Emotional Alchemy

The following is an article by Tara Bennett-Goleman (author of the book by the same name) in which she describes how the transforming power of mindfulness can be applied to our painful emotional patterns. (The article is taken from the Shambhala Sun, March 2001).

Each thing has to transform itself into something better, and acquire a new destiny," Paulo Coelho writes in his novel The Alchemist. Coelho describes the world as only the visible aspect of God, with invisible spiritual forces at play that remain largely unknown to us. Alchemy occurs when the spiritual plane comes into contact with the material plane.

I was given Coelho's book by a client, who told me, "This reminds me of our work together." Indeed, alchemy offers an apt metaphor for the process of working with emotions I will describe. Alchemists, the tales go, sought to use a magical philosopher's stone to transmute lead into gold. But lead and gold, in the more philosophical school of alchemy, were metaphors for internal states: the alchemist's discipline was one of psychological and spiritual transformation. Alchemists realized that the mystery they sought to solve was not outside themselves but in the psyche.

Some alchemical schools liken our ordinary state of mind to a lump of coal and compare clear awareness to a diamond. There could seem to be no greater contrast in the material world than that between coal and a diamond; and yet the two are but different arrangements of the identical molecules of carbon. Just as a diamond is coal transformed, so clear awareness can arise from our confusion. What intrigues me about the metaphor of alchemy is the importance it places on the process of transformation. One client, an acupuncturist who has studied Chinese medicine, told me that the word "alchemy," better than any other word, describes the process of integrating the practice of mindfulness meditation with emotional work: "Alchemy is accepting everything in the pot without trying to reject or correct it—seeing that even the negative is part of the learning and healing."

Mindfulness means seeing things as they are, without trying to change them. The point is to dissolve our reactions to disturbing emotions, being careful not to reject the emotion itself. Mindfulness can change how we relate to, and perceive, our emotional states; it doesn't necessarily eliminate them.

The warmth of sunlight dissolving the moisture of clouds— nature's alchemy—echoes the warm fire of mindfulness melting the emotional clouds covering our inner nature. The effects of such periods of insightful clarity may be fleeting and momentary, lasting only until the next emotional cloud forms. But rekindling this awareness again and again—bringing it to bear on these inner clouds, letting it penetrate and dissolve the haze in our minds—is the heart of mindfulness practice, a practice we can learn to sustain.

I believe that, given the right awareness tools, we all have the potential to be inner alchemists, with the natural ability to turn our moments of confusion into insightful clarity. Gradually, as we practice doing this with our troubling feelings, we can gain an understanding of their causes.

For the most part, these insights are psychological, especially at first. But if we continue this process we can gain insights into the workings of the mind itself that can be spiritually liberating. It's as though there are two levels of reality in our lives: one dominated by these deeply ingrained emotional patterns and another that is free from conditioned patterns. Mindfulness gives us breathing space from this conditioning.

Emotional alchemy allows for the possibility that our bewilderment and turmoil might blossom into insightful clarity. "In almost every bad situation, says the Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera, "there is the possibility of a transformation by which the undesirable may be changed into the desirable."

There is a simple but ingenious judo in this emotional alchemy: to embrace all experiences as part of a transformative path by making them the focus of mindfulness. Instead of seeing disturbance and turmoil as a distraction, realize that they too can become the target of a keen attention. "In that way," Nyanaponika notes, "enemies are turned into friends, because all these disturbances and antagonistic forces have become our teachers."

Mindfulness is a meditative awareness that cultivates the capacity to see things just as they are from moment to moment. Ordinarily our attention swings rather wildly, carried here and there by random thoughts, fleeting memories, captivating fantasies, snatches of things seen, heard or otherwise perceived. By contrast, mindfulness is a distraction-resistant, sustained attention to the movements of the mind itself. Instead of being swept away and captured by a thought or feeling, mindfulness steadily observes those thoughts and feelings as they come and go.

Essentially, mindfulness entails a new way of paying attention, a way to expand the scope of awareness while refining its precision. In this training of the mind we learn to let go of the thoughts and feelings that pull us out of the present moment, and to steady our awareness on our immediate experience. If distractedness breeds emotional turmoil, the ability to sustain our gaze, to keep looking, can bring greater clarity and insight.

Mindfulness has its roots in an ancient system of Buddhist psychology, little known in the West, one that even today offers a sophisticated understanding of the painful emotions that sabotage our happiness. This psychology offers a scientific approach to inner work, a theory of mind that anyone, Buddhist or not, can draw insights and benefit from. When we apply this approach, the emphasis is not so much on the problems in our lives as on connecting with the clarity and health of mind itself. If we can do this, our problems become more workable. They become opportunities to learn rather than threats to avoid.

