By Jonathan S. Kaplan, Ph.D.
This month, I had an opportunity to conduct an e-mail interview with Dr. Miles Neale, a clinical psychologist and devoted Buddhist teacher. He has considerable expertise as a psychotherapist and meditation instructor, serving as a faculty member of the Tibet House, Lineage Mentor of The Interdependence Project, and consultant to many wellness programs throughout the country. To learn more about Dr. Neale, please visit his website, Buddhist Psychotherapy.
Also, Dr. Neale will be teaching an all-day workshop on mindful at Pure Yoga in NYC on Sunday, November 13th (Click here for details: Mindfulness Workshop). Given Dr. Neale's knowledge and experience, it promises to be very informative, helpful, and--dare I say--enlightening.
Later this month, we will be presenting a talk together on mindfulness, Buddhism, and psychotherapy. It will be held at The Interdependence Project in NYC on Monday, November 21, from 7 – 9 pm (Click here for details: Mindfulness and Insight). It should be a lively and interesting discussion: I’ll be talking about mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral therapy, while Dr. Neale will be discussing Buddhism and psychodynamic therapy. Hope to see you there!
How did you become involved in Buddhism?
When I was 20 years old I lived for five months in a Buddhist monastery in Bodh Gaya, India, the site of the Buddha's enlightenment. Having been brought up surrounded by affluence yet still feeling dissatisfied, I was looking for an alternative to consumerist culture. I found everything I had been searching for my whole life and more, and have never looked back.
Why did you become engaged with the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism specifically as opposed to other forms of Buddhism?
It wasn't by choice. I became affiliated with the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism through my mentor Dr. Joe Loizzo. At the time I was in need of direction and the teacher appeared, and with him came an authentic lineage. Joe's mentor happens to be Bob Thurman, and Bob's mentor is His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
What have you found to be the most helpful or nourishing aspect of your practice?
The most helpful would be the close mentoring, guidance and compassion shown to me by all my teachers. I couldn't have made it without them. The most nourishing would have to be spiritual friendships and sharing the Dharma with others.
What suggestions do you have for people who wish to practice mindfulness in the city?
In general, I advise people to conjoin their study of mindfulness meditation with the wisdom teachings of emptiness and the ethical teachings of causality (karma). Follow the complete scientific method of the Three Higher Trainings based on the Buddha's coherent psychology of the Four Noble Truths. That will ensure the result of lasting freedom and happiness. For those who live and practice in the city, I also recommend the mind-training teachings (lojong) of Tibetan Buddhism. Those are black belt level practices of converting challenging interpersonal interactions into spiritual opportunities.
The roles of Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist are distinct, yet related. What are your observations of the differences and similarities?
Ultimately, they serve the same function to help people out of suffering. Practically, there are certain important differences. For example, psychotherapists are trained to treat psychopathology and help restore or develop ego functioning. Buddhist teachers can sometimes have little training in severe mental disturbances, but may have the advantage in helping people who already possess stable and coherent egos to achieve exceptional levels of happiness and wellbeing that Western traditions have only just begun to understand. Also, I think psychotherapists know how to skillfully use the human relationship and interpersonal dynamics as a vehicle for therapeutic ends, whereas Buddhist teachers possess a plethora of meditative techniques that they dispense as direct antidotes for specific psychological issues. I think each tradition and role has a lot to offer and learn from the other.
Based on your years of experience teaching mindfulness and meditation, what has been the most significant challenge for you?
The biggest challenge has been presenting the teachings on causality (karma), the continuity of consciousness, and the Buddhist paradigm of infinite life. That worldview is essential because it is the basis for ethical living, and the development of bodhicitta or universal responsibility. It’s a tough sell in our culture where the pervasive scientific worldview secretly harbors nihilism. If we reduce consciousness to an epiphenomenon of the brain that vanishes at the time of death, then we are left without a coherent rationale for moral action on an individual basis and stewardship of the planet on a global basis.
Who do you typically see in your psychotherapy practice? How do you help them?
