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A Moment of Clarification on Mindfulness

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,
stantatkin.com

Last weekend I had the pleasure of presenting at the UCLA conference on How People Change: Relationships and Neuroplasticity in Psychotherapy. I was among some of the best of the best: Dan Siegel, Irvin Yalom, Peter Levine, Bruce Perry, Mary Pipher, Bonnie Goldstein, Pat Ogden, John Norcross, Russell Meares, Margaret Wilkinson, Dan Hughes, Jessica Benjamin, and Allan Schore.

I must admit, it was difficult to maintain my cool in the presence of so many I admire. As a result I apparently misspoke.

Participants heard me say that mindfulness practice is ill-advised because it reduces empathy. Clearly this notion disturbed the mindfulness meditators in the audience, and I can understand their dismay because it is not what I believe or intended to say. I would like to correct any mistaken impressions posthaste.

Having myself been a long-time Vipassana meditator and even once a teacher/facilitator of Vipassana (mindfulness) practice, I am an advocate of insight meditation, in both formal and informal practices. I have given presentations on Vipassana meditation and have cited the many research findings that show the astounding neurobiological effects this and loving-kindness practice provide. In no way is mindfulness connected in my mind with reduced empathy. To the contrary, I wholly believe it contributes to increased empathy as well as to increased capacity for self-regulation and interactive regulation with others!

The point I initially attempted to articulate (and tried to clarify during my panel discussion with Dan Siegel, Bruce Perry, and Peter Levine) was this: I have personally witnessed some partners in couple therapy use a meditative self-regulatory strategy during periods of mutual distress. This strategy can prove disastrous to mutual regulation of distress when only one partner employs it. The result tends to be sustained misattuned moments that lead to dysregulated states in the other partner. The reason, I suspect, is that the meditating partner is not responding to signals in real time and becomes too still, unresponsive, and even still-faced. I also have witnessed some supervisees practice meditation while doing therapy (without informing their patients), which caused problems for the patients, who found themselves dealing with an under-responsive therapist.

The fact that I conveyed anything other than what I have stated here is deeply regrettable to me. My hope is that some who were at the conference will be able read this blog with nonjudgment, acceptance, and compassion, and recognize that in fact we are not living in different realities.

© 2013 – A Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy® – all rights reserved

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13 Comments

  1. Oops! Stan, I was not there, but reading your post brings such tender compassion. I have also witnessed so many long time meditators whose affect is so flat and can’t attach….blessings, Lizbeth

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  2. Tori Olds says:

    I TOTALLY agree, Stan. While it’s always a good thing to be as mindful as possible, going into a specific practice to the point that you loose awareness of your partner can be a problem (one I have also seen). Thanks for bringing it onto the table!

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  3. I heard your talk and I understood your point. The flatface of a meditator could surely induce feelings of abandonment. You did fine, and thank you for an excellent talk!

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  4. Hello Stan,
    I was not at the conference but I laud
    you for your clarity and your courage to
    come forward to explain just exactly
    what you were aiming to convey. Anyone
    who knows you or is familiar with your
    work will surely understand what you
    meant!
    Best,
    Victoria Cooper

    Like

  5. Lale Akat says:

    your work is brilliant and your “down to earth” explanation makes you “bigger” than the big…

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  6. Stan, I hope you can feel better soon about this mishap. Best wishes,
    Archana Shannon

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  7. I think you are SOOOOOO right 🙂 , you know why. No worry, you are convincing and respectful.

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  8. Chloe Montclaire says:

    Hi Stan,

    I think that you make a very important point – the neutral observer, detached place of meditation could be very unnerving in a therapy situation. I got so much out of your presentation, and hope to bring some of your amazing ideas into my work with couples.

    Like

  9. Belinda chapman says:

    Belinda
    I have practiced meditation for years and training as a spiritual director now I have to be careful to stay alert. I am also inclined to be drawn to meditation under stress in a relationship. No doubt if I had been in the room I would have been the least qualified, but from a client point of view your perception is totally correct!

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  10. Stan, I think that there needs to be more discussion on the place of mindfulness in couple therapy

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