Mindfulness: the new buzzward in pop psychology. You can’t throw a stone these days without hearing someone mention mindfulness, see a new study on mindfulness, or run into some new guru trying to sell their particular flavor of mindfulness practice. There’s so much information and chatter out there that the regular Jane or Joe might not know quite where to begin in tackling this “new fangled” thing. Where to start? Who to listen to? How to apply it? What the heck is it? What should I expect? How in the world can it actually help me?
This post is here to help, and is intended to be a nice starting off and reference point for a good meditative practice. As such, this includes a bunch of information and resources on basic mindfulness meditation, but also looks briefly at the clinically proven Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, looks into Buddhist meditation specifically, and finally explores Buddhist meditation from a substance abuse recovery perspective. While this motherload of information might be more than you are specifically looking for, this all inclusive introduction instructional of sorts is likely going to contain something that will suit you. There are three basic sections to this post, included with every section is a collection of links to some of my favorite books and resources relevant to that topic. These books are all well vetted, and selected not only for their relevence to topic, but by the legitimacy and reputation of the writers. They are, in short, relevant and reliable, and are presented here to introduce you to some well respected authors and well established teachers.
- Introduction: First, we get to a look at what a basic meditation instruction looks like, how to approach it and what to expect.
- Clinical applications: Next I build on that and take a look at what we can do with mindfulness by going into some detail about the origins and application of clinical mindfulness, looking at some of the ways that it has shown up in the world of clinical psychology.
- Four Noble Truths: Finally I offer some detail about the Buddhist roots of modern mindfulness, and explore one important way that we can apply it to our lives, substance abuse or addiction recovery.
I hope that there is something here for you, as this should provide a great starting off point. There are links to some great guided meditations, some wonderful books, and some great videos from some rather brilliant folks. Please enjoy.
So, let’s just start off with some quick basics on meditation, some foundational information that will help with your approach to the cushion. Check out this PDF and this link, they cover the fundamentals of posture and go over the basics of how to prepare your body for sitting in the same position for a longer period of time. They go over some very useful and proven stretches and simple yoga exercises that are sure to compliment your basic daily practice. For a simple 10 to 20 minute meditation, you probably won’t need it, but it is good information to have, especially when you get up to the longer duration sessions. But bear in mind that a daily practice, even if it is just 10 minutes a day, is very beneficial, and it is the daily habit of it that really makes a difference over time. Is an hour a day going to have a more beneficial effect than 10 minutes? Of course, but if you can do 10 minutes, great, do 10 minutes!
How to meditate? It’s simple, in very, very basic terms, you just
- sit comfortably with a strait back either in a chair or cross legged, whatever works for you
- close your eyes and relax, let go of any expectations… just sit.
- place the importance of your attention on the sensation of your breath, preferably in the nostril area (this is to increase the sharpness of your focus over time)
- when you inevitably notice that you are caught in thought or emotion (dwelling on the future, ruminating over the past, fantasizing, whatever…) just note it and gently, patiently, bring your attention back to your breath and start again.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat…
You will have all sorts of thoughts and feelings come up, the idea is that this is normal and to be expected, and that you should definitely not allow yourself to react very strongly to this!
You get permission to allow the feelings and thoughts to come up without pushing them away, without falling into them, and just put the importance of your attention back to your breath. This simple, patient, and persistent practice, over time, has profound effects. Every time you gently, non-judgementally come back to your breath, it’s like lifting weights for your mind. Certainly, a lot can and has been said about it, about its effects, about the revelations that come about as a result of it, about the principles at work and different theories behind it, about how to approach it when your practice gets deep, gets frustrating, gets stale, gets difficult, gets amazing… and on and on. A lot of information is out there, but this basic instruction is where we start.
There are a LOT of different kinds of meditation, but this basic and simple version, known as mindfulness in our modern culture and introduced by the Buddha 2500 years ago as a foundational component of his practice, is arguably the most beneficial, and certainly the best place to start. Check out this great Google talk about mindfulness from a modern perspective by news anchor Dan Harris, author of 10% Happier. It’s about an hour long, and really worth while as a non-clinical, non-spiritual introduction to just the basic idea of what we get out of mindfulness meditation.
