitate experiential and emotional processing. The heart of this is experiential focusing, developed by Eugene Gendlin in collaboration with Carl Rogers in the mid-twentieth century and subsequently integrated into emotion-focused therapy. Experiential focusing is a way of deepening our experiencing by coming alive to and making sense of implicit feelings and carrying forward their empowering implications into the rest of our life.
Softening and opening with kindness and gentle curiosity towards our inner vulnerabilities and pain is unfamiliar territory for many of us, because we didn’t learn how to do this growing up. Many of us had parents who didn’t know how to calm themselves down, let alone how to calm us down. Our parents may not have known how to identify their own emotions, let alone help us identify, express and sort through our feelings in productive ways. Just this, let alone add emotional, physical or sexual abuse or neglect at home or elsewhere, and, rather than learning to identify and make sense of their feelings, kids learn to suppress them by tightening up their muscles, holding their breath and coming up into their heads.
If you find yourself struggling or beating yourself up in meditation, it can be helpful to remember to cultivate self-compassion. In my post, Emotion-Focused Mindfulness Meditation, I described how Kristin Neff highlights three factors in cultivating self-compassion: trying to be kind to yourself; remembering our common humanity (that whatever you are struggling with, many other people struggle with it as well); and cultivating mindfulness of your body, feelings and thoughts.