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Psychoanalysis and Mindfulness

Psychoanalysis and Mindfulness

Psychoanalysis and Mindfulness - AwarenessPsychoanalysis and mindfulness may seem to have little in common.  They both involve the mind and are often focused on taming disturbing thoughts and feelings.  But their methods seem to be completely at odds with each other.  Or are they?  Let’s take a look at mindfulness and see how it may be an excellent adjunct to psychoanalysis.

Mindfulness

Try, for a minute, to do nothing at all.  Don’t talk or move around or think about anything.  Just be.  For a full minute.  What happens?  If you’re like most people, you’ll find this to be harder to do than it sounds.  Your thoughts may wander.  “What’s the purpose of this?”  Thoughts or images of the past or future may emerge.  “What do I need to do tomorrow?”  “I wonder what he meant by that?” . . . 

The mind easily gets lost in endless thinking.  Thoughts create emotions and emotions generate more thoughts, and so on.  This may be fine when these are positive and pleasant thoughts and emotions.  But often they are not.  And often they’re not about the immediate present.  Instead, they’re likely to be about past upsets or future worries.  You may lay awake at night because you worry about what might happen tomorrow.  Maybe you can’t stop thinking about that mistake you made last week.  You may constantly be busy with the things that need to be completed.

Mindfulness teaches how to bring more balance to this tendency, by focusing the attention on the here and now—attention to the things that are happening in this very moment, in a non-judgmental way.   Thinking about and learning from past mistakes, planning for the future, and acknowledging sorrows and worries are all important.  But people often get lost in thoughts about the past and future, to the detriment of experiencing life in the present.

Note that acceptance plays a key role in mindfulness.  Mindfulness is not turning off the mind.  Mindfulness does not restrict, deny, or inhibit thoughts or feelings.  Instead, through mindful attention and acceptance, you allow every feeling, emotion, sensation, or thought to be there.  Instead of fighting against them, mindfulness fosters willingness to acknowledge, allow, and accept these internal states.  

By letting go of this struggle, you may come to realize that many thoughts, worries, and feelings fade away automatically, and probably sooner than if they’d been fought against.  Emotions come and go and thoughts, worries, and feelings often fade away automatically if allowed to.  By letting go of the struggle against them and giving them room to exist, unhappy thoughts and feelings can be experienced as temporary and less overwhelming.  

Mindfulness helps you create a different relationship with your thoughts, feelings, and emotions.  When you become an observer of your own inner states, you are no longer identified by them or completely lost in them.  You can still experience the emotions or feelings, but now have the choice of being fully taken by them or not.

Psychoanalysis

What I’ve just described for mindfulness is actually similar to the stance of the psychoanalyst.  Inviting you to say whatever comes to mind without censoring your associations.  Helping you become aware of the thoughts, feelings, and patterns that arise.  Helping you make sense of them without judgment, until they can be dealt with instead of battled against. 

Mindfulness practices are helpful tools for bringing a person back to the present moment.  By allowing thoughts and feelings to be present without judgment, a person may also become more aware of the internal states, of recurring patterns of thoughts and feelings, and of issues that seem repeatedly to cause distress.  This self-awareness can be very helpful in therapy.

Resistances to meditation—boredom, distraction, sleepiness, etc.—are also common complaints in mindfulness practice.  They can be useful signals that outside guidance—as in psychoanalysis—may be helpful in removing barriers to further insights.  And yes, now we may need to delve into transferences from . . . the past . . .  But only so that the person can be freed from the past.

Psychoanalysis and Mindfulness

This brings us back to the question of whether psychoanalysis and mindfulness have anything in common.  The more experience I have with both as a clinician, the more excited I am about how they can be used together in practice, to facilitate a person’s self-understanding for a fruitful life in the present. 

To learn more about psychoanalysis, see Classical Psychoanalytic Theory.  To learn more about the theoretical foundations of mindfulness, see Mindfulness Meditation Training: Introduction, Attention, and the Present Moment, or for its applications, see Mindfulness Meditation Training: Body Scan Meditation and Informal Mindfulness Practices.

Tips for Meditation Challenges

Tips for Meditation Challenges

 

Meditation ChallengesYou know it’s good for you.  Many studies have shown the benefits of including meditation in your life.  But, whether you already meditate regularly or just wish you could, you’re probably aware of challenges to establishing it as a regular practice.  You may feel bored, restless, or impatient.  Or start to feel physically uncomfortable.  Maybe you can’t reign your thoughts back from wandering to worries or to the sound of a dripping faucet.  Meditation challenges can interfere with your progress.

There are many kinds of meditation.  I’ll be focusing on mindfulness meditation here, as research shows its benefits go far beyond relaxation.  With mindfulness, a person learns to focus attention on the present moment, without judging or evaluating thoughts or feelings (see Mindfulness Training: Introduction, Attention, and the Present Moment for a full discussion on mindfulness and its benefits).   

