Is mindfulness the answer to emptiness?

by Nathan Chua

All of us have had that feeling of being sad, despairing, lonely or empty. These are moments when we don’t seem to have any purpose and meaning to go on with our brief experience of being alive. It can be frustrating, making us feel that we are left alone in our “quiet desperation,” as Thoreau had described. We have always longed and searched for that one key to lasting happiness that will take us to an elevated sense of being. It is something we seem to always just see in others, but not in ourselves.

I for one, am no exception. It has been a lifelong search. Until I stumbled upon what has now become somewhat of a craze: mindfulness. Ronald Siegel is an expert on mindfulness. It was wonderful to hear him point out one big reason for our feelings of emptiness. He used the metaphor of the sine wave to drive his point.

Most of our struggles stem from keeping the low points of the sine wave up. Like other experts that have found the reasons for our neuroses, it is not just the feeling bad that gives us trouble, but it is feeling bad about feeling bad. Siegel explains that like the sine wave, it is when we fight the lows that our highs become lower. The wave turns flatter; hence we experience that feeling of being flat or empty. Mindfulness tells us to fully accept those emotions as our friend, who tells us there’s indeed something to be concerned about. It helps us acknowledge the emotions and experience them in parts of our body. We resist the temptation to interpret these emotions with irrational statements. Thoughts like, we are failures for feeling sad, or that we should always be liked by everyone, every time, or that we should be happy all the time.

Here’s how one source defines what mindfulness is:

“[Mindfulness] changes your stance from being actively involved in the drama to being an impartial observer. It encourages you to become a witness to the unfolding of your thoughts and emotions – less critical, more accepting.”

I have a couple of instances in my life that I am fond of relating to my clients. One experience was when I was forced to stop work for three weeks by a former employer, right at Christmas time. Since it was a contractual arrangement, it meant no income for three weeks, just when everyone was celebrating for the holidays. I stopped making interpretations to my feelings, and just started to stay with them, and see in which parts of my body is this sad and worried emotion manifesting. Slowly, like a leaf coming down the river, the emotion goes away. I also used my feelings of sadness and hurt to reach out to friends and seek company.

The second and perhaps one of my favorite things to do, is when I come home. I have two small potted shrubs in front of my house that bloom what probably are some of the most fragrant flowers I have ever smelled in my life. These blooms do not last very long and appear just a few times a year. You can say I stay in the moment, to stop and smell the flowers. This is probably what Marilyn Peterson referred to when she wrote, “Spirituality has nothing to do with organized religion. Instead, I view it as our reverence for life and our activities in behalf of all that is life affirming.”

Yes, mindfulness has taught me to affirm life, both in its worst and best moments. The key to leaving that emptiness is in living, laughing and crying each moment with acceptance and affirmation. Life is short, stay mindful of each moment, and witness the real colors of living.

What makes counseling different from other ways of learning?

Let me start this post with two points.

Point One:

If there was one thing that cuts across all forms of helping activities in the realm of mental health, it should relate to learning. Counseling is no exception for me, as it involves learning, the same way we learn from lectures, talks, workshops and even church sermons. In that case, why then is there a need for personal therapy?

Point Two:

People frequently mistake counseling for seeking advice. It is seen as sort of a lecture or public forum, only that it is done in private, and advice would come as personal to the client as no other medium can provide. This means they don’t have to worry about guessing if the advice they heard from a lecture or a talk, is personal or applicable to them or not. This in part answers our question about the need for personal therapy from point number one. However, the reasons are much more complicated than this.

I have always contended that counseling is a process of discovery. It is a journey through life with someone who’s dedicated to helping clients find a way to themselves, or their real selves. This is what makes it special and different from all the other approaches to learning.

Secondly, and more importantly, it is experiential. How many times have we heard it said that the longest we keep information from a long-drawn-out lecture or sermon, can only be retained in our memories for the next 20 minutes.

Counseling is an avenue in which the lessons are long-remembered after the experience. It is analogous to experiences in life that we find unforgettable. That awesome trip you had in a place that you just ticked off from your bucket list…That brush with a life-and-death situation that you will always remember to tell in intimate gatherings…These are but a few examples of how experiential learning can be remembered so much more vividly, that a lecture or a talk can find hard to duplicate.

