Mindfulness and CBT – A #yogamooc reflection

By | Sat November 11, 2017

YogaMOOC has caused me to reflect on the relationship between mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In the past I have been challenged with mindfulness instruction. In part, this has been because the instructors taught what worked for them, or what they had been told to teach, but what works for one person may be very different than what works for another. For example, I find that the exercise to focus on my breath really helps me, but I got nothing out of compassion meditation or body scans. For me, mindfulness is about the singular focus and the ability to see my thoughts and let go of them without judgement. I can do this when focusing on my breath – it doesn’t work nearly as well when I’m distracted by other meditations. But that is me. It will be different for everyone.

In this sense, I see mindfulness as a way to practice seeing my thoughts, and separating me from my thoughts. When I practice mindfulness meditation, I see my thoughts as thought-bubbles, and I watch them come and go, trying to ensure that I don’t attach onto any of them. My therapist described it as “thought” as sense, like smell or touch. We recognized our senses, and mindfulness is a way to learn to recognize our thoughts as a sense.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) on the other hand is about changing thoughts. The premise behind it is that you can change the way you feel by changing the way you think. The first step to any cognitive behavioral therapy is to recognize what you are thinking. Once you recognize it, you can categorize it or label it, then you can apply a technique to allow you to change it. Since I learned about CBT, much of the time I’m able to recognize my thoughts and fix them when they are broken. For example, I found myself procrastinating in writing my dissertation. I am normally very self-motivated, so when I saw that procrastination I knew there was something wrong. Further, I had told myself that I would ignore any symptoms that might indicate that my cancer has spread until after I finished the first draft of my dissertation. Somehow, my mind had translated that into ‘when you finish your dissertation, your cancer will spread’. It is completely illogical, but it was how my mind had warped one coping mechanism into another – which in turn lead to me procrastinating. Once I recognized what was going on (it is called ‘magical thinking’ in CBT language), I was able to burst that bubble. I know that my cancer will either spread or it wont and that has nothing to do with when I finish my dissertation. Those two things are not logically linked. By recognizing the thought patterns – stepping back and seeing them – I am now able to debunk the thought patterns and change them.

In some ways, mindfulness then is the first step in CBT. First you need to recognize the thoughts you are having. One challenge I have is learning not to judge the thoughts. If I judge them as right or wrong, good or bad, then I cannot get to the root of what is causing the thought, nor can I figure out what technique to use to change the thought. I just need to recognize that the thought is happening and that it is a thought that I wan to change.

Now to get back to working on my dissertation!

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