Let’s look at three common problems for all kinds of meditation—boredom, restlessness, and impatience—and some suggestions for managing them.

Boredom

Your mind starts to wander.  “I’ve got so much to do…”  “When will this be over…”  Boredom may allow your thoughts to focus on the past—and ruminations about past disappointments—or on the future—and anxieties about what’s in store next.  Or it may just disengage you from the present moment.  How can you bring your mind back, fully engaged with the present?

First, be kind to yourself.  Acknowledge the feelings—accept that they’ve occurred and let them be.  Boredom is a common problem and an opportunity to practice refocusing on the present.

Become aware of the thoughts related to boredom.  “What’s the point of doing this?” 
“When will it be over?”
“I can’t be bothered.”  “This is a waste of time.”  Allow them to be and then to pass on.

Attend to the sensations with curiosity.  Where did the boredom come from?  Where is it going?  Where is it felt in the body?  Where is it leading you—are you wanting to fall asleep?

Take a third party perspective and simply observe the boredom within you, as separate from yourself.  You are not the boredom.  It is simply an experience that will come and go.  Do not judge it, just allow it to be.

Now, focus back on the breath, in the present moment.  Observe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they come and go. 

You are likely to find that feelings, thoughts, and sensations really do pass with time—this itself may be interesting.  And it’s an important lesson to remember, next time you feel overwhelmed by any of them in other areas of your life.

Restlessness

“I can’t stand laying here for one more minute…”  Restlessness is similar to boredom, but with more energy.  You may be feeling fidgety. 

If you’re struggling with settling into meditating, begin with something more active.  Mindful activities, in which you are fully focused on the present moment, can be beneficial in and of themselves.  They may also help calm the mind and prepare it for meditation.  You may wish to begin your meditation time with mindful walking or mindful yoga.  Mindfulness Training: Body Scan Meditation and Informal Mindfulness Practices presents more ideas for informal mindfulness practices.

As with boredom, if restlessness occurs during meditation, observe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations, without reaction.  Just notice what the mind wants but continue to sit or lay.  This is an opportunity to discipline the mind.  You are in control of your mind, not the other way around.

Impatience

“Why am I not feeling better?  I’ve been meditating every day for a week now!”  Many beginning meditators expect to get immediate results from meditation.  Meditation takes time, effort, and practice for results.  It requires a great deal of patience.

The good news is that patience is something that can be built—it is strengthened with work and practice.    

If impatience arises during meditation, simply observe the impatience without reacting.  As with most feelings and thoughts, the impatience is likely to pass.  Each time you are able to allow it to be, without reaction, you are building patience as a skill.  

To reap its benefits, it’s important to schedule meditation into your daily routine and practice it for at least a month.  If you’re ready to give up on it, ask yourself how long a period you could tolerate for now—15 minutes? 10 minutes? 5 minutes?  Even if it’s only for 1 minute, start with that.  Continue to practice it, as scheduled, gently increasing the time as you can. 

With regular practice, you’ll notice your impatience lessening.  And the patience you’re building is likely to translate to other areas of your life.

It’s Worth the Effort

The goal of mindfulness interventions is to teach participants to become aware of body sensations, thoughts, and emotions and to relate to them with an open, nonjudgmental attitude (e.g., Shapiro, Astin, Bishop, & Cordova, 2005).   Such an open state of mind can be cultivated by repeated practice.   

Studies show that mindfulness meditation engages many underlying mechanisms, including regulating impulsivity and building self-control (e.g., Fetterman, Robinson, Ode, & Gordon, 2010).  It helps build skills that can translate into success in other areas of your life.  Academic performance, interpersonal relationships, and life satisfaction have all been found to benefit from regular mindfulness exercises. 

Every challenge to meditation presents an opportunity to strengthen your control over your mind.

Additional Resources

Mindfulness Training: Body Scan Meditation and Informal Mindfulness Practices provides more meditation tips as well as discussion and demonstrations on the body scan meditation and informal mindfulness practices.

See Facing Dreaded Projects (How to Make a Mole Hill Out of a Mountain) for more ideas on approaching tasks that seem insurmountable.  

Learning about the theory behind mindfulness and research findings on its benefits may also be helpful—see Mindfulness Training: Introduction, Attention, and the Present Moment

References

 

 

 

Fetterman, A. K., Robinson, M. D., Ode, S., et al. (2010). Neuroticism as a risk factor for behavioral dysregulation: A mindfulness mediation perspective. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 29, 301-321.  https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2010.29.3.301

Shapiro, S. L., Astin, J. A., Bishop, S. R., & Cordova, M. (2005). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for health care professionals: Results from a randomized trial. International Journal of Stress Management, 12, 164-176. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/00a3/f4a4906373dff0a0290f1354d7bd0f2bd016.pdf

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