I mostly see people interested in Buddhism, yoga, and meditation, who face ordinary human challenges like anxiety, depression, work burnout and relationship issues. I use the Buddha's Four Noble Truths method combined with principals of interpersonal psychodynamic therapy. In my approach, therapy is a life-long re-educational process of learning how to live in accord with reality of how things are rather than a fantasy of how we want them to be. Therefore, I recommend that patients enroll in the ongoing courses we offer at the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science and other places so that they can develop a sound knowledge base and support for meditative training. Then we are free to use individual psychotherapy sessions for coaching and to custom tailor contemplative methods to address their specific needs.
What will you be teaching at your upcoming workshop at Pure Yoga?
I'll be teaching mindfulness meditation to help people cultivate greater awareness and self-acceptance. Then I'll be discussing the specific mechanisms that make mindfulness effective in the treatment depression, anxiety, pain and medical conditions, and finally I'll contrast the clinical use of mindfulness with its traditional Buddhist application for spiritual liberation and lasting happiness. I'm delighted that mental health professionals can receive continuing educational credit for this workshop.
What will you be covering as part of your series on Buddhism and psychology at The Interdependence Project?
I organized the Buddhism and Psychology series of dialogues with the intention to facilitate spontaneous and intimate conversations between practitioners. I invited several of my colleagues with East/West backgrounds and encouraged them to speak openly about their personal practice and experiences to give the audience members a glimpse into the lives and minds of therapists and teachers on the contemplative path. I hope to take a second fiddle in each of the dialogues and enjoy what each of them has to say!
BTW, Dr. Neale was away in India during our correspondence. As such, I feel especially grateful for his willingness to talk with me, and allowing us the opportunity to learn more about mindfulness from a Buddhist perspective. Thanks again, Miles!
By Jonathan S. Kaplan, Ph.D.
By Jonathan S. Kaplan, Ph.D.
Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of acclaimed book The Mindful Child, has been teaching mindfulness to children for over a decade. Originally working as a lawyer in New York City, she was introduced to mindfulness and meditation by her husband after he was diagnosed with a serious medical condition. Together with their daughter, they moved to upstate in order to help him recover (which he did). And later, Susan moved with her family (now including her second child) to Los Angeles, where she began teaching mindfulness to children more formally.
In 2000, she began developing the Inner Kids Foundation to offer mindfulness training to inner city schoolchildren. Together with researchers from UCLA (my alma mater!), she studied the effects of her program in a randomized, controlled trial of 2nd and 3rd graders. Results revealed improved executive functioning (e.g., emotional regulation, attention, etc.) in the children who demonstrated the most difficulties in these areas prior to participation in the study. This finding suggests that mindfulness training might be powerful intervention for children diagnosed with ADD/ADHD.
Susan is a gifted pioneer in teaching mindfulness to children and teens, and I highly recommend her book and her forthcoming workshop with Sharon Salzberg (another one of my favorite people!). On October 16th, Susan and Sharon are leading an all-day workshop on “Mindfulness with Children” in New York City. Fortunately, I had an opportunity to correspond with Susan recently, and I asked her some questions about her work.
JSK: What technique or approach is the best way for parents to introduce mindfulness to their children?
SKG: One thing we know for sure about this work is that there’s not a one-size-fits-all technique/approach that is best for every situation. But certainly the wisest thing for parents to do is to develop their own personal practice, and once that happens the rest will evolve naturally.
In your work with children, which approach or technique has emerged as the consistent favorite?
Shifting awareness away from an emotional upset to a sensory experience as a way to calm down when someone is upset.
What about with teens?
Breath and sensory awareness while lying down.
What has been one of the sillier moments involved in teaching mindfulness to kids?
I use the prompt in my Pre-K through elementary school classes “If you could have a sensory superpower what would you chose and how would you use it to help the world?” and have gotten some wonderfully crazy answers. If we could develop sensory superpowers, we would have a lot of creative child superheroes using their senses of taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing to fight crime, clean up pollution, and save the world in many original ways.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of teaching mindfulness to children?
