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Meditation and the Mindfulness Trend in Psychotherapy:

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Hendlin, S. J. (2016). Meditation and the mindfulness trend in psychotherapy: Reflections through the prism of a 50-year meditator. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 51(3), 34-43.

Dr. Steven J. Hendlin

Dr. Steven J. Hendlin

Adding to the neurological research findings on the benefits of meditation, a recent study found that long-term meditators who are age 50 and older have a younger brain age than non-meditators (Luders, Cherbuin, & Gaser, 2016). Using a validated approach based on high-dimensional pattern recognition, brains of meditators were found to be 7.5 years younger than those of controls. Moreover, for every additional year over 50, meditators’ brains were estimated to be an additional one month and 22 days younger than their chronological age.

The findings suggest that meditation is beneficial for brain preservation, effectively protecting against age-related atrophy, with a consistently slower rate of brain aging throughout life. As a life-long meditator, this is indeed good news. If these findings are valid, they suggest my brain may be growing younger with each passing year, although my memory for some proper nouns may not yet have heard the news.

The purpose of this article is to offer a perspective on issues related to the explosion of research and psychotherapeutic application of meditation and, specifically, mindfulness, over the last 15 years. My view is through a prism with light refracted through studying the philosophies and practices of various types of meditation from the time I was in high school and continuing over 50 years. In addition, I have published and presented on the philosophy, practice, and application of meditation to psychotherapy (e.g., Hendlin, 1978a, 1980, 1982a, 1983a, 1984a, 1984b, 1985, 1987, 1989a, 1991, 1993).

History and Experience

In the scientist-practitioner model, the norm is “evidence-based.” To further establish “evidence” for the following perspective, allow me to summarize some of my training and experience. At 16, I was introduced to Soka Gakkai, a Japanese Buddhist religious movement of the Nichiren lineage, two years after its first American headquarters opened in Los Angeles in 1963 (Prebish, 1999). I was initiated into the ritual of chanting a mantra, with the understanding it would help manifest material desires in everyday life. During the same period, I began reading about Chinese Taoism, which led to further diversified study in college and graduate school in Eastern philosophy and comparative world religions, along with the practice of various forms of meditation. 

One of the forms I learned was the Chinese slow movement-meditation of Tai Chi Chuan. During my pre-doctoral internship, I experimented with the clinical application of Tai Chi as an adjunct to the process of psychotherapy. This was done with day-treatment patients in a community mental health setting, leading to articles and workshops on how Tai Chi could be integrated into psychotherapy in general and Gestalt therapy in particular (Hendlin, 1977, 1978a, 1978b, 1979a, 1979b).

With the Human Potential Movement in full swing during the late 1960s, 1970s, and into the early 1980s, California was a hotbed of fervent activity. Growth centers offered workshops related to various methods under the rubric of Humanistic-Existential and Transpersonal Psychology, including Eastern meditative practices. The cross-fertilization between these disciplines meant that I could sample the best teachers and practices from the worlds of both psychology and spirituality without having to go very far from home. Before beginning graduate school, I did some part-time administrative work at a well-known Los Angeles growth center. This allowed me to participate without cost in the potpourri of workshops being offered by various teachers who were interested in marketing themselves and their methods.

In a humanistically oriented graduate school in San Diego from 1972 to 1975, I was exposed to such distinguished teachers as Rollo May, Sidney Jourard, Albert Ellis, Viktor Frankl, Harold Greenwald, Ev Shostrom, Ted Blau, and George Albee. At the same time, I sought out extra-curricular growth and training experiences with such people as Gestalt therapy co-founder Laura Perls and master therapist James Simkin; Bioenergetics founder Alexander Lowen; Gestalt therapists Erving and Miriam Polster; Neurolinguistic Programming founder John Grinder; transpersonal theorist “spiritual emergency” treatment founder and psychiatrist Stanislav Grof; psychoanalysts Otto Kernberg and James Masterson; and the psychiatrist, dolphin researcher, and consciousness explorer John C. Lilly, who introduced me to the altered states that occurred through floating for long periods in a dark and soundproof sensory isolation tank filled with warm salt water.

