There are many therapeutic approaches that help decrease human distress and suffering. In this article, I will talk about two approaches, including a mindfulness practice, that have been influential and successful in understanding and treating many mental health and quality-of-life issues. Both are based in a present-moment orientation and represent a welcome joining of Eastern and Western thought. This joining continues to bring a sorely needed understanding of the issue of human suffering.
Thoughts Influence Emotions and Behavior
In the late 1970s, Dr. Aaron T. Beck popularized a cognitive psychological model based on his clinical observations. Beck’s simple but powerful idea was thoughts influence emotions and behavior. This idea, while new to Western psychological practice, was not new to humanity as a whole. Buddha observed it over 2500 years ago. This idea in Beck’s and other competent hands have shaped Western conceptual and practical work with many mental health issues.
In his cognitive model, Beck states that thoughts can be, in whole or in part, wrong or distorted. Such distortions cause needless distress. He continues by saying it is not a situation that causes us to react in ways that cause us distress. Instead, our thinking or attached meaning (thinking that includes a comprehensive structure of personal rules and beliefs) and our overall perception of the situation causes the reaction. Finally, he posits that our distress can be mediated by correcting distorted thinking, letting go of or replacing non-useful thinking, or by switching to problem-solving if something tangible requires change.
As we continue to learn what works to helps people cope better with distress and suffering through experience, other methods continue to creatively evolve. Mindfulness practice and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is the most recent method in the evolution of psychological strategies and is influencing treatment. Mindfulness-based treatments are borrowed from and are more in line with an enduring Eastern spiritual notion that it is wiser to step outside of the flow of thinking, feeling, sensations, and urges and observe their very nature while being present to the experience from a less reactive perspective.
Being Less Reactive
Being able to be less reactive to our constant flow of thinking and sensing provides us with greater psychological flexibility. We can learn to see rather than be our “thinking” and past learning when needed. While our brains work by design to hold onto previous learning as a fact, we all experience the need to adjust old outdated so-called “facts” that are wrong or have lost usefulness. We update information in a wide range of areas. For instance, we change our belief in the tooth fairy and our political views and religious views. If we are wise, we also change unhelpful and hurtful beliefs or views about ourselves and others.
Mindfulness, with practice, gives us the means to be able to view our internal and external world objectively, to see and experience life more consistently as it is, to see beyond the error of previous learning. It provides us the means to welcome the whole of our life experience with kindness, without judgment, and outside of learned constructs.
This does not mean that thinking or conceptual understanding isn’t important. However, it does mean that thoughts are not facts. While we cannot control having our thoughts, beliefs, or just ignore conditioning, we can choose which thoughts and patterns are useful in our valued path in living in each new moment. In essence, we can learn to change our relationship with previous learning and the sense world that accompanies it.
Comparing Beck’s Model and Mindfulness
Like mindfulness, Beck’s model is also based in a present moment orientation and is mindful. However, his model focuses less on the overall nature of the way in which we relate to the mind and body as they function separately and in relationship to one another.
Beck focuses on the idea that thought and belief can be wrong or distorted and, when corrected, can decrease distress. While that is true and very useful, mindfulness helps us experience thoughts and beliefs connected with a sophisticated interplay between sense experience and thinking and thinking and sense experience.
Further, mindfulness demonstrates through experience that our beliefs and conditioning, including sense-experience, act like a complete and fixed-self. This idea of a fixed-self can keep us stuck in harmful patterns.
Mindfulness and Self
Mindfulness helps us understand that our world of past experience does not reflect who we are. Instead, a mindfulness practice provides an increased ability to be present in this moment. It helps us become aware that past learning that appears as “fact” and can represent a smaller invention of self, the self that we believe we are, our ego, if you will, is not a true representation. This conceptual self or understanding that has been learned and/or conditioned developmentally does not reflect our true and complete nature. Instead, it reflects the thinking or doing mind’s summary evaluation of experience as self.
It has been my clinical experience over twenty years that applying Socratic reasoning (rational questioning, the basic rational testing tool of cognitive therapy) to a person’s basic negative belief of self or core beliefs does not yield a satisfactory change in the relationship to underlying feelings, sensing, and emotion.
When reality testing a core belief in treatment, the person will say they “get it” but they don’t feel it. They understand that their thinking is wrong. Nevertheless, they report that somehow they just feel “not as good as others.” For instance, “No matter what I do, I just can’t get past this feeling that I’m less than others.” It is not sufficient to limit our focus to repairing distorted thinking and relieving emotional distress in the short-term if a long-term durable change is ultimately what we are looking for.
Mindfulness Practice and Memory
Cognition alone does not hold memories of experiences. Implicit memory (memory out of immediate awareness) is informed originally by sensation and the gestalt of the experience. In other words, you feel all the senses dominant in the original experience alongside thinking as a state of mind. So, if feelings affect thinking and thinking affects feelings, then we must address the whole of the felt sense. Secondly, we take thinking literally and use it as a direct and accurate reflection of self. We accept thoughts, beliefs, and conditioning in general as facts. As mentioned above, our mind takes our experiences in life and turns them into who we believe we are. The brain likes summarizing information into fixed conclusions.