Here are some good resources which focus mainly on the practice of meditation:
Books that cover a basic meditation practice:
- Waking Up: A guide to spirituality without religion by Sam Harris
- Best selling book with a secular approach to mediation from a neuroscientist who is a rather serious practitioner.
- Mindfulness in Plain English by Henepola Gunaratana
- A long time classic introduction to mindfulness for western readers
- Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English by Henepola Gunaratana
- A recent expansion, it goes into deeper levels of concentration within the mindfulness meditation practice for the more serious mediator. Yes, there is more to the practice than just the breath thing, which is known as Anapanasati.
- The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hahn
- Another best selling classic book. This one introduce mindfulness to America in the 60’s. Social Work Trivia!Thich Nhat Hahn’s teachings were a part of what inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message, he marched with King as well. Thich Nhat Hahn is a Vietnamese Zen master who coined the practice of Engaged Buddhism, he was like a modern day Zen Social Worker.
How about some audiobooks to help teach you the basics?
- A great guided instruction from S.N. Goenka, founder of the excellent Vipassana Meditation society.
- Still The Mind: a great basic mediation instruction set from the popular teacher, Bodhipaksa
- Jack Kornfield is a popular teacher from Spirit Rock mediation center. Here are some of his meditation instructionals
- Pema Chodron is a wonderful teacher in the Shambhala school of Tibetan Buddhism. She is really skilled at teaching rather advanced principles in a very down to Earth way. Here are some of her teachings that have basic mediation practice as the primary focus
- Here is Alan Watts, a British philosopher and Zen student from the 60’s speaking on the practice of meditation
Now, if all you were looking for was a basic intro to mediation and some resources to help you start to build a practice, well, you’re all set. However…
Advanced meditation technique in a clinical setting
So, the story goes that there was this fellow, John Kabat-Zinn, who went to one of these world famous 10 Day Vipassana Meditation retreats, the ones led by S.N. Goenka, and he was so impressed with the effectiveness and results of this technique that he decided to find a way to bring this into the clinical world, which he did, at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center where he worked, and he introduced it as MBSR. A recent article published by Harvard, 8 weeks to a better brain, discusses the positive physical changes that occur in the brain as a result of the flagship 8 week MBSR course that he developed. Interestingly, that talk by Dan Harris above mentions the very same study, do check it out.
A quick note, I have been to one of those courses, and it was amazing. I highly, highly recommend following the link to the website of the organization that puts that on, and trying it out for yourself. They run these retreats all over the world, all year long, for free. It will change you and the way you look at the world and how you understand your place in it… for the better. Don’t believe me? Try it and see, or check out this Ted Talk:
The now famous prison experiment mentioned in that TED talk uses the same meditation retreat program and technique, Vipassana, that spun off the MBSR movement, which was the seed for the entire third wave Cognitive Behavioral Therapy movement, or CBT for short. Third Wave CBT includes the popular Action and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Mindfulness Based CBT (MBCBT). You can, realizing the impact of this technique, just go ahead and take the retreat and be happy about it. However, if you are still not sure… Check this out…
So Vipassana is the meditation technique that the Buddha taught as a core piece of his path to liberation. It is, in part, about thoroughly exploring the mind/body connection, but doing so in a particular way, adhering to particular principles. It begins with the mindfulness of breathing as the foundation of practice. You can do just that for the whole of your life and be just fine. But the 4 foundations of mindfulness as taught by the Buddha are the next step, they are the mindfulness of body, bodily sensation, mind, and mental content (in that order of practice). The Vipassana technique works in all of them with one technique, if done properly.
Now you know a bit about the ancient Buddhist roots of the 3rd wave CBT techniques, and where the entire mindfulness movement in modern society came from: it’s all Buddhist teachings. Let’s get a look at some material that is rooted in MBSR and ACT, shall we?
