Currently Researching: Mindfulness and Trauma in Western Mental Health Care

Although Buddhism has long been a source of inspiration in psychotherapy, the recent shift of attention in Western clinical psychology from pathology, diagnosis, and treatment towards cultivating positive mental health appears to be accompanied by a growing interest in the connection between Buddhist spirituality, suffering, and well-being in mainstream mental healthcare. This trend is perhaps most apparent in Norway in the explosive growth of training programs and interventions aimed at developing mindfulness (Norwegian: oppmerksomt nærvær) as a means of honing attentive skills, increasing empathy, and regulating stress and affect.

In Western discourse, mindfulness refers to ”an intentional focused awareness – a way of paying attention on purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn 1994:68), closely linked with descriptions in Buddhist texts (Asanga, 2001; Buddhaghosa 1979). Based on these definitions mindfulness appears to be a dual construct: both a state and a means of achieving a particular state. Furthermore mindfulness is understood as integral to maintaining vital balances of mind necessary for release from mental suffering in Buddhist thought – balances supported by Western clinical research.

Through a comparative investigation of the phenomenon of mindfulness in multiple sites both within in Norwegian mental health care and Buddhist communities in Northern India I hope to understand how mindfulness is achieved, in what contexts it is salient, how its effects are perceived and understood, how its protective benefits in the face of trauma are articulated and legitimized, and what factors contribute to its popularity among Western health practitioners. I choose to approach mindfulness as a form of ritual practice whose goal is to attain and maintain a particular state of consciousness. Here I understand this practice as spanning the range of possibilities from large-scale public rituals to intimate rituals involving only a single participant.

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Comment by Ian UK on February 13, 2011 at 9:15pm
I am from the Uk, and am aware that mindfulness has become the latest idea in mental health here being a retired (through disability) social worker in that field. I personally use mindfulness for my own pain management a la Kabat Zin. I attended a lecture by Stephen Prothero from Boston U and he commented that Zin was keen to detach the practice from Buddhism to (perhaps) facilitate its acceptance  in  the medical community. Here, an organisation called Breathworks offers courses in mindfulness for pain control, and seems to be more overtly Buddhist; and I know others who offer it for Stress Reduction and prevention of relapse in depression.  Anything I have to offer you would be in terms of personal experience and, perhaps some organisational names. I have some references from medical literature if this might help?
Comment by John McCreery on January 18, 2011 at 1:45am
Hi, Robert. My points of entry into this subject are, first, having forty years ago spent a year and a half working with a Daoist healer in Taiwan and, then, much later, spending several years involved with a crisis counseling telephone line that taught its practitioners a Rogering non-directive approach to counseling. Looking back at the former through the lens of what I learned at the other, it seems to me that a directive both approaches shared was to listen intently and be mindful of the need to stay out of the client's way. In practice this can be tricky since to be effective the mindfulness in question has to maintain a dual focus, carefully mindful of what the client is saying but also of the practitioner's response to what is being said. This, what shall we call it, divided mindfulness does, of course, overlap with the, what shall we call that, perhaps selfish mindfulness of personal meditation. Sorry to be so fuzzy. Could there be something useful here?
Comment by Robert Jan Fencl on January 17, 2011 at 10:12pm

Hi John,

Thanks for your interest. I'll be primarily focusing on the use of mindfulness among practitioners and what its popularity in mental health care has "to say" about the field. Pretty much a methodological nightmare at this point...



Comment by John McCreery on January 17, 2011 at 4:41am
A fascinating project. Is your primary focus mindfulness in the subject who has suffered trauma or mindfulness in the therapist for whom mindfulness is a tool for getting her own reactions and feelings our of the way of paying better attention to the patient?


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