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Ben Hearn
Jan 03, 2018

Mental Health and Buddhism

          Mindfulness. It’s a term that we have probably all heard over the past few years, as it is quickly becoming a fad of sorts not only in mental health, but also for CEOs, after-school programs, and medical clinics. Merriam-Webster defines mindfulness as “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis”. Though it is a fairly new trend in the West, mindfulness is not a new concept at all, having its roots in Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism. I have been particularly interested in Buddhism and mindfulness for about a decade now and have always been fascinated by its similarities to mental health practices.

            Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, has greatly influenced the mental health field through the development of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, an approach developed by Marsha Linehan. DBT is a skill-heavy approach to treatment which teaches emotion regulation and tolerance to high risk clients such as those with borderline personality disorder. DBT describes foundations of mindfulness using two broad categories of ‘What’ and ‘How’. ‘What’ includes observing, describing, and participating, while ‘how’ includes non-judgmentally, one-mindfully, and effectively. If you’ve never familiarized yourself with these two categories or their attributes, I highly recommend that you look at them through the DBT lens as a way to understand mindfulness. DBT also has a host of other lists and acronyms for practicing mindfulness, another characteristic that it shares with Buddhism (which is very fond of lists and numbers).

            Some of the most practical things I’ve learned have been through the lens of impermanence and the practice of naming. As an example of these, I instruct clients during a breathing exercise to use self-talk such as “There is anxiety here now” rather than “I am anxious” as a way to associate themselves less with the emotion and more as an experiencer of it. Another metaphor of sorts that I find useful in describing mental pain, particularly anxiety, is that of the second arrow. Buddhism describes two arrows which cause us suffering, the first, being shot at us by the world, causes the initial suffering, such as a significant other not returning our call. The second (and sometimes third, fourth, and hundredth) arrows are thoughts which we have which cause us suffering, such as wondering “What did I do to make them mad?” or “I wonder if he’s cheating?”. These secondary arrows can be reduced in number by DBT’s ‘what’ skills of observing and describing. Those of us familiar with CBT will see a very close link to the ‘arrow’ metaphor and basic CBT psychoeducation such as the cognitive triangle.

            Hopefully, we have a firm grasp or conception of what mindfulness is before teaching mindful or deep breathing techniques to clients. I would argue, however, that simply being able to define it for clients is not enough. For one, speaking from a practical perspective, we should be comfortable doing the things that we ask our clients to do. It makes it much easier to relate to their struggles of implementing skills outside of session when we have taken on that challenge ourselves. Additionally, practicing these skills ourselves works to increase our own understanding of them and brings levies them to work for us in our own lives.

            While I’m not Buddhist, cultivating a (fairly) regular meditation practice is one of the most rewarding and challenging tasks I have set for myself and now seems more necessary than ever. Twenty minutes on the cushion before work helps me carve out space that is purely my own. Often, I marvel at how my mind flitters from one thing to the next or turns a singular thought over and over again. When I notice this, I gently return my attention to the breath, sensations, or a mantra depending on my practice for the morning. As I settle, a deep sense of calm and spaciousness envelopes my awareness and I become emboldened for my day. I feel the practice’s results in session as well – noticing as my mind wanders in session, I redirect my attention to my client. Overall, it has contributed greatly to my own self-care, spirituality, and ability to provide a deeper, more focused presence to my clients.

            I hope that my readers for today will ask themselves how they are mindful in their own lives. Should an answer be unsure, asking where that bit of space can be carved out for yourself. I hope my readers will challenge themselves to try practicing regularly for a week – just to see. You may find it’s an indispensable resource. 

Ben Hearn is a new professional who is currently working as a school-based counselor. He is passionate about working with trauma and enjoys applying the fields of neuroscience, philosophy, ethics, and psychopharmacology to counseling practice. 

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