Earlier this month I brought Dr. Ron Siegel author of the new book, The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems, on to talk to us about Mindfulness as a path to work with stress, anxiety, and Depression. Ronald D. Siegel, Psy.D. is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School where he has taught for the past 25 years, a Board and Faculty member of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, and a long-term student of mindfulness meditation. Dr. Siegel is also co-editor of Mindfulness and Psychotherapy and coauthor of Back Sense: A Revolutionary Approach to Halting the Cycle of Chronic Back Pain. He maintains a private clinical practice in Lincoln, Massachusetts and teaches internationally about mindfulness and psychotherapy and mind-body treatment.
Today, Dr. Siegel talks to us about how he uses mindfulness in his own psychotherapy practice, ways we can work with procrastination, and some advice he has for those who are suffering.
Elisha: In your own psychotherapy practice, how do you choose to integrate meditation or mindfulness into psychotherapy?
Ron: Therapists often ask me this question. It all depends on the needs of the person with whom I’m working. Mindfulness practices are designed to give us insight into how our minds create suffering so that we can then free ourselves from this suffering. Decades of personal mindfulness practice, together with having had the privilege of exploring these matters with experienced meditation teachers and professional colleagues, has given me a glimpse into some of the patterns that create this suffering.
Two that I’ve already mentioned are the tendency to try to avoid painful experiences (experiential avoidance) and the tendency to get lost in and believe our thoughts. Others include our tendency to resist life’s inevitable changes, our tendency to become preoccupied with trying to buttress our self-esteem, and our tendency to disconnect from others—to feel isolated and not notice our natural commonalities and interconnectedness.
So when I’m sitting with a client or patient, I’m always thinking, “how are they becoming trapped in suffering” and looking for ways to interrupt these patterns. For many people, learning formal mindfulness meditation may be helpful. In this case I’m happy to teach them some mindfulness practices in our sessions together. But for others who I don’t think would be interested in exploring these, I look instead for other ways to illuminate the patterns that are causing them suffering.
These can involve a full range of psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral or family systems explorations. As I often tell therapists who I am helping to train, mindfulness practices are not in and of themselves a complete psychotherapy, but instead can be a useful part of treatment. When I do teach practices in sessions, I try to tailor them to my client or patients’ cultural background. So I’ll present these practices in more “spiritual” language for folks who are drawn to this view of the world, and in more “scientific” language for others.
Elisha: One of the chapters you have in your book is around breaking bad habits. One major bad habit that people work with is procrastination. Can you tell us a mindfulness solution for breaking this bad habit?
Ron: Procrastination is an interesting type of experiential avoidance. Most of us don’t procrastinate when it comes to eating ice cream, but we may well procrastinate when it comes to doing our taxes or writing an article. What’s the difference? I suspect that most of the time anxiety plays a role. We’re afraid that turning to the task at hand will either bring up bad feelings (“Oh my God, I can’t believe how much I owe!”) or prove to be difficult (“I just can’t think of anything to write”). So when we procrastinate we are trying to avoid an unpleasant experience.
Mindfulness practices help us to approach unpleasant experiences. Therefore, in addition to establishing a regular mindfulness practice to get into the habit of non-avoidance, I’d suggest becoming curious about the feelings associated with procrastination. “What am I feeling in my body right now?” “What images come to mind when I imagine starting the project?” Mindfulness involves being curious about everything—investigating our experience in each moment. I suspect that doing this with procrastination will help to illuminate some pain that we’re trying to avoid. Seeing it clearly can help us to face this discomfort and in thereby get our task done.
Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone who was emotionally struggling in life right now, what advice would you give them?
Ron: That’s a pretty broad question. It would really depend upon what they’re struggling with. One reason I wrote The Mindfulness Solution is that mindfulness practice has been taken up by many mental health professionals as a one-size-fits-all remedy. And while in general cultivating mindfulness is useful for most of us, we each need to approach this differently depending upon our circumstances.
For example, some mindfulness practices help us to establish a sense of stability and safety in our life. These can be very helpful when we’re feeling readily overwhelmed, when our world feels unstable, when we’re in transition. Other practices help us to move toward, or uncover, difficult thoughts and feelings that we may be blocking out of our awareness. These are most useful when our life is more stable and we feel ready to tackle patterns or feelings that have been causing us distress.
Helping people to find the direction that they need to move in is something of an art—and an imperfect one at that. So the first thing I’d do is try to get to know the person across from me, to listen as carefully as I could to their experience. Once, through back and forth conversation, I felt as though I understood their situation, I’d try to identify with them what is causing their suffering. Only once we had a shared understanding of this would I venture into the realm of advice, and even then cautiously. People are so complicated, and we therapists are ourselves so limited in our understanding of what we ourselves, no less other people, need, that advice is always risky. In general I find it more useful to explore patients’ experience with them, putting our minds and hearts together to look for ways out of the patterns that are perpetuating their suffering.
Thank you so much again Ron.
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