Hard to say. Guess there are 2 areas that standout – the first is in connection with specific kids and seeing how quickly they are able to take simple mindful strategies and apply them/integrate them in to their daily lives to help during those times growing up where life can become complicated or difficult to navigate. And the second is more of a meta aspect of mindfulness and children, just watching the field expand as quickly as it has expanded and take-off the way it has taken off. What started a decade ago as a handful of people is now an authentic grassroots movement that is taking root worldwide. Those of us who have been in it from the beginning are happily watching this next group of teachers pick up the baton and run with and integrate our early work into their professional practice in ways that we couldn’t have imagined a decade ago.
Like anything that is looking to transform communities and systems, this work takes a village and right now there are many strong teachers and programs but they are spread out all over the place and exhausted by the pace and the demands of the work. There needs to be some big-picture thinker/funder to step into the sector and seed true field development with an eye toward building alliances and providing an incentive that encourages collaboration. There are some rumblings that this is starting to happen, and if it does in fact happen, and people begin to work together rather than separately, I think all of us will be pleasantly surprised by how quickly this work is integrated into the mainstream.
Increasingly, I’ve seen Buddhism implicitly reflected in the mindfulness programs and exercises offered to children, and I wonder about this phenomenon. Would you speak a little bit about the role of Buddhism when teaching mindfulness to kids?
I joke about how there’s a lot of fear about mentioning the “B” word, or Buddhism, in a secular context and there’s no reason to be afraid. In fact, I know from my old days as a law student and moot court that the best strategy if you’re arguing a position is to spend your greatest effort preparing your argument for what you view as your weakest position. The Buddhist foundations/applications of the secular mindfulness work can be a great strength rather than an Achilles heel if reframed as a well-established, evidence based training protocol shown to reduce stress, improve immune function, develop executive function and attention with measurable results when it comes to changes not just in the health and wellness of the individual but also in the likelihood of an individual who has undergone that training in engaging in social, compassionate action.
Many of my adult blog readers live and work in cities, and their lives as parents are incredibly busy and chaotic. What practice or insight have you found to be the most helpful for stressed-out, urban parents?
I have a colleague who has attended a number of trainings by Mingyur Rinpoche and she told me he often teaches “short-time, many-times” which I think may be one of the wisest teachings around for those of us leading hectic lives.
You’ll be teaching an all-day program with Sharon Salzberg at the New York Insight Center on October 16th. What can participants expect from the workshop?
In the morning Sharon is going to lead a half day of meditation touching briefly on concentration, mindfulness and compassion. In the afternoon I’ll take each of her points and offer an adaptation or two for children that track the classical practices in an age-appropriate and secular way.
If you have any interest in teaching mindfulness to children--your own kids or others--then I strongly encourage you to come to the workshop. I (JSK) will be there to learn more about developmentally appropriate teaching methods for mindfulness (please flag me down if you come!). Here is the website for registration: Mindfulness with Children. I really hope to see you there. If you’re unable to come, I encourage your to visit Susan’s website (complete with video demonstrations), blog, and/or the Inner Kids Foundation.
By Jonathan S. Kaplan, Ph.D.
Mindfulness: The Basics
I’ve been giving a lot of talks on mindfulness lately, and I thought that I would share some of what I’ve been presenting (please pardon the pun!). Many people have expressed appreciation for this simple breakdown of mindfulness, and I hope that you find it useful, too. So, here are the basics of mindfulness: what, who, when, where, how, and why.
Mindfulness is a special kind of attention characterized by attitudes of openness, curiosity, and acceptance. We notice our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and sense perceptions as we're having them in the present moment. Recently, I learned of another definition that I liked: mindfulness is paying extra-ordinary attention to ordinary experiences.
Who can practice mindfulness? Anyone, even you! You don’t have to be a guru on a hilltop or a Zen monk in order to become more aware to your experiences.
We can practice mindfulness anytime. Admittedly, some times are better--or easier--than others. It is hard to be aware of our thoughts and feelings, for example, if we’re caught in a very emotional moment. It helps to have a modicum of alertness, but the main ingredient is simply the intention to be mindful. There is no perfect time to practice. We simply need to use whatever time we have and get right into it!