Books from an MBSR or 3rd wave CBT perspective
- Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zin
- this was the first book about mindfulness from the father of the MBSR clinical practice, it’s a classic
- Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zin
- I cannot say enough good things about this book
- Insight Meditation by Joseph Goldstein
- Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach PhD (DBT self help)
- The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living by Russ Harris (ACT)
Audio-Books about MBSR
- Releases by Jon Kabat-Zinn
So, now you have some nice material to help you get a handle on what a clinically proven and well studied meditation practice, MBSR, looks like, what it’s basic roots are, and you know a little about its different mediation techniques. If that’s all you want, cool… however…
and a substance abuse/recovery perspective
This is pretty straight forward. The Buddha introduced a specific style of meditation with a certain philosophical understanding, basically that everything is impermanent, and clinging to impermanent sensation is why you suffer. Buddhist teachings generally address the fundamental issue of dissatisfaction and suffering in our lives, as we experience it. As such, there is nothing to convert to, nothing weird to subscribe to. From a Buddhist perspective, one gets to admit that, “This life is full of suffering.” We can use other words for suffering, like dissatisfaction, stress, anxiety, struggle, or just plain old shit. The is the first noble truth of Buddhism. It fits well with a social work perspective, incidentally, it’s just seeing and admitting that there is a lot of suffering in the world. It’s acceptance. This is the first step of AA as well, essentially admitting that there is a problem, and that it requires attention.
The second noble truth is that the cause of suffering is blind attachment or craving. In substance abuse terms it is the addiction. Addiction is craving and attachment with the volume turned up. It is seen as the root cause of suffering. Clinging, grasping, craving, desire. Volume turned up = addiction. In Buddhism people are addicted to, or fixated on a FEELING, a sensation, not the thing that causes it, not the drink, but the sensation from it, and the sensation that arises from the idea of our self that we get from the whole process. Buddhism breaks this down… a lot… but the basic idea is that the grasping at sensation, at soothing, at “happiness” CAUSES the problem of dissatisfaction and struggling unhappiness. From an addiction point of view, the addict likes to say that they drink (grasp) BECAUSE they suffer life, here we see that we suffer BECAUSE we grasp (drink). I hope that it’s easy to see why I put in the addiction stuff, it helps clarify the Buddhist teaching really well. However, don’t get it twisted, this is for everybody. The idea is that we have 3 basic automatic reactions to anything in life: we want it, we don’t want it, or we don’t care, and the habit of that blind re-activity drives the vehicle of our sorrow and misery in life. Mindfulness introduces a 4th option, to observe that process in a state of equanimity so that we can respond out of wisdom and compassion instead of merely reacting blindly.
Which brings us to the third truth, which is that there is hope. That is it. We can break the chain that keeps us trapped in the cyclic life of suffering and addiction, of the grasping, clinging, and indulging that leads us to struggling with dissatisfaction, to an endless hunger for more, and to morbid self obsession. The term cessation works really well here. We can put a damn stop to things being so… neurotic. Nirvana is the word used for this, it literally translates into “Blown Out” and refers to a bit of metaphorical Indian philosophy, but essentially means that we can extinguish that part of our experience of life that we mistake for ourselves that clings to the sensations and to the objects that bring them about, like the version of ourselves that craves and grasps at the drink and all that entails… gone, like blowing out a candle.
The fourth truth is that we have to walk the path. We have to DO the thing to heal the wound, to clear away the dust from our eyes that keeps us from seeing the truth of things, the truth that we need no shelter, that it is in seeking shelter that we harm ourselves. That path has 8 parts, according to Buddhist psychology, and those can be summarized into 3 “legs”…
- What you know: Wisdom – Right Understanding and Right Intention, which can essentially be summarized by the four noble truths when you realize them. There is a lot more to this, like the Emptiness teachings and the teachings on Buddha Nature, but in essence, it’s all in the four truths.
- The life you live: Morality – Right Speech, Action, and Livelihood, which is essentially a follow through of the intention to cause no more suffering (for yourself and others). This is, in the beginning, about resisting the urge, replacing it with compassion. This is choosing sobriety, or social work, or whatever good thing that stops the suffering.
- How you know what you know: Meditation/direct experience – Right Effort, Concentration and Mindfulness. This is getting your mind back. Learning how to train the mind, how to develop a proper concentration that will clean the perceptions, reduce re-activity, increase a steadiness of mind regardless of circumstance or feelings, and teach us to be mindful of ourselves, and really learn, first hand, what’s going on inside, and how to deal with it. This is where we learn to SEE wisdom. This is where the effort to resist the urge, and follow through with the path has its volume turned up, where it “lives”.
