I was looking at my calendar this week and I realized I am due to start taking courses again in counseling psychology and law to meet license renewal requirements. Shopping for courses—actual class settings or the on-line offerings—is discouraging, because my field—and its cousin psychopharmacology—has produced little in the way of groundbreaking insights in the healing of the mind. A depressed patient in 2018 is still prescribed, as a rule, some variant of the old work horse Prozac (fluoxetine). Many of you may be surprised that electroconvulsive therapy (aka, unfortunately, “electroshock therapy”) is a depression treatment option still available to practitioners, particularly in cases of severely depressed pregnant women for whom medication may be harmful, though the improvement is short term and the treatment must be retreated frequently.
Not unlike other fields, mental health passes through trends. When I started in practice, the prevailing wisdom was “letting go of your anger,” or getting patients to articulate and feel repressed rage. Later studies showed that this kind of therapy simply improved the client’s skills at expressing anger (a serious flaw in Dr. Melfi’s TV treatment of Tony Soprano, who, by the way, was prescribed Prozac, too, which can have energizing side-effects.) Post-traumatic stress treatment has been a staple of workshops since the first Gulf War, but one major failure here has been a lack of full appreciation of actual brain damage which impedes “techniques” that we might use in our offices. (There is a considerable gulf between the orientation of masters’ therapists like myself, life managers if you will, and psychologists who must hold doctorates and are better versed in the holistic interplay of biology and mind activity.)
This year my catalogues are full of training sessions on “mindfulness,” our cure du jour. I have seen the term frequently but had not looked closely at this school of treatment till this week. The magazine Psychology Today describes mindfulness as “a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to your current experience, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future.”
Before I start hurling brickbats at this trend, I will say that helping patients understand why they are emotionally distraught in a given moment is extremely important. I have often commented to a patient, “you look like you’re about to burst into tears,” which gives the patient (I think) permission to say what has been long repressed. I subscribe to the Rational Emotive School (RET) of Albert Ellis and his offspring the Becks, which among other things assists a patient to reexamine his or her current life script or interpretation of personal history. Mindfulness can be a critical tool in therapeutic progress.
However, if you Google “mindfulness,” you will find that the term and the practice have a strong affinity to Eastern thought and practice, particularly Yoga. Wikipedia’s definition is useful if incomplete in making this connection. The goal of mindfulness and its attendant lifestyle is escape from the past and the future and absolute focus on the moment. Eastern mysticism in general is profoundly metaphysical; it holds that human experience is profoundly internal, waiting for discovery when the human subject can escape the care of this world. One can quickly see some points of contact between Christian mysticism and Eastern philosophy, particularly the premise that there is a rich life beyond the scientific, observable field.
The Trappist mystic and spiritual writer Thomas Merton devoted the last decade of his study to exploring possible bridges between Eastern and Western thought and religious practice. Ironically, he was killed in this quest in 1968, electrocuted while presenting a workshop to Eastern monks in Burma. His death is a serious loss to the Church, particularly in its moral and spiritual possibilities, as we continue to seek a unity of the temporal and the eternal in personal development.
Paragraph 1706 states that “Everyone is obliged to follow this law [do good and avoid evil], which makes itself heard in conscience and is fulfilled in the love of God and of neighbor.” The challenge is in the hearing. The Catechism cannot be precise on the dynamic of the communication between God and the mind, nor for that matter, God and the will, or even our own minds and wills alone. The nature of such communication is beyond our ability to find adequate linguistics; when we profess faith in God, we profess faith in a process we believe is happening but cannot explain with precision.
However, the disposition to hear and understand is something we do control to a point; the Catechism is clear in many places that we are created with freedom to meaningfully choose the good [the Revelation of God] or reject it. The mystery turns on why some individuals embrace the good and others do not, or more to the point, why we ourselves make good choices at one point and poor choices in another. What is impacting us at the moment of a poor choice? Putting the question this way, mindfulness is a valuable spiritual tool. The insights of mindful thinking and process are not usually so flattering—as Shakespeare observed, “it is the worst treason, to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” I do plenty of “good things” for a mixed bag of reasons; the key is honesty, and I have always believed that God loves a less than cheerful giver of mixed motive so long as his will is obeyed.
The caveat with mindfulness is whether the accent upon the immediate is an enlightenment or an escape. If it is true, as I have observed, that Yoga and self-awareness are as hot a ticket as ever on the train to better living, it is also true that California and other states and locations have recently taken steps toward the legalization of recreational marijuana. It has been a lot of years since my college days, but the pot smoking jargon then went something like “trip out” or “take a trip,” which sounds a lot like escapism. The same can be said for any mood-altering or mind-altering substance that takes us out of the present. Moral consciousness and the clarity of mind and heart to hear our better angels is the mental heart of prayer and good conduct.