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Psychotherapy Uses Mindfulness Meditation

In a story entitled Lotus Therapy by Benedict Carey, The New York Times reported on the use of insight meditation to deal with pain, both physical and emotional. And on how the practice is infiltrating psychotherapy.

“I was able to be there, present for the pain,” he said, when the meditation session ended. “To just let it be what it was, without thinking it through.”

The therapist nodded.

“Acceptance is what it was,” he continued. “Just letting it be. Not trying to change anything.”

“That’s it,” the therapist said. “That’s it, and that’s big.”

This exercise in focused awareness and mental catch-and-release of emotions has become perhaps the most popular new psychotherapy technique of the past decade. Mindfulness meditation, as it is called, is rooted in the teachings of a fifth-century B.C. Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha.

So what? What’s the promise?

The promise of mindfulness meditation is that it can help patients endure flash floods of emotion during the therapeutic process — and ultimately alter reactions to daily experience at a level that words cannot reach.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is at the forefront of this and his book, Full Catastrophe Living:Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness, published in 1990. I have found this book to be invaluable. I recently bought it on DVD so I can listen to it when I’m too unwell to read. And he is featured in the Times report:

Buddhist meditation came to psychotherapy from mainstream academic medicine. In the 1970s, a graduate student in molecular biology, Jon Kabat-Zinn, intrigued by Buddhist ideas, adapted a version of its meditative practice that could be easily learned and studied… The goal of mindfulness meditation was different, to foster an awareness of every sensation as it unfolds in the moment.

Dr. Kabat-Zinn taught the practice to people suffering from chronic pain at the University of Massachusetts medical school. In the 1980s he published a series of studies demonstrating that two-hour courses, given once a week for eight weeks, reduced chronic pain more effectively than treatment as usual.

Word spread, discreetly at first. “I think that back then, other researchers had to be very careful when they talked about this, because they didn’t want to be seen as New Age weirdos,” Dr. Kabat-Zinn, now a professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Massachusetts, said in an interview. “So they didn’t call it mindfulness or meditation. “After a while, we put enough studies out there that people became more comfortable with it.”

A related technique is Action and Commitment Therapy, which is focused on results:

Steven Hayes, a psychologist at the University of Nevada at Reno, has developed a talk therapy called Acceptance Commitment Therapy, or ACT, based on a similar, Buddha-like effort to move beyond language to change fundamental psychological processes.

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