Relatedly, there is no perfect place to practice mindfulness, but some places are easier than others. Quiet, tranquil places are a bit easier due to the lack of distractions, but we can be mindful anywhere (even on the subway).
There are two dimensions to consider when practicing mindfulness: (a) the kind of attention being employed and (b) the degree of formality associated with it.
Kind of Attention
We can focus our awareness like a laser beam and become very immersed in noticing a small detail or perception. Alternatively, our attention can be diffuse, allowing us to become aware of--but not focused on--whatever arises.
We experience this attentional difference easily through visual perception. We can really stare at something and describe its properties (in my recent book, I describe becoming mindfully aware of an object at work, like a stapler) or we can gaze at a point in space and allow ourselves to notice objects in our peripheral vision. This is the difference between concentrated and diffuse awareness, and reflects the two ways in which we can practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness can also be done formally (through meditation) or informally (through activities of daily living). There are many different kinds of meditation, and I do recommend that people try it. Sharon Salzberg’s book Real Happiness is a nice, structured introduction to meditation, and I’ve used it as a textbook in my class for undergraduates. If you find it difficult to sit still (or if your mind is particularly active), walking meditation can be a helpful place to start.
Informally, we can become aware anytime of whatever we think, do, feel, or sense. We can notice our thoughts (e.g., what is going through our minds when stuck in traffic), become aware of our actions (e.g., how it feels in our body to walk), feel the physical embodiment of emotions (e.g., what happens to your breathing when you’re angry), or pay attention to our senses (e.g., see any visual signs of the changing seasons). Often, people make the mistake of glorifying meditation and dismissing informal practice. This is unfortunate. Ideally, we apply mindfulness in both ways. An exercise analogy is appropriate here: Working out helps us get stronger, faster, and leaner more quickly, but it doesn’t help if we’re also overeating and being a couch potato. Walking more, taking the stairs (vs. elevator) and other informal forms of exercise will help us get in shape over time, but it takes more time and consistency. Within Buddhism, some teachers have noted that meditation can develop insights strongly and quickly, while informal practice slowly cultivates a solid, experiential wisdom.
Why practice mindfulness? This is a very important question, actually. Why do this at all? Mindfulness helps us pay more attention to our experiences, which is great when they’re pleasant, but not so much fun when they’re painful. Each person needs to articulate an answer for him/herself. Here are some of the general ones that I discuss in my presentation:
- Research has shown that mindfulness increases attention, lowers stress, improves physical health and immune functioning, and provides relief from certain kinds of psychological difficulties.
- It allows us to pause before reacting in ways that might be unhelpful or hurtful, or interrupt times when we’re already stuck in a negative spiral.
- It invites us to experience our lives more purposefully and more fully.
- It makes it possible to realize that our actions are not limited by our thoughts or feelings.
- It allows us to be more present for the joyful and happy moments of life.
- Often, it feels better than distracting ourselves or being “stuck in our heads.”
I hope that this basic introduction to mindfulness has been interesting and--dare I say--enlightening. If you have other thoughts, questions, or reactions, please feel free to share them.
Dear friends, readers, and fellow travelers,
I'll be giving a public talk next week on mindfulness practice in the city. I'll discuss the basics of mindfulness (i.e., the what, how, where, when, why, and even who!), and apply the practice of mindfulness to common experiences in town, like waiting in line or riding the subway. The talk will be held from 7 - 9 pm on Wednesday, September 7th, at The Interdependence Project in the Bowery. For more details, please visit the Registration Page: UM at IDP. Hope to see you there!
and in this light
things seem clearer
which does not presume
but rather crisper
along the edges
cutting lines through the haze and glare
leaving illuminated corners and pathways
and in this light
tears flow more readily
which does not presume
but rather a rooting
of seeds thought forgotten
during the long winter and stormy skies
urging towards singular slumber
and in this light
a breath can be breathed
a note can be played
a line can be drawn
a smile can form
which does not presume
but rather rightness in all
along the journey.