Has Meditation Jumped the Shark?

In a New York Times Op-Ed piece this week, UPenn psychology professor Adam Grant takes what he calls “meditation madness” to task. Referring to meditation as a fad, he systematically debunks its benefits. Stress reduction? There are lots of ways to achieve that. Mindfulness? You can achieve mindfulness without meditating, he says, citing a study in which people used a simple cognitive technique to increase awareness.

He finishes with “Evangelists, it’s time to stop judging. The next time you meet people who choose not to meditate, take a deep breath and let us relax in peace.”

I chuckled as I read this piece. “Here we go again”, I thought, “more evidence that meditation has jumped the shark.” Meditation is so much more than a technique to reduce stress or increase awareness in the moment. It’s a practice that yields many fruits over time, including mindfulness – the profound but deceptively simple-sounding quality of knowing what’s happening in your mind when it’s happening. Over time (years and years for the vast majority of practitioners), those who meditate begin to see deeply how we create suffering for ourselves by holding onto our experiences, our desires, our sense of self. As we practice, we begin to see the ephemeral quality of all that we experience and we discover that we can cling just a little less. And this realization brings equanimity and acceptance, opening up the possibility for a more peaceful, balanced life.

Pretty hard to fit all that into a sound bite. The fact is, you can’t understand it unless you practice it, and it’s not for everyone.

The huge wave of popularization of Buddhism in the West has reduced these beautiful practices and teachings to a set of techniques for reducing stress, and “Mindfulness” has come to mean so much more than what the Buddha taught that its original meaning has been lost.

So, Dr. Grant, I agree with you – when meditation has become a fad, and when it’s chatted about as the latest and greatest cure for all that ails you, and when it’s being pushed by “evangelists”, (the Buddha’s attitude was “hey, I discovered this way to reduce suffering. Try it or not, I don’t care.”), then it’s past its prime, worn out its welcome, become yesterday’s news.

But the practice itself and the teachings of the Buddha remain and endure. For those who are drawn to them, they provide a wonderful refuge. It is a spiritual practice, after all.

If you are drawn to meditation, there are are wonderful resources and teachers to guide you, and therapists to help you work with the difficult emotions it that it can stir up. The practice can be arduous, especially at first, and many people find they need take it slowly. And for those who have anxiety or a history of trauma, it can be better to do a body-based practice such as tai-chi or yoga.

And, as the Buddha said, “ehipassiko”, which, loosely translated, means “try it and see for yourself”.

Or not. There’s no evangelism here.


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Precious: a study in trauma

I finally saw the film Precious, and it’s been sticking with me ever since.  If you don’t know this film, Precious is the story of an inner-city teenage girl who suffers horrific physical, sexual, and emotional abuse from the time she’s a small child.  She has one child by her father and is pregnant with the second as the film begins. (Spoiler alert – there’s more about the film in this post.)

On the outside, Precious displays little affect: her facial expression is still, and she moves through her days saying as little as possible. On the inside, however, she’s on high alert, continually scanning for the attacks that could come without warning at any minute.

We’re wired to survive trauma by going into fight or flight mode, or if we can’t escape, we freeze. Because fighting back would have brought more abuse, and because as a child she didn’t see a way to flee, Precious froze. And when the attacks came, she survived them by dissociating.

What really struck me as I watched this film was the fabulous imaginary world of fame and love that Precious creates for herself. The over-the-top grandiosity of her fantasies is a testimony to the intensity and cruelty of the unrelenting abuse she suffers. In this beautiful world, Precious models glamorous clothes and happily signs autographs for her fans, a crowd that includes a gorgeous, attentive, loving boyfriend.    It’s a world that’s safe and filled with love, a world that’s everything her “real” world is not. In this world, no one can hurt her. In this world, she’s beautiful and free.

No matter what her abusers did to her, they couldn’t destroy the part of Precious that created these fantasies, the part of her that knows love, and kindness, and respect.  She locked these things deep into her psyche where no one could access them, creating an inner safe room to which she could flee at a moment’s notice. This awareness that we can keep our spirit alive by putting it into deep storage takes my breath away every time I encounter it.

At the end of the film, Precious does get away, and in the safety of her new home, a real home she creates for herself with the support and care of good people, she begins to unpack all her goodness and bring it out into the light of day.  It’s a hopeful message, and a true one.  We have the capacity to heal from trauma; it’s in our very nature and it’s never too late to begin the work of healing.



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Why do I eat this way?

