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Blending Buddhism And Psychotherapy At Omega NYC 2010

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"I'd like you to join me in singing a Sanskrit ah," said Jack Kornfield, an olive-skinned man with bony cheeks and a salt-and-pepper mustache. And so, following his lead, 500 voices filled the Sheraton Hotel's Metropolitan Ballroom in a single, resonant tone: aaah ... "Now let's try harmony," he cooed into his microphone, quickly demonstrating a major third and perfect fifth before returning to his original tone. There was a moment of dissonance as some people adjusted to match the new notes, but soon a major triad had emerged, and 500 people found themselves united in a simple but stirring harmonic. Then the collective breath gave out, and the teacher pursed his lips in a half-smile -- the half-smile of the Buddha.

It was the first meditative exercise of a workshop called "The Gifts of Buddhist and Western Psychology," as part of Omega Institute for Holistic Studies's NYC event held April 16, 17 and 18, the latest in a series of annual three-day conferences. With this weekend of intensive workshops that united renowned new age speakers and spiritual teachers like Byron Katie, Michael Bernard Beckwith, Debbie Ford, Donna Eden, and others, the Rhinebeck, NY-based nonprofit hoped to offer spiritual renewal to its participants while simultaneously raising its profile in the city.

Kornfield's three-day workshop, which took place at the Sheraton NY Hotel & Towers, also featured talks by Tara Brach, who appeared on Friday and Saturday, and Mark Epstein, who appeared on Friday only. Kornfield, a former Buddhist monk and a preeminent teacher of vipassana meditation, and Brach, a clinical psychologist and equally prominent vipassana teacher, have largely spearheaded the movement to integrate Buddhist meditative practices with western concepts of psychological well-being, a synthesis that Epstein has incorporated into his psychiatry practice in New York City.

Integrating Buddhist practices with western psychology is vital, Kornfield says, because the latter is traditionally pathology-oriented whereas Buddhism offers a positive, wellness-oriented science of the mind. "Buddhist psychology has a very well laid-out vision of mental health," he asserted.

Seated before an audience comprised chiefly of curious mental health professionals and a minority of loyal followers of Kornfield's and Brach's Buddhist teachings, the teachers sought to introduce and elaborate the concepts behind mindfulness and lovingkindness meditation -- "two sides of the same coin," Kornfield often reiterated.

Mindfulness meditation involves focusing one's attention entirely on the experience of the present moment by concentrating on breath, external sensory information and internal sensations, and by allowing thoughts and emotions -- "waves of feeling" that threaten to carry us away -- to flow freely while regarding them with acceptance and nonjudgment.

"If the judging mind butts in," Kornfield offered, "Think: 'Thank you for your opinion,' and go back to focusing on breath." He urged the audience to gently acknowledge the waves with a nod of the head and then let them pass.

The audience was invited to practice several approaches to mindfulness meditation, including the flagship approach in which the meditator focuses on breath. "The breath helps to quiet the mind and to focus," he said, noting that through mindful breathing, the meditator becomes aware of previously unnoticed physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions -- both positive and negative.

Brach shared a helpful model that she has developed as a guide for mindfulness meditation: RAIN. First, the meditator recognizes the various waves of thought or feeling, for "unless we can recognize the thinking's going on," she says, "we're lost in a trance." Then the meditator allows the waves (that is, he or she acknowledges them, nods politely, and lets them exist), as opposed to the usual fleeing, distracting, or suppressing. Then the meditator investigates those waves without judgment or aversion. Finally, the meditator engages in non-identification; that is, he or she recognizes that the self is much larger than any one wave -- for example, "I experience anger, but I am not an angry person." Brach refers to failing to non-identify as "the trance of the small self."

Kornfield emphasized that the goal of mindfulness is not to change the bad to good but rather to accept the bad as an inherent part of a whole. "The notion toward difficulties that we need to fix them or get rid of them, I would say it's unrealistic, or foolish," he said. He encouraged confronting difficult thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations with an attitude of, "Yes, this too."

One audience member, a therapist who helps counsel suicidal youth, praised the balanced view of pain and suffering that mindfulness offers. "It's very powerful," she said, "to remind people that we don't have to whitewash the pain."

Lovingkindness meditation, the other side of this two-sided coin, focuses on fostering warmth and compassion toward ourselves and others, and on cultivating a sense of interconnectedness with other living beings. In one approach, Kornfield had participants visualize a luminous figure of warmth and compassion -- "It could be Jesus, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Buddha, a dead grandmother, anyone," he said -- sharing the gift of encouragement.

Scott, from Lancaster, PA, said that his luminous figure was the Dalai Lama, who gave him a smooth stone in the shape of a heart. Scott is a cardiologist who hopes to encourage his patients to adopt meditative practices to help reduce stress.

"The brain thinks in symbols," Kornfield proclaimed after giving participants the chance to describe the gifts they had imagined receiving. "These are gifts of our own wisdom." This approach helps practitioners realize that they can offer lovingkindness to themselves; the luminous figure and the meditator are one and the same. "The wisdom you seek, you already carry within you," he said.

In a more challenging approach to lovingkindness meditation, Kornfield directed each participant to pair up with the nearest stranger and look deep into his or her eyes for 10 minutes, first feeling love for that person, then compassion for his or her suffering, then joy in his or her happiness, and finally a deep sense of interconnectedness. "The solitary, isolated human being is a fiction," Kornfield asserted. "We're hard-wired for connection." Michael, an experienced meditator from New York City and long-time follower of Kornfield's techniques, called it one of his most difficult meditative experiences - and promptly embraced his partner when it was finished.

In Brach's conception, lovingkindness also encompasses letting go of resentment and blame and embracing forgiveness. She invited the audience to engage in forgiveness meditation, in which the meditator visualizes the people who have wronged him or her and extends forgiveness to each one.

"But," she added, "Forgiveness has nothing to do with saying, 'You're right.' It's not like lying down like a doormat." A woman can forgive her husband for cheating but still divorce him, she declared.

Although both mindfulness and lovingkindness meditation have intuitive appeal for those seeking greater mental well-being, mindfulness meditation in particular has begun to draw significant interest in the mainstream psychological community and has been employed by the likes of Jon Kabat-Zinn, John Teasdale and Marsha Linehan. In a 2004 paper entitled "Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition," published in Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, Scott Bishop and colleagues offered the first psychological definition of mindfulness, describing it as "the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment," and "adopting a particular orientation toward one's experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance." More broadly, they described mindfulness as "a kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is."

The results of a spate of recent studies have strongly pointed to the efficacy of mindfulness techniques in treating a range of disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder -- theoretically by means of the intermediate effect of reducing stress and anxiety. However, given the relative infancy of this area of research and the fact that much of it comprises studies still in the pilot stage, some psychologists warn that it may yet be too soon to trumpet the therapeutic benefits of mindfulness meditation.

Susan Nolen-Hoeksema is a Yale University psychologist who studies the cognitive processes that characterize depression. "These techniques show promise, although much more work should be done," she said before pointing out that researchers especially need to understand the mechanisms by which these techniques produce their effects. (Nolen-Hoeksema was not present at the Omega NYC 2010 workshop.)

Other psychologists point to the need for studies comparing the efficacy of mindfulness techniques with that of other active treatments, and for the need to explore how mindfulness techniques may need to be adapted to better suit particular disorders.

Nevertheless, Kornfield and Brach seem confident that Buddhist meditative practices, if not yet proven effective in treating existing psychological problems in a controlled setting, can inoculate the mind against future problems by promoting presence and a sense of harmony with others.

In that regard, as Kornfield pointed out, "meditation is unlike almost anything we do -- except making music."

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