In his recent article, Enlightenment Therapy, Chip Brown writes about a real life story that conveys the pitfalls of meditation, the importance of therapy and personal narrative, and the potential benefits of a combined approach. The story is of Zen master, professor, poet, and essayist, Louis Nordstrom. For the purposes of this blog I’m not going to get into the differences between the various different approaches to meditation (e.g., Zen, Vipassana, etc..), but explore Brown’s illustration of the importance in being aware of the subtle motives we may have to engage in meditation and how we might be using as a form of escaping our pain.

Many of us have experienced much wounding in our lives and some of us have even cultivated defensive coping styles as children to disengage or disassociate from these feelings in order to not be overwhelmed by them. Nordstrom experienced his own trauma and abandonment as a child and said:

“The Zen experience of forgetting the self was very natural to me,” he told me last fall. “I had already been engaged in forgetting and abandoning the self in my childhood, which was filled with the fear of how unreal things seemed.”

For Nordstrom, meditation felt like a natural fit as there was a familiarity and calmness that came from detaching from thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It was attractive. However, his own depression and challenges continually arose throughout his life. He decided to go back to therapy. In therapy he came to understand a subtle, yet subversive motive he had to engage in meditation. In one way he was using meditation to cover up the pain he felt from the past, and by detaching from his thoughts, feelings, and emotions, so there was no self, he was saving himself from the possibility of his “self” ever getting abandoned again as he had by his mother in childhood. In other words, by using meditation to abandon himself, he saved himself from feeling the overwhelming pain of being abandoned by another in relationship. In doing this, he remained walled off and alone even in his relationships, which can be an instigator for depression.  

In returning to therapy he recognized something vital to his healing:

“One of the most important insights I got from therapy with Jeffrey [the therapist] is that subconsciously I want the depth of my suffering to be witnessed by someone.”

So many of us, deep down, just want to be seen and acknowledged. Therapy and authentic friendships (which can be hard to come by since so many of us are unaware of our emotional triggers), can be a great source of having our pain understood, validated, and accepted.

Practicing mindfulness meditation is not about detaching and forgetting ourselves. It is about “being with” whatever is arising in the moment. We are attempting to pay attention to ourselves, on purpose, and when judgments arise (e.g., this is good/bad, right/wrong, fair/unfair), seeing if we can notice those, let them be and just bring ourselves back to the experience of connecting with ourselves, not disconnecting. Practicing mindfulness meditation in service of connection can be a wonderful source of healing.

From a mindfulness psychotherapeutic perspective we are not trying disconnect from ourselves, but instead, become aware of all the history and experience that influences us today, remembering our life so we can cultivate insight into how it affects us intrapersonally and interpersonally in our relationships. We can learn to hold our past wounds in a nonjudgmental way, cultivating compassion and love for ourselves.

In the end, Louis Nordstrom was able to integrate the insights from therapy with his Zen practice. His journey of insight through his practice and therapy can be a great teacher to us all as we continue on our own paths through mindfulness and mental health.

As always, please take time to interact below. Your thoughts and comments provide a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.