It’s tempting to believe in the social identity: the roles we perform, the personas we embody, at work, with friends, amongst family gatherings. Over the years we become so caught up perfecting these roles that we forget they’re fabrications, based on exaggerating our “winning” traits—our knowledge, sophistication, skills, achievements, etc—while concealing what believe be our weaknesses—inexperience, confusion, disappointments, loneliness and so on.
Emma Seppala, Ph.D, has done groundbreaking work on using yoga and meditation to help veterans cope with post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). Her work is featured in the “Free the Mind” documentary, reviewed here. While the most common treatment is to prescribe drugs, research shows that the drugs very rarely, if ever work. But for patients who meditate and do yoga, there are some very promising results.
[Editor’s note: After reading Brandt Passalacqua’s excellent blog post, I had to admit that my curiosity was piqued. So Brandt thought it might be fun to do an interview. Our schedules and distant time zones made it hard to connect and but we managed, through the magic of email, to get it done.]
I remember Sogyal Rinpoche saying that learning to meditate is the greatest gift you can give yourself. He was right. The best thing I ever did, not just for myself but for everyone around me, was to take the time I did to learn to meditate so that I can snap my fingers / switch my perspective / turn my mind and instead of being confused, frustrated, rushed and tense, I become calm, clear and undistractracted. It's a kind of magic. I feel the tension and stress fall away. A smile blossoms on my face and in my heart. My work proceeds more efficiently and I am more empathetic to others.
Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo’s compelling new documentary “Free the Mind” is not only transformatively moving but informative and hopeful. There's something restorative about watching the gentle, compassionate story highlighting the use of the non-pharmacological methods of mindfulness, yoga and meditation to overcome the anxiety and trauma suffered by the film’s subjects.
Professor Paul Gilbert, OBE has spent much of the last twenty years developing a therapeutic approach which he calls Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT). CFT is not a stand-alone therapy as such, but offers another approach to working or organizing ideas for practitioners of all sorts of therapy. It has been a promising approach, especially when working with patients who experience a great deal of shame or self-criticism.
Andy Fraser and I spent some time with him at the recent Buddhism and Medicine Forum and asked him to explain a bit about CFT and its relationship to Buddhist practice. It is very encouraging to hear about how centuries old practices of mindfulness and compassion can be combined with modern psycho-therapeutic approaches with remarkable results.
In the great myth, Sisyphus is condemned by the gods, day in and out, to roll a large boulder up to the top of a steep mountain. When the stone reaches the peak, it rolls back down to bottom. And so he would have to start his task over, from the bottom of the hill, day in and out. The punishment is clear: in the hopelessness and repetitiveness of the punishment, the gods are forcing Sisyphus to confront that which most of us prefer to ignore: the futility that underlies existence.
Theses days, it seems like nearly everyone is barely managing to cope with the stress of day-to-day life. In addition, we are often reacting to situations based on unhealed wounds resulting from traumatic childhood experiences rather than simply responding authentically to the present moment.
A busy life can be experienced as an addictive video game, comprising the twisty route from a morning coffee to the time we return home and close the door on the world and its demands. The circuit is strewn with pleasant opportunities—friendly conversations—which we navigate toward, and unpleasant roadblocks—impossible characters with impractical deadlines—which we try to avoid. Caught up in the game, our frustrations and disappointments are stifled so we can keep moving. We lose track of how these blocked emotions translate into stress carried in the body; our external fixation and continual thoughts relegate the body to the corners of awareness; the tension that lies beneath our attention spans often remains unnoticed.