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Mindfulness meditation dates back at least 2500 years to the beginnings of Buddhism. While many people in the United States began to practice Buddhism in the 1960’s, and found the benefits of mindfulness and the Buddhist principles, psychotherapists discovered that these methods do not require conversion to Buddhism, and have great benefit for anyone suffering from anxiety, depression or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Mindfulness meditation is something understood primarily by engaging in the practice, but to give some sense of it you could say that it involves a voluntary shift of attention to the Meta level of consciousness; that is, becoming aware of the feelings, thoughts, urges or sensations flowing through consciousness at this very moment. Rather than simply being caught up in thoughts, feelings, images or sensations, attention is directed towards the contents of the mind. The flow of phenomena is noticed; how certain ideas return again and again; how there are reactions to ideas and sensations, that is, desire to have, desire to avoid (e.g. attachment, craving, anxiety, fear, loathing). The arising and falling away of ideas, feelings, and sensations is mindfully followed with an attitude of acceptance of whatever presents itself. The usual reactions and patterns of absorption that characteristically lead to symptoms and problems are now attended to with patient acceptance. Rather than thinking, feeling and acting according to past conditioning, there is now an opportunity to create a space of possibility and in that space change can occur.
One benefit is therefore deepening insight into what is happening in your own mind. How do you construct and organize your experiences? Create anxiety or depression? Respond with avoidance or strong feelings automatically when confronted with some situation related to a traumatic experience.
There is a secondary and more immediate benefit derived from mindfulness meditation. A deepening state of calmness results as the mediator detaches from the incessant and often chaotic bouncing about of thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations. Pointless inner chatter, ruminating about the past and worrying about the future are experienced at a distance, and a sense of peacefulness pervades the mind dwelling more and more fully in the actual present moment. In many variants of mindfulness practice sensations associated with breathing are used as a touch-stone, which is experienced as the backdrop against which thoughts, feelings, images and sensations stand out as they arise. The breath is also perceived with acceptance and freed from conscious interference, just as it is increasingly freed from the influence of absorptions in past or future concerns. This results in a natural slowing of the breath and activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Balance or entrainment of the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems is subjectively experienced as “relaxation”, “calmness” and or “peacefulness”.
In Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a person is left in a state of hypervigilance and hyperreactivity, always in a state of readiness to respond to attack; always ready to perceive threat in day to day events that in any way resemble the initial trauma; jumpy, anxious; and there is a strong desire to avoid what seems threatening to the point that people will isolate themselves or try to blunt feelings artificially like with drugs and alcohol. You can feel disconnected from others and yourself, lost in an effort to just be numb rather than feel pain. Mindfulness practice helps with PTSD by calming the nervous system. With continued practice there is less hyperreactivity.
Helping the sufferer to simply accept whatever arises in moment to moment consciousness increasingly frees you from automatic responding. Helps you realize that you are not in danger now in this moment and that your anxiety flows from automatic learning that took place at the time of the trauma. Mindfulness practice also helps you to face whatever arises in your minds such as images, thoughts feelings or sensations related to the trauma and to receive them with acceptance. This calmness and insight increasingly helps to integrate the trauma; to allow it enough mental space that the natural healing processes can act, releasing the pain and changing your understanding of the trauma; changing the meaning of the trauma. There is a greater sense of control, which paradoxically flows from accepting and letting go. The trauma gradually (or more quickly) becomes a natural part of your personal narrative and not something that controls you as an alienated, undigested experience.
Hopefully this gives you some sense of what mindfulness is and the ways in which it may be of assistance with anxiety, depression and PTSD. There are great many resources, many free on the internet:
www.urbandharma.org/pdf/mindfulness_in_plain_english.pdf – An excellent book explaining mindfulness clearly for Western readers.
www.jimhopper.com A therapist whose site contains a great deal of information on sexual abuse and who has a special section on the use of mindfulness
www.vipassana.com Offers affordable training online
www.buddhanet.net/audio-meditation.htm Free (accepts donations) resource for talks about mediation and guided meditations
www.tarabrach.com/audiodharma.html Excellent psychologist and Buddhist teacher whose works are available free and would help anyone get started in the right manner
Wayne Nadler is a clinical psychologist currently working at SUNY Canton in NY state. He has worked for about 25 years with survivors of trauma including childhood abuse, adult victims of assault, catastrophic losses, combat-related trauma. He started a Mindfulness Practice group in 2004 specifically for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Participants reported a high degree of satisfaction and a decrease in symptoms. Many wanted further information about Buddhism because of its emphasis on teaching how to end suffering.
The opinions in this post are solely those of the author. To contribute to ‘Professional Perspective’ contact Michele.
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