During graduate school, I drove up the freeway weekly for one year to be trained at the Gestalt Therapy Institute of Los Angeles, where some of the most creative Gestalt trainers in the country had congregated, most of whom had been trained by Fritz Perls and James Simkin.

For burgeoning spiritual groups wanting the reputation of their guru, teacher, or philosophy to grow more widely, it was considered de rigueur to conduct workshops and retreats in California, if not to establish local centers.

Because of this confluence, I was fortunate to participate in numerous workshops over a period of more than two decades with meditation and devotional yoga teacher Ram Dass (ex-Harvard psychologist Richard Alpert), and had a lesser amount of workshop/retreat contact with such teachers as Bhagavan Das (Hindu devotional chanting), Swami Muktananda (Siddha Yoga meditation), Sueng Sahn (Korean Zen meditation), Anagarika Munindra (Vipassana Insight Meditation), and Tarthang Tulku (Tibetan practices). I also experienced a memorable week-long intensive retreat (sesshin) in the mountains, along with other weekend retreats, with the venerable Rinzai Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi, who lived to be 107 (for an in-depth account of this experience, see Hendlin, 1979c, 1981). In 1993, I participated in a four-day silent meditation retreat with the Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.

I attended the weekend public lectures of J. Krishnamurti (held each Spring in his hometown of Ojai) from the late 1970s until his death in 1986. During that time period, he was in his 80s and considered one of the most influential living philosophers in the world. Other prominent personalities I encountered along the way included Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, and LSD discoverer Albert Hofmann.

The core of my formal immersion into Theravada Buddhist Vipassana (Insight) meditation practice was comprised of 10-day intensive silent retreats in 1981 and 1982 in the Southern California desert with teachers Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. I continued these formal retreats every year from 1983 through 1987, varying from four to seven days, depending on the amount of time I could afford to get away from my private psychotherapy practice. These retreats supported and deepened my daily sitting practice.

Finally, in 1989, I went on a month-long Buddhist and Hindu Temple Pilgrimage to Kathmandu, Nepal, practicing for short periods with indigenous meditation teachers who met with our small group (Hendlin, 1989b). This pilgrimage was capped off by a two-day car trip from New Delhi though Northern India to Dharamsala, to enjoy an audience with H.H. Dalai Lama and meditate with his community of monks. Ironically, a few months after my trip, His Holiness came to my city to lead a transpersonal psychology conference in which I was a presenter, and I was able to have further contact with him. Auspiciously, this conference took place just after he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Close to three decades later, he is one of the few teachers I will go out of my way to see when he is presenting anywhere in my area. Just last year, I was fortunate to be part of the local celebration of his 80th birthday.

The Mindfulness Trend

Even the most optimistic of us in the early years of transpersonal psychology would have been hard-pressed to imagine that mindfulness, as a state or practice, would have caught on in the explosive way it has in medicine (neurological research) and psychology (through academic studies and mindfulness-based therapy practice). Of course, we would have been equally surprised by the present day ubiquitous mainstreaming of yoga.

But, with mindfulness, it is not altogether clear exactly what has caught on. Is it the simple awareness of bringing oneself into the present without judgment or evaluation? Gestalt therapy techniques offered this present-centered, non-judgmental awareness long ago, but did not call it “mindfulness.” Perls (1969) talked about allowing present-centered awareness to hover at the “zero point,” where attention was evenly suspended without evaluation. Whether due to sloppy historical research or being inconveniently discarded, the contributions from humanistic-existential-phenomenological and transpersonal psychology have been lost in the current narrative of the history of mindfulness in psychotherapy, much as they were in the development of “positive” psychology (Brito, 2014; Felder, Aten, Neudeck, Shiomi-Chen, & Robbins, 2014; Harrington & Dunne, 2015).