A friend recommended the book, Women Food and God by Geneen Roth, and as I read it, I feel grateful that Ms. Roth has presented the challenging idea of healing our old wounds by facing ourselves directly in a compelling, accessible way. Simply put, she tells us that we can learn why we eat the way we do by paying attention to what’s happening in our bodies. Geneen* is a student of the Diamond Approach, a set of practices that have been around for thousands of years. She explains that the version she learned was body-based, and the practices she describes in her book are based on this approach.

I’m thoroughly enjoying this book; Geneen is a talented, entertaining writer.  I think this is going to become one of the books I recommend to clients — go read Geneen; she can explain this stuff better than I can, I imagine myself saying.

If you read this book, you’ll notice that she contrasts her practices with meditation:

I spent years in therapy, years in varioys kinds of meditation practice. I knew how to muck around in the wounds of my childhood and I knew how to transcend them, how to heal the pain of being abused and how to contact the part of me that was never abused. But when I got done meditating and soaring around in resplendence, I’d clunk back into the day-to-day world of my personality as if the two were not connected. Although carryover was one of the promised benefits of meditation, I was failing miserably. Put me in the middle of an argument and my thirty-minutes-a-day serenity was instantly replaced by my default, well-grooved beliefs…. Meditating was teaching me how to transcend my life, but I wanted to learn how to live in it. (Roth, p. 90-91)

She makes the excellent point here that practices that cultivate a blissful mind state don’t necessarily carry over well into daily life.  But mindfulness meditation, which focuses on our in-the-moment experience, does carry over into daily life. It’s a form of gentle inquiry that, over time, can help us understand our experience in a deeper way. It shines a light on all the feelings and beliefs underneath the thoughts and behavior that keep us stuck in ways of being that no longer serve us, such as numbing out and binge eating. And in this light of awareness, we are finally able to let those thoughts and feelings go. ( To watch a video of me explaining the difference between mindfulness mediation and concentration meditation, click here. )

The other point Geneen makes is that therapy didn’t get her into her body the way the Diamond Approach did.  While it’s true that many forms of therapy do not include an awareness of the body, approaches that do include the body are becoming more prevalent. Recent research in neurobiology continues to show the connection between mind and body and the importance of including an awareness of the body in psychotherapy. For example, I am about to being a two-year training in Somatic Transformation, an approach to therapy that combines depth psychology, neurobiology, and body-based techniques.  This training will build on my mindfulness-based understanding of the connection between body and mind.

I’m telling you all this because it’s important, I think, for people to know that there are therapists out there whose approaches are a good fit with the practices Geneen describes in her book.  So if you find yourself wanting someone to guide you in your inquiry, know that there are many of us who are ready and waiting to help you find your way.

* I use Ms. Roth’s first name in this post because reading this book feels like listening to a friend.

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Vulnerability, Shame, and the Need to Connect

This morning, I listened to this talk by researcher Brene Brown on the power of vulnerability:

In this talk, Dr. Brown lays out the human dilemma, which is that we long to connect, in fact, we’re wired for it. (Psychologist John Briere calls this “The Barbra Streisand Effect” – people need people.) But in order to connect with each other, we have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, which means being truly seen. And being seen can be terrifying because it requires us to reveal aspects of ourselves that we’ve come to believe are bad, and therefore must be hidden, not only from others, but also from ourselves.

Psychotherapy can help resolve this dilemma.  It provides a safe, accepting place in which we can gradually begin to take the risk of being vulnerable and being seen.  Together with a therapist, we re-acquaint ourselves with all the aspects of ourselves we’ve judged as bad and shoved into deep storage in our unconscious, and as we uncover and accept these parts of ourselves, we discover that actually, we’re just fine the way we are. There’s no need to stay so hidden and disconnected from ourselves and from each other. There isn’t anything, really, to be ashamed of after all.

Therapy is an organic process that unfolds gradually and gently over time.  It’s so much more than a set of techniques for managing symptoms, although learning to tolerate our discomfort and manage our symptoms is often an integral part of the work.  It’s so much more than “just talking”; while the conversation is the context and the vehicle for this gradual unfolding, it’s a conversation that happens on many levels, not just in words.

I hope you enjoy listening to Dr. Brown’s talk as much as I did.  And if it resonates with you, if you feel a little scared as you hear her talk about the differences between “whole-hearted” people and people who are filled with shame, know that you don’t have to keep suffering and struggling.  Find a therapist who you feel comfortable with, as Dr. Brown did, and enter into that journey that can help you let your shame go.

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Let’s all just be in the moment, shall we?

Everywhere I turn, I hear people dispensing the wonderful-sounding advice to be in the moment.  This phrase is being tossed around so much that it’s become almost meaningless.  What does it even mean to be in the moment?

