Depression and anxiety thrive on habitual negative thinking and beliefs. Changing these patterns is not a matter of will power, but of developing an objective and mindful relationship with the core emotions that empower negative thoughts and beliefs. Mindfulness gives us the tools to cultivate this quality of inner relationship, and this lays the groundwork for significant change and transformation. In short, mindfulness restores plasticity at the emotional and perceptual levels and this is central to the healing process.
Mindfulness is the art of listening to our inner feelings, and to care for those painful emotions that lie at the core of depression and anxiety, fear and other forms of persistent emotional stress that undermines our happiness and that adversely affects our personal relationships. However, this quality of mindful listening, of knowing with mindfulness, is not the same as thinking about our suffering or trying to understand why we are unhappy. Analytical thinking can be a useful strategy and forms a part of the therapeutic healing process, but understanding is seldom enough by itself to resolve the inner pain of depression or anxiety. We have to move to a much more subtle level of experience, below the level of the thinking mind: the realm of feeling itself.
An emotion like depression is formed when feeling energy becomes trapped within the mental structures of thoughts and beliefs. It is not the thoughts or beliefs that are the problem, but the emotional feeling energy invested in the thought or belief. If we can learn to release this trapped energy, then the thought/belief becomes harmless, stripped of its power and much easier to change. We know that we need to let go of negative thoughts such as “ I am a useless person. I just can’t cope. I feel unloved.” The difficulty is in how to let go, because the emotions are so strong that they overwhelm and enslave us, and we habitually become them over and over again. Effective letting go is not an activity of the thinking mind and not an act of will power, but something that happens quite naturally as we begin to dissolve the emotional part of the thought objects that keep us bound. This compulsive-obsessive energy is the real problem and there can be no letting go until it is resolved.
Mindfulness begins when we are able to look at an emotion-thought-memory-belief as an object, a mental object that we can observe and investigate, in the same way that a scientist might investigate a new life form. This is quite different to our usual blind reactivity of becoming the emotion, of wallowing in the patterns of negative and destructive thinking. When we establish mindfulness, we let go of thinking about the emotion and direct our attention to the feeling quality, the felt-sense of the anxiety, depression, sorrow or grief. We focus on the feeling energy of the mental object, rather than the contents or story. This energy is often associated with sensory feelings such as blackness, heaviness, dullness, and is frequently felt in the stomach, heart area, or other part of the body. Mindfulness is the conscious awareness and investigation of this feeling energy.
Now this is when it gets interesting, because when we learn to sit mindfully with this energetic quality of our mental objects, the emotions, thoughts, memories, perceptions and beliefs that make up our experience, the whole scene changes. The emotions become malleable, pliable and regain the plasticity that is lost when we become reactive and blindly follow habitual emotional reactions. Emotional plasticity is an extremely important concept in mindfulness psychology and central to the healing process. Reactivity inhibits plasticity and creates rigidity, which results in mental suffering. Mindfulness reverses this process and restores emotional plasticity and this promotes transformation and resolution of anxiety, depression and other forms of suffering caused when feeling energy become frozen around mental constructs. There is now growing evidence that mindfulness-based emotional plasticity is closely associated with brain plasticity, and as we cultivate the mindfulness response to our inner emotional suffering, we actually change the neuronal pathways that determine how we perceive and react to our suffering.
Mindfulness has a direct healing effect, rather like the warming effect of sunlight that promotes healthy growth. When you shine mindfulness on any part of the mind that is in pain, that mindfulness heals and resolves the pain. It can be likened to the sun shining onto a block of ice (our inner emotional pain); the ice simply melts by itself, without any struggle or effort required other than keeping the sunlight shining onto the ice. It is the same way with mindfulness. We create a healing space around the suffering when we focus mindfulness on the felt-sense of our grief, anxiety or suffering. Let go of the contents and focus on sitting with the feelings. Be fully present with the feelings, not trying to fix them or struggle with them, but simply be fully present with them, knowing them as they are and taking the time to listen in silence. You will be surprised at what unfolds and the natural healing that occurs when you respond to suffering with mindfulness.
Simply sit down, close the eyes and choose to sit with your pain. Don’t indulge in thinking about the emotion, simply feel it and stay mindful of the feeling. This means also being very vigilant of any tendency to react to the feelings or become seduced into the content of the emotion. When this happens, simply return your attention to the feeling and re-focus your mindfulness on the feeling. Stay present with compassion and an open heart and watch, listen and know what unfolds. This engaged presence, the essence of mindfulness heals as sure as the gentle warmth of the sun gives new life the chance to spring forth from the dark, cold earth.
Peter Strong, PhD is a scientist and Buddhist Psychotherapist, based in Boulder, Colorado, who specializes in the study of mindfulness and its application in Online Mindfulness Psychotherapy for healing the root causes of anxiety, depression and traumatic stress.
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