Does the contemporary notion of mindfulness have the same meaning as it does in the Buddhist Vipassana meditation I learned so long ago? It seems apparent from an examination of the mindfulness based approaches it does not. What I formally practiced intensively in sheltered settings for up to 12 hours a day bears little resemblance to the research studies and therapeutic applications presently in vogue, which often feature exercises ranging from three to 20 minutes (e.g., Semple, 2010). There appears to be little guidance regarding the optimal amount of practice time, as this issue has not been addressed systematically (Moore, Gruber, Derose, & Malinowski, 2012; Slagter, Davidson, & Lutz, 2011). The Buddhist approach to mindfulness is founded upon personal practice of meditation—not intellectual knowledge. When researchers and clinicians attempt to use the concepts without the foundation of personal practice, there are bound to be problems with their work (Grossman, 2010; Walsh, 1980).

For example, the spate of recent survey instruments created by researchers to measure the impact of mindfulness rely on self-report by subjects, who are being given short periods of guided exercises. Although 10 minutes of an exercise easing clients into the present may help to refocus attention briefly, I am quite skeptical that it is going to be sufficient to change the orientation of daily experience. Given today’s speedy, digital, multi-tasking world, in which people spend more time on their cell phones and preoccupied with social media than they do in face-to-face social contact, 10 minutes of mindfulness is simply not going to make much of a dent in their habitually scattered attention span.

Anyone who has practiced Vipassana meditation in a formal and intensive manner understands that it may take hours of concentrated sitting simply to allow the musculature of the body to fully de-stress, permitting the tension accumulated in the shoulders, face, neck, chest, thighs, and legs to dissolve. Dealing with waves of various body sensations, including pain, that occur while sitting cannot take place in a few minutes. Likewise, the slowing of the breath to a steady rhythm does not occur in a few minutes, nor does being able to sit completely still in a traditional cross-legged posture.

So, I don’t think equating mindfulness with relaxing into the present with non-judgmental awareness is the same as mindfulness as it is practiced in traditional Vipassana meditation. Almost anyone may learn to bring attention into the present for a few moments or minutes without cognitive evaluation. But attempting to sustain the practice continuously in all of one’s waking activities throughout the day is a different endeavor. From my perspective, it is the intention, depth, and duration of formal Vipassana insight practice that distinguishes it from the more surface orientation of the current concept of mindfulness as it is being applied in psychotherapy.

All Aboard the Thought Train

During sitting meditation, when the body has been de-stressed and settled into a completely movement-free state, attention may be focused exclusively on more subtle cognitive processes. Thoughts normally in the background of awareness suddenly spring forward, clamoring for attention. It is as if one’s thoughts have a screaming voice, demanding to be heard. This is a common occurrence when one has been sitting for hours, and is usually experienced after two or three days of intensive practice, if not before. The meditator may get caught in early childhood dramas, unresolved issues in relationships, themes of power, control, sex, or other ego needs. For others, the content will include more existential issues, around meaning in life or important choices in life direction. There may also be vivid inner visual imagery. This material may be of interest and significance psychologically, as it brings to consciousness what had been repressed or suppressed. This, of course, is not the aim of meditation. But it is a common occurrence and may add a dimension of insight that otherwise would not be easily accessed.

Part of the rationale for sitting in a cross-legged position on a cushion is to establish a solid physical base so that attention need not be unnecessarily distracted by having to deal with the body. One may then more fully and dispassionately witness the chain of mental associations as they arise, linger, and then fall away, only to be followed by another in an ongoing stream.

In fact, one of the more powerful tools Vipassana meditation has to offer the mindful psychotherapist is this ability to meticulously witness these associations and notice how they may lead to subtle feeling states and stronger emotions. This exquisite awareness includes what I have called the “intending space” (Hendlin, 1984b), or thoughts related to deciding to move into action, such as speaking or moving the body. These thoughts of intention are normally taking place so quickly and unconsciously that we do not notice them as we may during meditation. This can be facilitated through very slow walking meditation, as well. During intense retreat practice, walking meditation typically alternates with periods of sitting. It serves the purpose of not only giving the meditator a chance to relieve some of the pain of long periods of sitting, but also to practice mindfulness continuously through all of one’s actions. The meditator is taught to use one word in noting an action as it is occurring. So, for example, during walking meditation, the noting may be: “Lifting, moving, and placing,” as one lifts the foot, moves it, and places it on the ground. This technique of noting is used to help stabilize mindfulness and avoid distraction. It is basically viewed as a scaffolding that can be removed when desired.

