Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Mindfulness or Mindlessness?

“God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference” ~ The Serenity Prayer

The latest fad in both psychotherapy and self help is “mindfulness.” Mindfulness, which is derived from Zen Buddhism and first made popular in psychotherapy by Marsha Linehan (founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy [DBT] for borderline personality disorder [BPD]) and others, is basically a set of skills that one can use to better tolerate and cope with emotional distress.

Fads in psychotherapy are nothing new. For a while there seemed to be a new one every few weeks, from "neurolinguistic programing" to "solution-focused therapy." 

Even therapists who swear by the gods of empirical correctness that the techniques of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) - of which DBT is a variant - are so much more powerful than any other known therapy interventions are subject to fads just like anyone else. Besides mindfulness, there is  another current one, "Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)," which seems to all boil down to telling people that they "don't have to believe everything they think" in a variety of different ways. 

If CBT techniques are so darned powerful, why would practitioners need to keep discarding the old ones and coming up with replacements? Very amusing.

Anyways, getting back to mindfulness, Gregory J. Johanson, Ph.D. discusses it thusly: 

“For clinical purposes, mindfulness can be considered a distinct state of consciousness distinguished from the ordinary consciousness of everyday living (Johanson & Kurtz, 1991).  In general, a mindful state of consciousness is characterized by awareness turned inward toward present felt experience.  It is passive, though alert, open, curious, and exploratory.  It seeks to simply be aware of what is, as opposed to attempting to do or confirm anything. 

Thus, it is an expression of non-doing, or non-efforting where one self-consciously suspends agendas, judgments, and normal-common understandings.  In so doing, one can easily lose track of space and time, like a child at play who becomes totally engaged in the activity before her.  In addition to the passive capacity to simply witness experience as it unfolds, a mindful state of consciousness may also manifest essential qualities such as compassion and acceptance, highlighted by Almaas, R. Schwartz and others; qualities that can be positively brought to bear on what comes into awareness.

These characteristics contrast with ordinary consciousness, appropriate for much life in the everyday world, where attention is actively directed outward, in regular space and time, normally in the service of some agenda or task, most often ruled by habitual response patterns, and where one by and large has an investment in one’s theories and actions.

Mindfulness was even featured as a cover story on a recent issue of Time Magazine, pictured above. It often incorporates another concept pioneered by Marsha Linehan, radical acceptance. Radical acceptance means completely and totally accepting the reality of your own life. You stop fighting this reality and learn to tolerate it and go with the flow, so to speak. 

Practicing mindfulness techniques can indeed help you to stay calm when things are going badly without resorting to a tranquilizer or booze, although in a sense it accomplishes much the same thing. So therapists like to teach these skills to get their highly reactive, chronically upset, or emotionally unstable patients to calm down and not resort to acting out, such as cutting oneself or other self-destructive or self-defeating acts.

So, is there anything wrong with that?  Well, no, not intrinsically.  Certainly remaining calm and not going off the deep end in the face of adversity is a very useful skill.  Some people prefer learning skills to accomplish this over taking medication or having a stiff drink, although there’s nothing wrong with temporarily taking medications to keep calm either. 

But I started this post with the serenity prayer for a reason. Mindfulness is relevant to the first part of of the prayer – accepting things that one cannot change. What about changing things that need changing? Where does the wisdom to know which things can be changed and which cannot come from, and how does one go about changing them?

People feel emotional pain for the same reason they feel physical pain – it is a signal to the person that something in the environment is wrong and needs attention.  A metaphor I’ve used before:  What if another person is walking behind you continually stabbing you in the shoulder with a pen knife.  If I am a doctor, I can give you an opiate so you don’t feel the pain, and you can go on with your life.  But would it not be much better to get the guy with the knife to stop stabbing you?

Most of the non-psychotic people in therapy who are highly reactive, upset and emotional, and who are not in the midst of an episode of a major affective disorder, are reacting predominantly to the environment. Specifically, the social environment. Even more specifically, as anyone who reads this blog should know by now, the family social environment. Biological psychiatrists and some cognitive behavioral therapists seem to think that it’s all going on inside a patient’s head and has nothing to do with other people.  Bull.

Marsha Linehan herself acknowledges this.  In her Skills Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder, she lists the following goals of the "skills training" portion of DBT treatment.

Goals of Skills Training: To learn and refine skills in changing behavioral, emotional, and thinking patterns associated with problems in living, that is, those causing misery and distress.

Specific Goals of Skills Training:

Behaviors to decrease:

1.      Interpersonal chaos
2.      Labile emotions, moods
3.      Impulsiveness
4.      Confusion about self, cognitive dysregulation

Behaviors to Increase:

1.      Interpersonal effectiveness skills
2.      Emotion regulation skills
3.      Distress tolerance skills
4.      Core Mindfulness skills

Notice that she talks about becoming more effective in dealing with the interpersonal environment before she even gets to her distress tolerance skills - numbers 2, 3, and 4.