In my experience, I have at times been tempted to offer advice to people who see me. Clients would often come after numerous people have given them advice that made sense, but somehow they could not believe will work for them. This only goes to show that decisions that are offered from the outside, will be difficult to apply, until those same decisions come from the very person who asks for it. It is at times only in experiencing the learning process through counseling, that decisions can be made with courage, and new wisdom can be proudly owned, by the one who seeks it, and eventually lives it.

Who do you look for to get help?

by Nathan Chua

One frequent inquiry I get is about which psychologist or counselor one should look for, when faced with emotional or psychological problems. I think there is enough confusion around, that compels a discussion about the different specializations available in such a broad field like psychology.

For this post, I will focus on three distinct, but nonetheless related fields in psychology, which are frequently the subject of inquiry. These are clinical psychology, psychiatry and counseling psychology. There are many more areas of learning in psychology that I just don’t have the space to discuss in one short blog. Please note that I am talking from the perspective of someone who works and lives in the Philippines. Some of my descriptions about the way these three are practiced, may be unique to the country.

Counseling Psychology

This is a field where social workers and counselors with master’s degrees would specialize in the Philippines. Some counselors are not just involved in talk therapy or counseling, but they can also give psychological tests as well. They can work in various organizations. A typical example would be a school’s guidance counselor. Others would be involved in hospitals, clinics, rehab centers, religious charities or any organization that is involved in social work. They are not trained to prescribe medication.

Clinical Psychology

Most practitioners in this field are involved in counseling and psychometrics. They are able to do most, if not all, of what counselors and social workers can offer. Of course, this still depends on what the clinical psychologist chooses to specialize in. In the Philippines, clinical psychologists are normally the people who couples approach when they are in the process of annulment.

Psychiatry

This field would have the widest scope. Psychiatrists are trained to do counseling or talk therapy and give tests as well. They are considered medical doctors or MD’s, and are therefore licensed to write prescriptions. Take note again that whether a psychiatrist chooses to engage in other activities like counseling or psychotherapy and psychological testing, is entirely up to him or her. In the Philippines, most psychiatrist specialize in giving prescriptions.

For those who are engaged in talk therapy, psychotherapy or counseling, they would normally have areas of specialization, depending on the segment of the population they feel most competent to work with, and in the theory that guides their practice. There are different perspectives that can be used in talk therapy. Some of them are behavioral, psychodynamic, cognitive and existential. There are quite a few who choose to be eclectic in their approach. This means they use different theories that they feel can be helpful to their clients or patients, who present different concerns to them.

The Role of Shame and Blame in Families

by Nathan Chua

It was in the 1980s when a game show called Family Feud caught my attention. It was a game of guessing the top answers that a survey of 100 people revealed. I think what added to the excitement was pitting one family against the other. I remember how this show became something of a cultural exposure for me. I was amazed at how patient and loving the contestants were with each other, even when their family member would give the wrong answer. Of course, there is no telling if the contestants were coached into how they should behave when such misfortunes occur. There are times when the family is split about which answer they think should be given.

I was amazed at how positive everyone was toward each other, even when a member of the family stubbornly went against the wishes of the others. I thought to myself, I find this hard to imagine if my family was playing this game.

I have met many who have shrunk from themselves, and made major life decisions based on the fear of being shamed or blamed by others, especially by family members. This can be even more difficult when decisions involve careers and marriage. It probably is quite common to know that someone makes important decisions, not based on what they want, but on what ought, or what was expected from them.

All this can be traced to the fear of responsibility. This is most evident in people who come to the counseling room with the same questions in mind, “What should I do?” “You are the expert, just tell me what your opinion is and everything will be fine,” are ways to escape responsibility.

In my experience though, this manner of seeking counsel for life’s issues, hardly offers any easy answers, to that thing that they most want to get from a counselor or therapist. In the end, people end up staying with the same issues of indecisiveness and lost lives, or lost selves. People have lost themselves in pursuit of what was expected of them. In exchange for seeking what ought, over what it is that they want, people lose their sense of meaning and purpose in life.

In Kierkegaard’s words,

“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”