Meditators begin to more intimately understand how thoughts become reified, or “hardened” and taken as substantial and real, rather than as just passing thoughts. The pithy way to say this is, “The thought of your mother is not your mother.” At its worst, reification of thought may progress to obsessive rumination and then premature behavior based on the rumination. For the mindfulness-based therapist, it is this powerful method for enhancing the ability to clearly identify associative thought patterns and their relation to subtle feelings and emerging emotion, which, I suggest, is most useful—not learning to bring the mind back from reverie into the present.

This practice of thought-watching does not confine the meditator with instructions to cut off thought by returning the mind back to the present as soon as it wanders. Rather, much like a horse given free rein to graze in an open pasture, it allows the mind to roam, with the simple instruction to witness the chain of associations without interrupting or judging them.

One result of this kind of practice is the ability at any moment to answer the question, “Where is your attention now?” This is a common question asked of patients in Gestalt therapy. From being typically unable to answer this question at the beginning of treatment, through paying more attention to thought streams and inner dialogue, the patient learns increased ability to access and, “hear,” thoughts more clearly. What I am suggesting is that true mindfulness meditation—for both therapist and patient—promotes this greater awareness of one’s inner landscape.

Another result is one experiences fewer episodes of momentary or extended “spacing out,” in which one mentally spirals down into an inner space tunnel of thought, but is then unable to remember and verbalize the content of thought when coming out of the spiral. Vipassana meditation helps knowing where one has been when one has spaced out. One may spend time on mental detours, but, by knowing (remembering) where one has been, one will not have lost pockets of time in a cognitive amnesiac vortex.

Contemporary portrayals of mindfulness as present-centered and non-evaluative awareness do not include the traditional Buddhist meanings of the term, such as remembering the goals of practice based on previous learning (Bodhi, 2011; Dreyfus, 2011; Kirmayer, 2015). This means remembering one’s purpose in meditating, including eliminating greed, hatred, and delusion while cultivating wisdom, compassion, and loving-kindness (Gethin, 2011).

The Consumption Black Hole

While we would not have predicted the current surge of interest in mindfulness, it should not be surprising that the transmission of a Western-friendly, psychologized, and decontextualized rendition of it would be packaged for individual mass consumption or for delivery in health care settings. In fact, over 30 years ago, I was already warning both professional and lay audiences of what I termed “pernicious oneness” in the marketplace (Hendlin, 1983a, 1983b). I put it like this:

Perhaps Marcuse (1966) was correct in his analysis of our economic system. He believed that anything that could potentially bring about a radical transformation of the capitalist system (which wide-scale transpersonal consciousness could indeed do), would be swallowed whole by the system before it could have a disruptive effect and then would be offered back to the consumer in a way that would further strengthen the system itself.

Simply put, we are now confronting the consequences of “New Age” commercialism in the market place, not the least of which is the blending of Eastern and Western philosophies to the point of blurring and over-simplifying their beliefs and practices so they will be more palatable to the Western appetite for something that ‘goes down easily,’ where no chewing (discrimination) is required. Westerners, for the most part, want their spirituality the same way they want their drive-through hamburgers: without substance and without waiting. (Hendlin, 1983a, p. 63.)

In varying renditions, this point has been made more recently by a number of others (e.g., Cushman, 1995; Huntington, 2015; McMahan, 2008; Purser, 2014; Schedneck, 2013; Stanley, 2013; Wilson, 2014).

I will leave to Buddhist scholars and pundits to debate on the adaptation of contemporary notions of mindfulness and their relation to traditional Buddhist theory, ethics, and practice. If therapists, teachers, and consultants wish to apply “mindfulness-based” interventions to clinical and nonclinical problems such as overeating, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behavior, wasteful consumption, parenting issues, sexual pleasuring, workplace stress, achieving greater corporate profits through increased employee productivity, sports performance, or staying focused in police confrontations and military combat, I have no objection.

My position is simple: Any concept, method, or tool—decontextualized or not— that helps people feel more alive through the immediacy of experience and, at the same time, helps alleviate suffering on all levels (ego, existential, and spiritual) has a place in the therapeutic armamentarium, as well as with the population at large. Over 30 years later, it is even more apparent that the supermassive black hole of consumer consumption is, for good and bad, likely to devour and homogenize everything in its path.

