The Silver Thread – Feelings, not Thoughts: The New Mindfulness

47944031 – zen mindfulness meditation – female hands reaching up towards the word ‘mindfulness’ floating above surrounded by a relevant word cloud on a dark blue night sky background

In my last column, I spoke of the origins of psychotherapy under Sigmund Freud, and its almost exclusive dependence on cognitive processes such as insight. Subsequently, most other forms of therapy were Neo-Freudian in that they utilized different conceptual models but still relied on cognitive means as curative.

In 1953 a University of Chicago professor, Eugene Gendlin invented a technique called “Focusing”. Unlike therapies relying on insight Genlin, focused on a “felt sense”. The Felt Sense referred to the emotional relationship to a problem. Gendlin realized that our daily pain came not from problems but from our emotional relationship to that problem. His psychotherapy became focused on changing the Felt Sense through which we related to our issues. Under Gendlin, the therapeutic task was, for example, to relate to a problem from a position of calm rather than fear.

Subsequently “mindfulness” based therapies also began to focus on changing our emotional relation to a problem, not just engaging in thinking or problem solving itself. A paradigm was developed.

1) An event occurs. That event either pleases us or displeases. The psychologist Jack Engler called it a “hedonistic appraisal”. Pleasing or displeasing means that it either meets our pre-existing desires or defies them. For example, we wish our partner to compliment us, but he does not. This discrepancy between our desire and what occurs is felt in our body, in an unpleasant way. It then gives rise to a cognitive narrative, such as “he does not love me”.

2) The Cognitive narrative and bodily sensation collude to produce a feeling such as anger, fear, disappointment or sadness. Feelings are blends of cognitive narratives and bodily sensations.

3) We then identify with the body-mind narrative. It takes us over and we obsess about it. Our mind drifts to the past and all the times we have been hurt, our mind drifts to the future and the disaster ahead. Narratives of destruction, revenge, abject sadness, worry, and un-lovability dominate.

4) Contact with unpleasant experiences bring up all of the old feelings and trigger an accumulation of all the past similar negative experiences. Our mind is similar to a hard drive. Once we have an experience it is stored, waiting for the trigger of a like experience to bring it to consciousness. Our feelings are really an accumulation of all past experiences. We chronically over-react. Clinically this overreaction is called being symptomatic.

5) We then take one of two stances; 1) We repress or suppress the feelings. When we do this these feelings are displaced, meaning they become manifest in other situations. For example, you feel anger triggered by your boss’ criticism of you, so you come home and kick the dog. The alternative is projection. With projection, we externalize and see other’s and their action as the cause of problems. For example, we are feeling needy, so we blame our partner for not being more attentive. This puts a demand on a partner to make us feel whole.

Both suppression and projection only deepen the hurt. Like getting on a run-away train negative feelings just deepen.

Psychotherapy must focus on three processes.

1) Cognitive narratives help us understand “triggers” or the reasons why certain events or actions cause us suffering. This involves knowledge of our history and the proximate cause of problems.

2) Going inward to examine feelings that are occurring, rather than projecting or repressing is the primary healing tool. We consciously focus on what we are feeling. rather than blame or avoid. We learn to label our feelings and hold them until they naturally transform

3) We engage in observing our bodily sensations. Tight, loose; hot, cold, light, heavy. And we experience them fully, observing, them, and watching them come and go… Engaging in physical activities like yoga with self-awareness or other self-observation exercises aids in breaking the cycle of destructive narratives.

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About the writer: Dr. Michael Abramsky

Michael Abramsky PhD, ABPP is a licensed psychologist with 35 years of experience treating adolescents and adults for anxiety, depression and trauma. He is nationally Board Certified in both Clinical and Forensic psychology. Dr. Abramsky also has an MA in Comparative Religions, and has practiced and taught Buddhist Meditation for 25 years.

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