Each leg supports the others. This practice is very, very therapeutic, it is about seeing things clearly and merely being honest about what you directly see. So it is not, in any way, wishy-washy, it takes real grit. The primary issue is the suffering, the distress, anxiety, dissatisfaction, disharmony, and just general stress, struggle, and out of control-ness of life, the cause of that being our blind attachment and addictive behavior, the realization that there is an end to that, and how to work with it properly from the inside out, so to speak. What we are dealing with is a deep habit pattern of re-activity, we want to change that pattern of blind clinging and aversion, and generate equanimity of mind, awareness, compassion and insight. That is it. That is the therapeutic, healing path of the Buddha. MBSR, see?
The Buddha is easily seen as an active principle, not a god, and certainly not a savior. It means “enlightened one”, or just “one whom has come to understand”, and anyone can become that. It is that living eye of wisdom within us all. The dharma are the teachings, or just living truths of the the world and ourselves. That’s it. Nothing to subscribe to. The sangha are the people that have that awakened quality, or that merely seek to realize awakening, and get rid of the addictions and attachments that feed into our living distress and suffering. That’s it. When someone takes a refuge into those three things, the principle of the Buddha, the teachings of the Buddhist doctrines or simple truth of life that we directly see, and the community that follows that path, then they are on the way to liberation, to a reduction or even an elimination of suffering
There’s a wonderful book called Refuge Recovery, by author Noah Levine, that looks at Buddhism as a vehicle for recovery, workable steps and all. You might want to check out the website here. There are Refuge Recovery meditation meetings all across the US, and more popping up all the time, all listed on that site.
Continuing the recovery theme, the Shambhala teacher Pema Chodron’s CD, “Getting Unstuck: Breaking Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality“ really helped me A LOT in my early recovery. It focuses on the “feeling” of the urge, of the reactive habit pattern and blind grasping, and zeros in on learning how to work with it directly to be free of that nonsense. There are meditation teachings included in that CD as well. This cd set is GOLD.
Now, let’s finally look at just some good old fashioned Buddhist teachings:
Books to engage your mind
- The Art of Happiness, The Dalai Lama
- The Middle Way, Faith Grounded in Reason, The Dalai Lama
- this is a WONDERFUL beginning in advanced Buddhist thought, but not overly intense.
- In The Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Cannon by Bhikku Bodhi
- traditional Buddhist teachings from a Theraveda perspective, very, very good stuff here.
- Here’s a nice “Open Source” version, since the Buddhist literature is all public domain. It does not contain Bikkhu Bodhi’s wonderful commentary.
- When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron
- a true modern classic
- Taking The Leap: Freeing ourselves from old Habits and Fears, Pema Chodron
- Comfortable With Uncertainty, Pema Chodron
- No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering, Zen monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hahn
- The Comic Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of The Dead)
- Yes, there is a comic book version of the Book of the Dead
Audio-books for your ears
- More Pema Chodron
- One more from Jack Kornfield
- After The Ecstasy, the Laundry
- just listen to this, and be happy.
- After The Ecstasy, the Laundry
So, that’s it! I know, if you are new to this, that was A LOT of information, and A LOT of new data. I hope that what I put here and how I placed it is in an accessible, easy to digest and easy work with format. I want to make this accessible for you, because I personally know how much benefit there is with this material from experience, and I simply want to share that. I figure, there will be something in here that catches you, that speaks to you from a perspective that you can understand and make sense out of. Not all of it will, so you get to skip past the stuff that doesn’t and hone in on the stuff that does.
A few more things.
- Please visit Sounds True, it is where the majority of the audiobook material originated from that I reference here. Support them if you found something here that speaks to you, and for those that need it, they offer CE credits on many of their courses.
- All of the books and audiobooks are available by following the links above. They are also all here, as well as some more of my personal picks.
- If you have ANY questions about this, if you want more information on a specific topic or more good reads on particular areas of interest, I’m here. Please use the contact tab above.
I hope that you found something in here that speaks to you, that this is helpful in some way. Like I said, this isn’t intended to be everything on the subject, but this should provide a great starting off point. Please enjoy.