Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

Ron Siegel on Mindfulness

by James Porter April 26, 2011

Five years ago I was asked by the U.S. Army to put on a mindfulness presentation at their national health conference in Albuquerque, NM. I knew very little about this subject at the time, so I politely declined. For some reason, that Army Representative (who had heard me speak on stress management at a Navy health conference) wasn't going to give up that easily and persuaded me to do it.

The next morning I woke up in a cold sweat. What was I thinking? How was I going to get up in front of at least a hundred people and expound on a subject, about which, I knew very little. But the universe works in mysterious ways, because that very same day I saw an ad in my mail box from an organization called NICABM - whose emails I had been ignoring for about two years. This latest ad was about an online MINDFULNESS course with Harvard Professor, Dr. Ron Siegel (who we will be interviewing this week) that was starting right away and just happened to be finishing well before I would have to put on my presentation.

I signed up immediately.

Ron Siegel on MindfulnessFrom the first session of the course, I found myself enamored with mindfulness. It really struck a nerve. (Or perhaps more accurately: soothed a nerve.) I had run out of gas trying to perfect my understanding and practice of cognitive restructuring (AKA: reframing or changing one's overly negative thought patterns) and I was looking for some new stress management techniques I could share with my clientele.

At the time, I was really finding it difficult to manage my own stress with the cognitive techniques I'd learned reading the works of Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck (the co-founders of cognitive therapy). I'd hear myself saying overly negative things like I'm a complete loser or I'll never amount to anything and even though I knew these thoughts were untrue and irrational, I was sometimes powerless to change them or alter the effect these thoughts had on me. That made me feel even MORE like a loser!

So it was a real eye-opener when Dr. Siegel explained: "Cognitive restructuring asks you to change your faulty thinking from irrational back to rational. But Mindfulness says good luck with that!"

I remember laughing out loud when he said it, and thinking, wow, is there really a therapeutic modality that gets what it's like to have an unruly mind that isn't easily trained? As I listened to more and more of what Ron had to say, I realized the answer to that question was a resounding YES! Instead of trying to change the thought, Ron explained, mindfulness says just watch it. Realize that YOU and the thought are not one in the same.

He further explained that we in the West, put thinking on a pedestal and as a result, we take our passing thoughts way too seriously. Mindfulness says - and this seems pretty radical the first time you hear it - that our thinking isn't all that accurate - and sometimes it's downright wrong. Like when you come out of a shopping mall, and you don't see your car right away and you immediately jump to the conclusion that it's been stolen. I've done that dozens of times but my car has never been stolen once!

Or when you spend idle moments fantasizing about getting revenge, or beating yourself up for something you couldn't help doing, or just seeing the world through an overly negative filter. Mindfulness says, It's OK to think that way. Everybody does. Just notice it, and, if you can distance yourself from it just a bit, it won't have quite such a powerful hold over you.

That way, when I hear myself saying something like: I'm such a loser and I'll never amount to anything - instead of trying to argue with those thoughts, which I would do if I was practicing a cognitive approach, it just might be better to compassionately watch them or even label them: There goes my mind again, saying negative things about me. Hmm. I wonder where that's coming from? Maybe it's because I've had a long day and I'm really tired.

Mindfulness is about cultivating the observer: Stabilizing the mind through meditation and concentration, so that you can use the powers of observation to see how the mind works. Once you are able to do this, then you can learn how to recognize the myriad ways that we cause our own suffering, like those crazy, untrue, irrational self-statements that I described above. The difference from this and cognitive restructuring is that you are not trying to change the way the mind works, but simply understand it, know it's tricks and quickly recognize them for what they often are: meaningless mind-stuff.

After I finished Ron's 8 week course I signed up for the advanced course. Then I took a two day intensive with him in person. And now I'm reading his book The Mindfulness Solution.

I like how this book is organized. If you want a quick introduction to mindfulness just read Part 1. (it's only about 100 pages) But if you want to go into more depth, as I did, there's another couple hundred pages to savor. And there are so many new concepts to explore like the nature of ego, acceptance, non-judgment, non-resistance, non-attachment and even being liberated by the present moment - not to mention the specific health problems mindfulness addresses like depression, anxiety, stress and chronic pain.

Besides having written The Mindfulness Solution, which we'll be talking about in the interview, Ron has also edited and written chapters for Mindfulness in Psychotherapy which is a textbook for mental health professionals who want to incorporate mindfulness into their practice. Ron is the perfect spokesperson for mindfulness. He lives and breathes this stuff. He can talk about the philosophy of mindfulness and he can talk about the subtleties of its practice. I guarantee you won't be disappointed by listening to this program - but I suspect you'll be sorry when it's over because he will leave you wishing you knew more.

By the way, my Army presentation went really well. Josephine Briggs, M.D., the director of the Alternative Medicine branch of the National Institute of Health (NIH) was there and wrote me a letter later on that said: "I very much enjoyed your presentation on mindfulness." Thanks again, Ron. And thanks to that Army Representative who had more faith in my abilities than I did.

James Porter
James Porter