Basically, three things are simultaneously true:
The points you raise are right at the intersection of key questions in working with trauma: does revisiting the material reinforce it or release it? Check out my slides and talks about the ways to work with the mind.
Fundamentally, in my view, there are just three kinds of ways to engage the mind, to practice with it productively:
In effect, if the mind is like a garden we can observe it, pull weeds, and plant flowers. In a nutshell: let be, let go, and let in.
The three ways to engage the mind work together. For example, we need to make efforts to grow capacities to be with the mind, such as self-acceptance, observing-ego functions, or distress tolerance. And we be with the results of our efforts to reduce the negative and grow the positive.
Of the three, the first one (which approximates the conventional definition of “mindfulness”) is primary. You can always be with the mind, but you can’t always reduce the negative or grow the positive.
There’s definitely a place for the common advice people give to just “be mindful.” Still, it is important to do more than simply observe the mind.
What happens in the mind depends on what happens in the brain, and the brain is a physical system that does not change unless it gets changed (usually by oneself, if at all). The brain does not generally erase negative patterns simply because we observe them; if anything, its evolved negativity bias makes it retain negative learning. And the brain does not generally develop determination, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, or most any other positive qualities simply because someone is witnessing the stream of consciousness.
Even the Buddha – someone who profoundly valued mindfulness – allocated most of the elements of the Noble Eightfold Path to the second and third ways to engage the mind (i.e., the release of greed, hatred, and delusion, and the cultivation of wise view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, and concentration).
When we are bothered or upset about something, there is a natural trajectory in which we start by being with our experience. Then, at some point, it feels right to start releasing it. Then, at some point, it feels right to start replacing what we’ve released with something useful and positive.
The timing of this trajectory depends on the person and situation. Sometimes you realize quickly what is bugging you, and you shift into letting go of it and moving on to something happier within a minute or two. Other times, something hits you really hard – such as a shocking loss – and it could be months and even years before it feels right to shift into letting go, and then letting in.
Some people err on the side of jumping too quickly into letting go and letting in, but if you do that, those efforts don’t have much traction. Other people get stuck in letting be, in just feeling their painful feelings, and not making skillful efforts within their own mind to release the negative and replace it with something appropriately beneficial. I would like to think that my approach balances these elements in a positive way.
Mindfulness and my work on cultivation (let in – the skillful development of inner resources) are completely complementary. One needs to sustain mindfulness for effective cultivation: to turn passing mental states into lasting neural traits (the biological basis for psychological resources). And through cultivation, one develops the mental factors that support mindfulness. Additionally, mindfulness has benefits unrelated to cultivation (e.g., coming into the present moment) and cultivation has benefits unrelated to mindfulness (e.g., developing caring for others, self-respect, gratitude, positive mood, grit, hardiness).
Mindfulness and cultivation are both “experiential” in that both of these are ways of relating to our experience. Of course, our experience includes our thoughts – both verbal and non-verbal – and one can be mindful of thoughts, can have thoughts about mindfulness, and can cultivate beneficial thoughts (such as a sense of perspective on the hassles of daily life).
That whole process is very important, but my own work focuses on the third way to engage the mind: let in. This is the active cultivation and internalization of beneficial states of mind – in the context of the other two ways to engage it.
My view is that there has been a lot of development in both clinical psychology and the spiritual traditions of the first two ways to engage the mind, but not as much development of how to do cultivation skillfully. In particular, we have not really taken into account the implications of the fact that the brain changes – learns – in two stages (from short-term buffers to long-term storage, from state to trait, from activation to installation), and without really doing the second stage (installation), there is little or no learning, little or no lasting value.
So here is where there is good opportunity: developing ways to more skillfully “install” everyday experiences in the brain as lasting inner resources, such as resilience, kindness, happiness, and wisdom.
I’ll try to respond to both of your questions together, since they are the two sides of one coin.
Your question is very important, how do we know when it is best to stay in “being with” (or “let be”) mode – simply witnessing our experience in open, spacious, accepting, curious awareness – and when is it best to shift into “working with” mode, either through releasing the negative (let go) or replacing it with something positive (let in).
I don’t think there is an ultimate right answer, it is more a matter of what is right for this person with these capacities with this pain at this time. For me, some guidelines:
Of course, this stage of practice is the result of a lot of working with the mind. And it would be unskillful to try to bypass it.
For negative thoughts during meditation, the two classic strategies are:
The batting away strategy is a detail for the focused attention approach. Sometimes when the mind is quiet we can see distracting thoughts starting to arise and congeal, and we can gently bat them away before they fully “invade the mind and remain” (as said by the Buddha).
It is also possible in meditation, in an open awareness frame, to use the meditative state to investigate negative thoughts to sense down into deeper, warmer, more emotional layers, as you say. The art in doing this is to avoid therapizing oneself and getting all caught up in self-analysis, but also try to get to the bottom of things. Check out the RAIN Method that Tara Brach, James Baraz, and others talk about.
If negative thoughts are overwhelming if you let them in, perhaps best in meditation to focus on concentration methods, and outside meditation engage practices like RAIN.
When balancing letting be and letting go or letting in, it’s important both to not overreact to depressive thoughts and feelings, and to be careful about sensitizing your brain any further to the negative. It’s a balance. So observe your mind flowing along . . . try not go negative about anything negative . . . and fairly soon shift into gently releasing the negative and then really open to and encourage the positive. And remember that you can bring attention to and becoming concentratively absorbed in the positive even when sadness or other feelings are also present off to the side as it were in the mind.
Letting Go for parents
Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.
The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.
She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.
Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.
In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.
Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.
Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.
He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.
Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.
Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.
Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.
Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.
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