Considerations for the Mindful Therapist

As counterintuitive as it may seem, many of those studying or teaching contemporary mindfulness have little or no actual experience themselves with practice (Brito, 2014; Grossman, 2010; Kabat-Zinn, 2003; Khong, 2009; Mikulus, 2007, 2010). Because many of the cognitive-behavioral psychotherapies do not emphasize that therapists in training have experiential engagement with the techniques they are learning (Brito, 2014), we have the rather perplexing predicament that therapists may learn about mindfulness only from a book or instruction manual.

Thus, one important consideration for the mindful therapist would be to value the deeper transformative possibilities of mindfulness meditation, as it has been practiced for 2,600 years. In the Buddhist contemplative context, this means cultivating wisdom and compassion. But the search for a “higher self” need not be couched within a theistic religious context, as the Dalai Lama has been declaring for decades (Gyatso, 1980). Healthy spirituality is not limited to any one set of beliefs, doctrines, or practices. As Vaughn (1991) has put it, “Spirituality can be found everywhere, not only in temples, churches and synagogues, not only in the stars, not only in music and song and dance, not only in the beauty of nature or the intimacy of a love relationship, but in every moment of every day of ordinary life” (p. 116).

A second consideration for the mindful therapist is the realization of the impermanence of all phenomena. The deeper this realization, the more one is able to allow all things to naturally “fall apart.” The body is continually changing, the mind is continually offering up more thoughts, time is passing, and the outer world in which we are living our everyday lives is in ceaseless flux. While we all know this to be true as a generality, it does not stop the part of us that clings to keeping our lives as stable and secure as possible. And, at least unconsciously, we apprehend that we are always just one banana peel away from the end of our lives and having to confront the Great Impermanence.

When we not only accept but embrace impermanence, we more easily surf the waves of change without getting caught in the pervasive undertow of fear and dread. This acceptance of impermanence is important as a coping and survival skill because it allows us to become more resilient, to move on from surprise, trauma, disappointment, regret, and resentment and let go of the everyday upsets that result when we cling too tightly to any given fixed outcome.

A third consideration for the effective mindful therapist is valuing the need for going beyond ego strengthening and including in one’s work, when appropriate, the process of dis-identification with the ego to what may lie beyond the individual self. Psychotherapy typically focuses on developing a functional ego structure to help cope adequately with the demands of the existing culture. According to Kornfield (1996), traditional psychological techniques “do not develop the penetrating insight that helps one cut through the deeper layers of illusion and hallucinations about individual separateness” (p. 100).

Wilber (2016) views the next step as a bridging together what have been the contrasting processes of what he calls “growing up” and “waking up.” He maintains that, up to the present, these two distinct tasks have been addressed separately. Growing up was the realm of developmental psychology and psychotherapy, while waking up was the realm of the Eastern contemplative traditions. He believes it is now time for a focus on methods that address both dimensions, claiming one without the other is only part of the picture.

Finally, the mindfulness based therapist would be well advised to learn how to effectively work in the present. I have witnessed no better approach for understanding how to do psychotherapy in the present than Gestalt therapy. The power of learning how to comment on a patient’s present behavior, without reservation, can be quite lively and instructive. As therapists, we are in an experimental crucible that permits and encourages honesty and directness. If the interest of the mindful based therapist is to help patients experience what the present is all about and to work with behavior in the here and now, this interest aligns well with Gestalt philosophy and practice. While it is obviously not currently in vogue, there are plenty of good Gestalt therapists still practicing throughout the world. To expand your cognitive-mindful practice skills, find them and learn what they have to offer.

My perspective here has been framed through the lens of a life-long seeker of wisdom in whatever belief system or practice it may be discovered. On the one hand, I have been delighted to witness the enthusiasm for contemplative wisdom beliefs and practices, such as mindfulness, expand in psychological research and practice, and into the culture at large. On the other hand, I want to see these practices be taken to a deeper level, so that they may be experienced in all of their intrinsic brilliance.

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