Unfortunately, in practice, dealing with specific dysfunctional family interactions is one of the last things many DBT therapists get to, if they get to them at all. Marsha Linehan believes – with precious little of her beloved “empirical” evidence by the way - that the reactivity of patients with borderline personality disorder is both biologically innate AND caused by an “invalidating environment.”  As I pointed out in an earlier post, the invalidating environment is not described well or very specifically - although it seems to be the patient's family of origin - nor is there anything written about what makes family members act that way.

The Skills Training Manual is 180 pages long, including a section containing handouts that starts on page 105 and goes to the end.  Of the first 104 pages, only 14 are devoted to interpersonal effectiveness skills, and most of that strongly implies that the interpersonal problems experienced by someone with BPD are due to their own skill deficits rather than the fact that they are dealing with people who are difficult (if not nearly impossible) or frankly abusive or distancing.  Blaming the victim.

In the handout section, interpersonal effectiveness skills are only addressed from pages 115-133. The rest is all about emotional regulation. Almost all of the skills described in the interpersonal skills section are basic assertiveness skills or are descriptions of “myths” about interpersonal effectiveness such as “I can’t stand it when someone gets upset with me.”  Is that really the worst thing that can happen in a family?

Listing "myths" in a way that classifies them as some of cognitive therapy's irrational beliefs means that the problem is being thought of as a flaw that exists squarely in the mind of thinker. Paradoxically, telling a person with BPD that their thinking is skewed is incredibly invalidating!

Besides, when the patient with BPD says "The other person would get upset with me," what they REALLY mean most usually is "All hell would break lose!"

In all of the DBT handouts, I find only one mention of the fact that it may be the environment that is the problem, not the person in the environment.  In the Interpersonal Effectiveness Handout #3 on page 117, it concedes that "Characteristics of the environment make it impossible for even a very skilled person to be effective."

So what happens if someone with BPD gets assertive with their families? In order to find out the true answer to this question for patients in therapy, the therapist usually needs to ask a version of the Adlerian Question such as: "What would happen if I could wave a magic wand and you could fearlessly stand up for yourself with your parents, and tell them to quit mistreating or invalidating you?

So what are the answers I get when I ask for details - without letting the patient go off on a tangent - about exactly what would happen next if the parents were "upset" with the patient?

Oh, nothing much, he said sarcastically. Just responses that include such minor inconveniences as violence, suicides, suicide threats, increased interpersonal chaos, increased drinking and drug use, parental infidelity or a break up with the patient being blamed for it, further invalidating the patient, taking anger out on other family members, literally exiling the patient or giving him or her the silent treatment for weeks on end. Just to name a few. Nothing too bad, really.

So back to the serenity prayer. Are these things one can change?  You betcha!!  It’s not easy, or the person could easily figure out how to do it and would have already proceeded. It’s emotionally trying.  It requires patience, persistence in the face of adversity, and ingenuity. It usually requires the services of a therapist who knows a little about the family dynamics of BPD.

So if your therapist is telling you to just tolerate the person stabbing you in shoulder with the pen knife, fire your therapist and find one who can actually help you.


  1. Zen teachers go to great lengths to point out that "mindfulness" is not a special state of mind, and if you do achieve a special state of mind, you should let it go. It's also a common misconception to equate meditation as another form of evasion, such as one could achieve with drugs or booze. Quite the contrary, paying attention to yourself can make you temporarily experience more pain. Without the 2500 years of Buddhist experience to back one up, today's mindfulness is probably doomed.

    1. The ungrasping mind. Not living in the past or future but "Present" that's hard work.

  2. Of course people mistake all this mindfulness, to accept who you are, somewhat passively, somewhat aggressively, i'm zen damn it tis the others....
    like you're fine as you are, so no need to change right. I think there is often a lot of resistance there, because some people have not been successful at change so give up and hide behind mindfulness and it's all embracing "Acceptance"

  3. The traditional Buddhists that I know make it clear that mindfulness has nothing to do with acceptance, much less "radical acceptance". Mindfulness is about perception, and involves training the mind to perceive an event with clarity, breadth, and depth. The reason for this is that only by such perception can we bring about effective change.

    One of the things that motivated the Buddha to teach was his desire to help people change. He wasn't interested in teaching people to accept their lot.

    Acceptance is for serfs. Mindfulness is for those who are unwilling to remain serfs.

    Biographical Note: I am a physician and have been practicing meditation for 40 years. I am also the co-author of Real Meditation in Minutes a Day, with Lobsang Rapgay Ph.D. Lobsang was the personal translator for the Dalai Lama, who wrote the foreword to our book.