A Moment of Clarification on Mindfulness

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,

Last weekend I had the pleasure of presenting at the UCLA conference on How People Change: Relationships and Neuroplasticity in Psychotherapy. I was among some of the best of the best: Dan Siegel, Irvin Yalom, Peter Levine, Bruce Perry, Mary Pipher, Bonnie Goldstein, Pat Ogden, John Norcross, Russell Meares, Margaret Wilkinson, Dan Hughes, Jessica Benjamin, and Allan Schore.

I must admit, it was difficult to maintain my cool in the presence of so many I admire. As a result I apparently misspoke.

Participants heard me say that mindfulness practice is ill-advised because it reduces empathy. Clearly this notion disturbed the mindfulness meditators in the audience, and I can understand their dismay because it is not what I believe or intended to say. I would like to correct any mistaken impressions posthaste.

Having myself been a long-time Vipassana meditator and even once a teacher/facilitator of Vipassana (mindfulness) practice, I am an advocate of insight meditation, in both formal and informal practices. I have given presentations on Vipassana meditation and have cited the many research findings that show the astounding neurobiological effects this and loving-kindness practice provide. In no way is mindfulness connected in my mind with reduced empathy. To the contrary, I wholly believe it contributes to increased empathy as well as to increased capacity for self-regulation and interactive regulation with others!

The point I initially attempted to articulate (and tried to clarify during my panel discussion with Dan Siegel, Bruce Perry, and Peter Levine) was this: I have personally witnessed some partners in couple therapy use a meditative self-regulatory strategy during periods of mutual distress. This strategy can prove disastrous to mutual regulation of distress when only one partner employs it. The result tends to be sustained misattuned moments that lead to dysregulated states in the other partner. The reason, I suspect, is that the meditating partner is not responding to signals in real time and becomes too still, unresponsive, and even still-faced. I also have witnessed some supervisees practice meditation while doing therapy (without informing their patients), which caused problems for the patients, who found themselves dealing with an under-responsive therapist.

The fact that I conveyed anything other than what I have stated here is deeply regrettable to me. My hope is that some who were at the conference will be able read this blog with nonjudgment, acceptance, and compassion, and recognize that in fact we are not living in different realities.


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