Intense emotions like anxiety, grief, fear, anger or phobias or post-traumatic stress are formed when emotional feeling energy becomes concentrated in the form of an internal belief. Psychotherapy modalities such as CBT focus on these dysfunctional internal beliefs and attempt to change them through exposing the irrational nature of the belief and offering new belief models to the client. However, the real challenge is always in how to change the associated feeling level that empowers the belief. If this emotional energy remains unchanged then the beliefs and habitual reactivity based on them will simply return. Therefore, to change a belief structure and associated compulsive reactivity, the therapist must help the client form a high quality relationship with his inner feelings in which he can observe and learn the feeling without falling into the trap of further reactivity. This secondary reactivity most often takes the form of ruminative thinking, emotional reactivity or avoidance.
This is where mindfulness becomes an invaluable tool for both the client and the therapist. Mindfulness is defined as the non-reactive present-centered awareness of an experience. It is the art of sensitive listening, being fully present and receptive to whatever is being experienced. In Mindfulness Meditation Therapy, mindfulness is applied directly to the felt-sense of the emotion to cultivate this quality of presence. We choose to make the emotion the primary object of our meditation and our task is to develop a relationship with the emotion, with the anger or fear in which we can observe the emotion and allow the emotion to unfold. The purpose of cultivating the mindfulness-based relationship is so that we can move from the superficial surface structure of the emotion to the deep internal structure and reveal the subtle internal structure.
In practice, mindfulness is the sensitive awareness to reactivity itself. It is the art of continually recognizing when we become reactive, when we become lost in thinking and judging or reacting with aversion or resistance or wanting things to be different than they are. All of these reactions take us away from the direct experience of our inner felt-sense of the emotional complex, a phenomenon that I call Reactive Displacement. Mindfulness allows us to tune into all the subtle movements of wanting, aversion and delusion and allows us to return our attention to the primary object, which in this case is the felt-sense of the emotion. We stay at this interface and return to this interface over and over again. The effect of mindfulness, focused in this way, is to open a "space" around the emotion, to stop secondary reactivity and be fully present with the emotion without reacting, without trying to fix things, without trying to control things.
The practice of mindfulness meditation in this way opens up a therapeutic space that allows for the possibility of change. Reactivity keeps things the same and inhibits change; mindfulness counteracts reactivity and restores freedom into the psyche. Now, how an emotion undergoes transformation and resolution is a big topic that will be discussed in another article. Suffice it to say that any emotional complex has the property of being highly unstable and the psyche is very efficient at resolving instability if given the freedom to operate – and this is the key point. Reactivity inhibits the freedom to operate, while mindfulness restores the freedom to change. What is observed is that when we have a sustained mindfulness-based relationship with a dissonant emotion, the emotion will spontaneously undergo transformation in a direction that leads to its resolution. This, I call the principle of Psychological Homeostasis – but the key is freedom to change. No freedom, no change.
Peter Strong, PhD is a scientist and Buddhist Psychotherapist who specializes in the study of mindfulness and its application in Mindfulness Meditation Therapy. He teaches mindfulness meditation (vipassana) and uses MMT to work with individuals and couples to resolve difficult emotional problems, including anxiety, depression, phobias, grief and trauma and the management of anger and stress. Besides face-to-face work, he also works with individuals and couples online, via email and web conferencing. Visit
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