Mindfulness is the ability to become aware of present moment experience with acceptance. It is typically cultivated through meditative, contemplative, and yogic practices. I began practicing meditation and yoga in 1981 while an undergraduate student in Ann Arbor and found they literally saved my life. In 1984 I became a yoga and meditation teacher and in 1996 I added qigong to my practice. In 1998 I began teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and training counselors and psychotherapists how to use mindfulness practices in the service of self-care. My training in these practices has involved studying with teachers in India, Thailand, Bali, Mexico, and the United States. I incorporate mindfulness practices and principles into my work with individuals and couples. And I provide consultation to corporations and businesses, health care agencies, higher education and schools on bringing mindfulness into these settings to enhance performance and creativity, promote resilience and self-care, and prevent burnout and stress-related illness. I also provide mindfulness-based coaching to individuals.
John Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, a well-researched program at the University of Massachusetts for teaching mindfulness through meditation, yoga, and a body scan awareness technique to a variety of medical patients, provided a way for meto bridge my personal experiences with meditative and contemplative practices with more traditional forms of psychotherapy and health care. This led me to develop a MBSR program for the local hospital and then to integrate mindfulness into a graduate counseling class entitled “Mind-Body Medicine and the Art of Self-Care.” This integration has been deeply fulfilling personally and the impact of MBSR on patients and students has been far greater than I’d imagined. Most striking is the way mindfulness practices assist people to accept or tolerate those aspects of their life (like chronic pain) that can’t be altered (Christopher, Chrisman, Trotter, Schure, Dahlen & Christopher, 2011; Schure, Christopher, & Christopher, 2004).
What I find most compelling and therapeutic about these practices is not the fostering of transcendent experiences but how they encourage us to step out of what Philip Cushman calls the “bounded masterful self.” For example, I believe most of us in American culture have never been taught how to tolerate difficult experiences. We’ve learned to respond to adversity, stress, pain, discomfort, and the “dark emotions” with attempts to distance and wall off these aspects of life through denial, suppression, and avoidance, sometimes with the help of various strategic therapeutic interventions. Mindfulness practices instead teach us how to accept our experience whether good or bad, stressful or pleasant. In yoga, for instance, we can learn that even in the midst of a difficult asana (pose) we can learn to eliminate unnecessary tension, relax into the discomfort, and come to explore the sensations and our psychological responses to them.
There is something terribly important about learning how to tolerate life when it isn’t what we want it to be. I think that with our emphasis upon control and mastery we’ve lost touch with the art of what has been called spiritual surrender (Cole & Pargament, 1999) or what Mark Epstein (1998) poignantly refers to as “going to pieces without falling apart.” The emancipatory thrust of the American ethos emphasizes the elimination of suffering and even freedom from unhappiness, as is promised in much of the popular psychology literature. As Barbara Held (2002) observed, this cultural outlook has resulted in a kind of tyranny of happiness. Such a one-sided emphasis on emotional satisfaction and happiness, even found within much of the new positive psychology literature, tends to neglect other more traditional, worthwhile values or virtues such as “the redemptive power of suffering, acceptance of one’s lot in life, adherence to tradition, self-restraint and moderation” (Frank, 1973, p. 7; see also Guignon, 2002; Woolfolk, 2002). For instance, Yoko, a graduate student from Japan in our counseling program, described being socialized as a child to tolerate difficult situations. Instead of emphasizing freedom from pain and suffering, Japanese culture traditionally regards the ability to endure or “hold the struggle” as a sign of maturity. In this sense “bad” feelings aren’t bad—they are a part of life. It is learning to live with bad feelings, unmet needs, and unwanted constraints, but to do so with poise and dignity that sets off the virtuous or mature person (Christopher & Smith, 2006).
Mindfulness for Patients & Providers. Grand Rounds for the Department of Medicine, Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. May 2015