Buddhist psychology holds a refreshingly positive view of human nature: our emotional problems are seen as temporary and superficial. The emphasis is on what is right with us, an antidote to the fixation of Western psychology on what's wrong with us. Buddhist psychology acknowledges our disturbing emotions but sees them as covering our essential goodness like clouds covering the sun. In this sense, our darker moments and most upsetting feelings are an opportunity for uncovering our natural wisdom, if we choose to use them that way.

Mindful attention allows us to delve deeper into the moment, to perceive finer subtlety, than does ordinary attention. In this sense, mindfulness creates "wise" attention, a space of clarity that emerges when we quiet the mind. It makes us more receptive to the whispers of our innate intuitive wisdom.

Through my own inner work, as well as in my work as a psychotherapist and workshop leader, I have found that combining a mindful awareness with psychological investigation forges a powerful means to penetrate dense emotions. This meditative awareness, I've found, can bring us a remarkably subtle understanding of our emotional patterns and so help us find ways to unravel deep fixations and destructive habits.

In this work, I've found two methods to be especially potent for detecting and transforming emotional patterns: mindfulness meditation and a recent adaptation of cognitive therapy, called schema therapy, which focuses on repairing maladaptive emotional habits. Both of these methods—one ancient and one modern—bring awareness to destructive emotional habits, and that is the first step toward healing them.

Becoming aware of these emotional habits is the first step, because unless we can catch and challenge them as they are triggered by the events of our lives, they will dictate how we perceive and react. And the more they take us over, the more they'll keep coming back, complicating our relationships, our work, and the most basic ways in which we see ourselves.

Schema therapy was developed by Dr. Jeffrey Young, the founder of the Cognitive Therapy Center of New York. Its focus is on healing maladaptive patterns, or schemas, like the sense of emotional deprivation, or relentless perfectionism. In working with my own clients, I have found that mindfulness meditation and schema therapy work together naturally and powerfully.

Schema therapy gives us a clear map to destructive habits. It details the emotional contours of, say, the fear of abandonment, with its constant apprehension that a partner will leave us; or of feelings of vulnerability, such as the irrational fear that a minor setback at work means you will end up jobless and homeless.

There are ten such major schemas (and countless variations): most of us have one or two principal ones, though many of us have several others to some extent. Other common schemas include unlovability, the fear that people would reject us if they truly knew us; mistrust, the constant suspicion that those close to us will betray us; social exclusion, the feeling that we don’t belong; failure, the sense that we cannot succeed at what we do; subjugation, always giving in to other people's wants and demands; and entitlement, the sense that one is somehow special, and so beyond ordinary rules and limits.

Through working with my clients, it has become clear to me that adding mindfulness to psychotherapy greatly enhances its effectiveness, helping clients see the otherwise invisible emotional patterns at the root of their suffering. I have been struck by how much the therapy process was accelerated when a client practiced mindfulness. I have found that combining a mindful awareness with psychological investigation forges a powerful tool for cultivating emotional wisdom on a practical, day-to-day level.

Much time in psychotherapy typically entails bringing the detailed anatomy of emotional habits into the light of awareness so they can be investigated, reflected on, and changed. But mindfulness meditation can make any system of psychotherapy more precise and attuned, letting us bring our own wisdom to the psychological unfolding. Instead of seeing the therapy or even the therapist as the cure, we can shift our focus to the healing qualities of our own inner wisdom. This wake-up call need not be set apart from our lives; it needn't be something we do only in isolated hours in a therapist's office. It can be part of life, moment to moment, with the application of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is synergistic with virtually any psychotherapy approach, not just schema therapy. If you are in psychotherapy, mindfulness offers a way to cultivate a capacity for self-observation that you can bring to whatever confronts you during the day. Combining mindfulness with psychotherapy may help you use more fully the opportunity for inner exploration that your therapy offers.

When it comes to the turbulent feelings that roil within us, it's not that we are able to wrap up our bewildering emotions in neat formulaic explanations, but that we can use an ongoing inquiry to reach small epiphanies, insights that grow one on the other toward a greater clarity. In a sense, our darker moments and most upsetting feelings are an opportunity for spiritual growth and uncovering our natural wisdom, for waking up—if we choose to use them that way. If so, our deepest insights can emerge from working directly—with awareness—with our own difficulties.

A strong emotional obsession or pattern is like the scene in "The Wizard of Oz" where Dorothy and her companions finally get to Oz. The Wizard is this powerful, looming presence that terrifies them—until the little dog Toto calmly goes over and pulls back the curtain to reveal an old man stooped over the controls, manipulating a huge wizard image. Emotional fixations are like that—if you see them clearly, unflinchingly, for what they really are, you take the power away from them. They no longer control you. Confusion dawns as clarity.

About the Author: TARA BENNETT-GOLEMAN is a psychotherapist and long-time student of Judaism. This article is adapted from her new book, Emotional Alchemy: How he Mind Can Heal the Heart, 2000, which integrates mindfulness and Buddhist psychology with schema therapy and neuroscience, published by Harmony Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

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