Here’s what I’ve learned:

To be in the moment is to know what’s happening in your own mind in an open, accepting way.  It’s not a bliss trip and it’s definitely not always pleasant.  It’s not something you achieve once and then stay there forever. It’s a practice of waking up over and over again, coming out of your daydreams and fantasies and feeling, seeing, and knowing as much as you can what’s happening in your mind.  While daydreaming isn’t being in the moment, becoming aware that you’ve been daydreaming is. And then, when we see what’s happening in our minds, we accept it with as much grace and kindness as we can, no matter what it is.

I know, this sounds too simple. Or it sounds too woo-woo. And we North Americans, being results-driven people, want to know what it will get us to practice being in the moment before we’ll even consider doing it.  But you just have to try it and see what happens. And by “see what happens”, I mean over a long period of time.  The Buddha himself said, “see for yourself”; he knew that the only way for people to learn moment-to-moment awareness was to practice it. There’s just no other way to get it.

Maybe it’s helpful to think of being in the moment as like being with yourself as you would be with your closest, dearest friend.  The journeys we make with our friends aren’t always easy and aren’t always pleasant, but we hang in there and stay committed to our friends no matter what.  We accept their quirks with kindness and love. Can we be this way with ourselves? Sure we can, but it takes practice, and a good dose of patience.

So just breathe, and please be kind to yourself!

Happy Holidays.

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Restoring Sanity

Yesterday, October 30, was the day that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert hosted “The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” on the National Mall in Washington DC. Here in Seattle, we had our own Rally, and I attended. It was fun and joyful, and people came in a light-hearted mood: some dressed in costume, and many carried witty signs with slogans like “Rageless in Seattle” and “Less Cowbell, More Reason”.  We sang the national anthem, chanted in whispers, did the hokey-pokey, and generally had a good time, even after it started to rain. The police watched from the sidelines, lattes in hand, ready to respond to trouble, but there was none. It was peaceful and a bit silly – the perfect antidote to fear and hysteria.

Fear is a powerful force.  When we’re afraid, we operate from the more animal parts of our brain, the source of the “fight or flight” mechanism that has kept our species alive over the millenia. When we’re in this mode, it’s very hard to think clearly and rationally because those functions go off line so that we can respond quickly to get away from the wild animal that wants to eat us.  We become jumpy and hypervigilant rather than thoughtful and methodical.  If you can scare someone enough, you can get them to believe anything.

All the more reason for some calm and sanity.  The problems we face require thoughtfulness and care, and we need our jittery nervous systems to settle down so that our higher thinking brains can be fully engaged, fully online.  And it’s a heck of a lot more fun to do the hokey pokey than it is to rage at the TV.

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I’ve been spending some time this Sunday morning with a poetry website I heard about on NPR, the Favorite Poem Project. The website includes a selection of videos of people reading and talking about their favorite poems. It’s these videos that I’ve been watching for the last half hour or so.

Watching videos of everyday people reading their favorite poems reminds me, in some ways, of what it’s like to sit with clients and listen to their stories. These people are speaking directly from their hearts, sharing why their selected poem resonates with them.  The context of the poem creates a way for these people, strangers, to let us into their worlds and get a glimpse of what’s meaningful and important to them.

It’s projects and websites like this that remind me of all the great things about the Internet and ways we can use it to reach out to and connect with each other.

By the way, my current favorite poem is Next Time, by William Stafford.  I especially like the final line of the poem.  (You can find this poem in his collection The Way It Is.)

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It Gets Better

I’ve been watching the wonderful YouTube “It Gets Better” videos, and even though I’m not gay (I’m a straight ally) I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the subject.

It really is true that life gets better once you become an adult. It’s not some magical thing that instantly happens the day you collect your high school diploma, but what does happen is that once you leave high school, a whole world of possibilities opens up to you. A world that includes churches to welcome you, straight allies who care about you, and organizations that will stand up for your rights.

And there is a huge, world-wide community of LGBT people waiting to welcome you with open arms.  No matter how different or odd you feel, there are others out there like you. If you don’t believe me, go watch some of the  It Gets Better videos and see for yourself.

Every time another LGBT kid takes his/her life, millions of hearts break, including mine. I don’t know what it’s like to be harassed or bullied for being gay, but I do know what it’s like to lose a loved one to suicide, and the pain and grief are devastating and take years to heal. There’s no going back once you take your own life; it’s a one-way ticket.

The world may feel small and unwelcoming to you now, but it won’t be like this forever. If you don’t think you can go it alone, please reach out for help. The Trevor Project is a great place to start. There are thousands, even  millions of people who care about you, and want to help. Let them.

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Survivors of Suicide

Yesterday, November 21,  was National Survivors of Suicide Day. If you’ve lost a loved one to suicide, then you are a suicide survivor.