A mindfulness perspective supports that we are not our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in a permanent way, but that it is the nature of the mind to come to summary evaluations. For instance, consider the thought: “I have been sad and depressed so often that I am just a depressed person.” Does being depressed really make us unable to ever achieve an un-depressed moment?
Personal Facts or Truths
If we experience something enough, our minds will consider the information as fact. The brain efficiently makes summary evaluations to save energy, among other reasons. It is helpful for our brain to link or chunk information when learning to drive a car so we can learn to be a “driver.” But it is not helpful to take multiple failed behaviors and to describe the whole person as a “failure.”
Basically, if we relearn concepts each time we face an issue, we will use a vast amount of energy. Instead, the brain molds experience into repeatable, useable “facts” to conserve energy. Therefore, you can hold a concept (about self) as a belief, but have it act as a fact or truth. It influences choices at this moment. Beck would call this global reasoning and have us challenge this, rationally.
Socratic Reasoning and Personal Facts
The rational challenge or Socratic reasoning used in cognitive therapy illustrates that people don’t completely fall into one category. For instance, if you have not been depressed even for a moment, then you are able to be not depressed. Therefore you are not a totally depressed person. And, if you do not feel depressed sometimes, then you have the ability to increase your non-depressed state with practice.
The rational, intellectual explanation does not seem to manage the intricate historical felt sense piece of the problem, however. People feel better when they believe that they are not a totally depressed person at the moment of rational challenge. But the next time they feel sad, if they have been feeling sad for a while, they will go down the old road of habit very quickly.
Mindful Approach to Personal Facts
A mindfulness approach would see the idea of one’s whole self being depressed as a person’s belief or construct, as well, that is presenting as fact. But in actuality is not reflecting reality at this moment because this belief is a mental construct, simply the result of the way in which the mind learns. It would note that the self is infinitely larger than the elements of this construct and that the construct also includes a sophisticated interaction between mind and body.
Thinking, Sensing, Feeling Cycle
Research in the ’80s found that, in addition to our thoughts, our sensations and feelings significantly influence our thinking. In fact, there is an inescapable cyclical link between thinking, sensing, and feeling. If we try to understand and manage our lives through one element of this complex system, we may be confounded by limited or short-lived results. We see this with conditions that tend to relapse or for individuals who do not respond at all to treatment.
A mindfulness practice provides a comprehensive means for personal objective introspection. It gives us a method for stepping beyond the constant flow of a full array of thinking, feeling, and sensing. Furthermore, we learn to be less reactive to our immediate perceptions of “reality” (colored by conceptual understanding and conditioning) that may or may not be accurate to this new moment. We all possess the ability to experience awareness of our thinking and sensing.
Improve Awareness of the Cycle
In this regard, a mindfulness practice produces more psychological flexibility. We are able to be aware of our internal and external world in a way that leads to a decrease in our immediate reaction to non-healthy patterns. It is natural and normal in our culture to believe that you are what and who you think you are. Remember, our mind does a summary evaluation for convenience. If not managed, any previous learning can become our guide for this moment. It may lead us with information that is less-than-useful for this moment and be active beyond our immediate awareness.
Developing a committed mindfulness practice helps us become less reactive to the initial internal thought or feeling that presents itself as fact. Through a mindfulness practice, we can learn that thoughts are not as solid and factual as they first appeared. Thereby allowing more space and time for thoughtful present-oriented choice. A choice that is more in line with your personal value at this moment instead of a belief or pattern that we are reacting to automatically.
Remember this moment like the breath is new-always but your learning, habits, and patterns are not. With practice, you can better see your internal process rather than automatically reacting to non-useful past learning, patterns, and conditioning. Coming to know the very nature in which our brain and body operate in tandem that produces suffering can help release us from normal but distress-producing mistakes of a misperception of reality.
Benefits of a Mindfulness Practice
Mindfulness practice can help us recognize:
- That emotions are a fusion of thoughts, feelings, impulses, and bodily sensations that together form a general “state of mind”. Emotions have a virtual reality felt sense that can be congruent to reality or not.
- Feelings and emotions are not dangerous, in and of themselves. They are the result of a thought or image forming a perception of danger or a reaction to real and present danger.
- Thoughts can drive our mood and feelings and moods and feelings can drive our thoughts.
- The mind does not exist in isolation and is exquisitely responsive to many bodily systems.
- Affect is what shows on your face and your body in terms of posture. It affects mood and mood affects thinking and body reactions. The relationship is cyclical and complex.
- Trying to fix or get rid of an emotion with thinking traps us in the emotion.
- Experiencing the emotion generally allows it to pass.
- Examining the thought alone for error misses the complexity of the interaction between the mind and body.
- We tend to depend on rational thinking to solve most problems in living. This leaves little acceptance for emotion, all of our sense perceptions and behavior as influences.
- We can, over time, learn to be present with things as they are, not as we want them to be. We all have the ability to be with the whole of our experience of being just as we are. This does not mean being complacent, though. It means being fully alive in each moment.
I will talk a bit about the practical problems with trying to think a feeling away in the next article. Practice mindfulness!