Updated: Aug 18, 2021
By Isaac Smith
Source: Illustration 38574236 © John Niernberger – Dreamstime.com
Humans have walked the planet for 300,000 years. Since that “first man” we have been struggling (or cursed) with the same issues and questions that we have today.
1. “Why are we here”,
2. “Who am I?”
3. “How should I conduct myself”
4. “Why and how do I feel?” and along those lines:
5. “How can I be happy?”
And since we didn’t have 330 channels and 130 million books to distract ourselves at the time, these were questions that consumed us.
Regardless of what religious tradition you belong to or not, religion in its many forms has been our way of answering these questions. It’s given us purpose, setting our lives in context of something beyond us. Those that are deeply religious have an ordained code of values that they are directed to follow, and for obvious reasons they have been able to control their existential angst as a result. This spirituality helps them to deal with those first three questions. Further, even in non-religious circles, our answers to these questions tend to be along the same lines—we find meaning by subsuming ourselves to something greater; something that aligns with our values (e.g. politics, community, art, science, etc.).
A Brief History of How Humans Have Dealt with Emotion.
When it comes to questions surrounding our inner emotional life, like: “Why/how do I feel?” and “How can I be #happy?” the oldest answers are still alive in the East, where they are found in different religious expressions of meditation: Hinduism and Buddhism. Notably, both these eastern religions seem to imply that the question of “How can I be happy?” is as silly as asking “Why is Blue?” If you try to answer it, all you get is circular thinking.
In Sanskrit (the language of Hinduism) “nirvana” is the word for the idealized-state one seeks to reach, while “sukha” is a separate word for “bliss” that one can experience emotionally. In English the two words are one because we expect that happiness is found through constant bliss. Eastern thought knows that this is not possible, which is why Nirvana is more like a sense of perfect calm.
Meanwhile in some circles in the West we still suffer under the yoke of the “Protestant Work Ethic” and the message remains the same: “keep your head down, suppress your emotions and don’t pursue mindless pleasures.” Naturally, this isn’t an enjoyable state of affairs, so a backlash developed (partially through psychology). As a result, one of the main issues that Freud wrestled with in his practice was how to help patients with their issues of suppression, suppression of their erotic lives, suppression of their desires. The essence of what Freud worked to do was help people explore their inner lives, and henceforth came the birth of psychology to help the western world ease their psyches.
Over time, Freud’s thinking led to Carl #Jung’s eastern influenced ideas on the soul. Not long after, Aaron T. Beck developed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is now accepted as the “gold standard” for treating many mental health disorders. In the 80’s, a man named Jon Kabat-Zinn created #Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, and Zinn is credited with helping introduce mindfulness to the United States and the medical field at large. As a result, CBT was later married with mindfulness, culminating in a new cohort of therapists and therapy practices.
This “third wave” of CBT includes dialectical behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, amongst others (you can read more on my website at: wholewellnesstherapy.com/cognitive-behavioral-therapy). These approaches are being used more and more by proactive therapists across the country as evidence continues to mount to support their use. I use all of these approaches with great success in my clinic. As you can see below, this approach has been successful for a variety of conditions.
This “third wave” of CBT seems revolutionary to the average Westerner, but as I’ve described in the history of the field, it is simply a reconnection with what has already been proven to be tried and true. In this way, if you are a dedicated meditator, and are seeking a therapist, be sure to ask for one that is trained in “third wave” CBT. If you do, the answers they give to your questions and the solutions they suggest will be in line with what you already know and practice.
Why Does Mindfulness Compliment Our Modern Therapeutic Approaches So Well?
Simply put, traditional #psychology was trying to “solve the problem” of our disordered thinking. Instead, what many clients need is an acceptance approach to their emotional responses. That anxiety, for example, isn’t something to be fought, and that its power is taken away when it is accepted. In short, applying our “problem solving” mind to our emotions is as pointless as applying an “emotional acceptance” approach to an issue like our lights going out at home (uncontrollable sobbing in the dark usually doesn’t solve the problem).
Science is proving more and more every day that our emotions are in many ways similar to quicksand. If we become focused on fighting them, we end up being sucked into their power. If we try to ignore it, we don’t fix the underlying issue. When it comes to quicksand the correct approach is to lay down on your back to increase the surface area on the top of the pool, and then roll your way out of it (that’s a Snapple ™ fact) (Source: https://www.wikihow.com/Get-Out-of-Quicksand)
Similar to quicksand, when it comes to our emotions our entire evolution and mind has evolved to “fight” the quicksand, and so accepting the situation and laying down takes an enormous amount of willpower. #ACT works by inviting us to think clearly for the first time, develop an accurate understanding of our emotions, and help us live life instead of fighting with it.
Using #mindfulness to observe your thoughts instead of suppressing or fighting them is an incredible power that we are only now discovering in the West. In short, keep up or commit to a regular meditation schedule, which can help develop your ability to pause—an immensely valuable tool for making changes in unwanted behaviors. Notice ideas around getting “results” quickly—remember, that is your problem solving mind talking, which is the very thing that can catch you in an emotional snafu down the road. Instead, like all other unhelpful thinking, accept that it is just a thought and carry on.
Author Bio: Isaac Smith, MAT, LCSW, NTP. is a licensed clinical social worker, nutritional therapy practitioner, and the owner of Whole Wellness Therapy. He provides psychotherapy and counseling services to individuals, couples and families. Isaac specializes in treating addiction, anxiety and grief and loss with emergent and traditional evidence-based practices. Allergic to one-size-fits all approaches, Isaac focuses on collaboration to create an individualized and unique treatment plan for each client.
From Isaac, “My goal is to support my clients in overcoming the things holding them back from living a life imbued with purpose and meaning—to help them get reconnected. Let’s talk if you are interested in speaking with someone who meets you where you’re at while encouraging you forward, and focuses on the interplay between mind, body and spirit to help you achieve real holistic health and emotional wellness.”