Marian Platta writes in her (2018) article “Therapists Need Therapy Too” in Vice: “Acknowledging and accepting what haunts me has helped me become more empathetic towards my patients’ emotional suffering.” Many of us including myself were not aware the extent to which we were drawn to be a psychotherapist because of our own inner pain and unaddressed need for healing. I remember early in my career when the penny dropped for me, triggered by a client’s childhood trauma, and I realized to my surprise, oh, I have to go sit in a waiting room like the one outside my office and see someone like me. This led to many years of psychotherapy with someone much more experienced in trauma therapy than I was at that point in my career, a process that was deeply healing and which deepened my capacity to provide psychotherapy.
What strikes me is, as healing as psychotherapy can be, it can also be an introduction into a way of life where we continue to gradually cultivate making deeper sense of our feelings and motivations and engaging in life in a more fulfilling way, a humbling, lifelong and daily cultivation of a more genuine relationship with ourself, others and the world. I find cultivating meditation in a community of practice invaluable in this process, but we need to take care that our roles as mindfulness-based clinicians, teachers or trainers do not leave us isolated by over-idealization and lack of proper support.
“When you know the place where you are, practice begins,” says Dogen. One could say that every stage of Buddhist practice, including realization itself, forms and deepens a covenant with the Earth. We bear witness to the Earth by learning to really be here, and when reality breaks through and shakes us to the core, it is the Earth reciprocating that intimate gesture of custodianship. It is one elemental act of kindness being met by another. The testimonies [in this article] from Native American and Buddhist teachers bring to light some of the affinities of Buddhist practice with the old, native Earth-based traditions and their protocols for creating and tending good relations with the Earth, the source of life.” (Travis, Duran, Wahpepah, Fox Davis, Allione, & Murphy, 2005)
This (Spring 2018) article, which Tricycle magazine is resharing through its multimedia platforms, by C.W. Huntington, Jr., a translator of Sanskrit and Tibetan Buddhism, raises interesting questions, but is hampered by the way the author treats Buddhism and psychotherapy as singular entities, making sweeping over-generalizations about both. The categories of Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism have as many or more differences within them as they do between them. (By the way, most of these various approaches claim to be the original teachings of the Buddha, but academics agree such claims are fideist (based on faith or revelation) rather than on historical evidence.)
In exploring integrating self-compassion more deeply into mindfulness-based interventions, I have learned that compassion is one of a number of overlapping and deeply inter-related factors, including empathy, congruence (transparency), positive regard and warmth, and responsiveness, key in developing genuine relationships with oneself, others and the world. In this blog, I reflect on the relationship between empathy and compassion in developing genuine therapeutic relationships.
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…