The grief experienced by those affected by a suicide is especially complex and intense. In addition to the expected reactions of sorrow and feelings of loss, survivors of suicide can be filled with self-blame, intense anger, obsessive thoughts replaying the hours and days before the suicide, and even their own suicidal ideation.  Telling people you’ve lost someone to suicide can be daunting because many people don’t know how to respond to such horrible news, and so survivors can feel isolated and disconnected from their friends and family at a time when they need them most.

If you are a suicide survivor, there are some excellent resources available to give you support and help.

In the Seattle area, the Crisis Clinic  (www.crisisclinic.org) provides  a twice-monthly drop-in group as well as an eight-week facilitated support group and telephone support. For more information, call the 24-Hour Crisis Line at 206.461.3222 or toll free at 1.866.4CRISIS (866.427.4747).

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.afsp.org) has an extensive list of articles and educational materials, including an excellent resource and healing guide, which is available for free. The AFSP website also has information about support groups and online resources for survivors.

The shock and pain of losing a loved one to suicide can be intense, but the pain does ease over time. You are not alone; every year in the United States, 30,000 people commit suicide, each one leaving behind friends and family to cope with the loss.  There are millions of people who have lived through the heartbreak and devastation that suicide creates. Although it may not seem possible, healing can and does happen.

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Manifesting goodness

There’s a lot of talk these days about manifesting and drawing the good toward oneself, ideas that are based on the idea of positive thinking, most recently described in The Secret. I see some pitfalls with the idea that if you think positive thoughts and visualize what you want to have in life, it will come to you.

It implies that we can control physical reality with our thoughts, leading us to believe that we have power over things that are outside our control.   Even the idea that we can control our thoughts is misleading.  We can’t control the world around us, although we can have an impact on it. We can’t control what thoughts and feelings arise in our minds, but we can control how we respond to them.

It encourages us to suppress “negative” thoughts and feelings, which is a ticket to a shut-down existence.  Anytime we deny a thought or a feeling, we shove it  into the unconscious. In order to keep up a strategy like this, we have to narrow our perception to exclude the things we don’t want to see.  Imagine that emotions exist on a continuum, with pleasant emotions on one end and unpleasant on the other.  When we cut ourselves off from one end, the corresponding end gets shortened, too. It takes a lot of mental energy to keep up a strategy like this, and shortening the continuum can lead to depression.

It creates conditions that foster greed. In Buddhist psychology, greed, or craving, is one of the three roots of suffering, along with aversion and delusion. We can crave material things, or experience, or sense pleasures.  Holding onto the things we can’t or don’t have keeps us from appreciating and being grateful for all the things we do have.  It takes our attention away from what’s real and what’s here now.  While we’re thinking positive thoughts, we’re cultivating the conditions that increase our suffering.  It’s a losing proposition.

And here’s the most troublesome implication of the positive-thinking strategy: when we don’t get what we want, or when bad things happen, it must be because we drew bad things to ourselves by thinking negative thoughts. This self-blame is fertile ground for shame to arise. It’s toxic stuff.

Paradoxically, then, positive thinking can increase suffering and unhappiness. So, here’s a reframe that I believe avoids these pitfalls:

In any given moment, our senses present us with more information than our minds can take in, so we filter what comes into our conscious awareness. When we fixate on an idea, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, we narrow our focus to this idea, shoving other thoughts and feelings aside. The idea becomes a lens through which we see ourselves and the world, and we only see experiences that support that lens.  For example, if we believe that we’re unlovable, then every time someone is rude or dismissive, we’ll take that in as further evidence of our unloveable-ness.  And we won’t see (or we’ll reinterpret) every experience in which people are kind, generous, or thoughtful.  Presented with the mounting evidence that we’re unlovable, we sprial into a pit of  sorrow and worthlessness. It is in this way that our thoughts control our experience of reality.

Rather than trying to get out of this pit by fixating on something more positive or happy, the remedy for this filtered, fixated way of being is to open your awareness and take in all of your experience, not just a slice of it.  When you get caught up in a spiral of thoughts, stop.  Take a breath. Expand your awareness of what’s happening by asking yourself questions such as “what else is happening right now?” or “is this thought true?”.  Or, even more simply, follow the basic mindfulness instruction to drop your attention into your body by noticing what it feels like to breathe. I like this approach because it creates conditions that bring us the following:

  • Rather than a tight, closed mind, an open, fully engaged one.
  • Rather than greed, acceptance.
  • Rather than trying to control the world, we mindfully choose our responses to the way things really are.
  • Rather than blaming ourselves for the pain and suffering in the world, we accept that it happens and find a way to meet it with an open heart and mind.
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