August 21st, 2010

Q&A: Pioneer discusses mind/body perspective

Have you gone to a store to get mustard and come home with three bags of groceries…but no mustard?

When we are lying on our death beds, how many of us will slap our foreheads and claim, “Oh no, I forgot the mustard!”?

It’s an interesting tale, or life lesson, but an important one, says Jim Manganiello, Ed.D., a Massachusetts-based clinical psychologist. It’s about how people need to become aware of what direction they want to head and not let themselves get distracted by the other issues in life.

Manganiello is former director of the Center for East-West Psychology and Contemplative Healing and former director of the Mind Body Institute where he pioneered some early mind body strategies for personal growth, stress resilience and holistic health. He recently started MESICS, an online source for an array of health, well-being and “inner fitness” practices.

Manganiello spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about his work with mind body health and the ways the profession of psychology needs to change direction.

Q: You have been a pioneer of some of the main tenets of mind body practice. What are the essential ingredients in a healthy psychological practice?

A: There are three important streams. One is depth psychology – the tradition that is often known as either Freudian or Jungian, something that respects the power of the unconscious and the possibilities for depth and meaning in life. The other is medical psychology and behavioral medicine and the third is the meditative tradition. The Eastern sciences, in particular the contemplative healing sciences or the meditative sciences, have done tremendous work in understanding the nature of mind.

Q: What would you do to change the way the profession of psychology is heading?

A: I would shift the training of psychologists and I would start from the premise that a good therapist requires that she or he have a fundamental body of self-knowledge that is operating in their own life.

 Universities are suffering because there is a dearth of training that I would call psychologically-based. Unfortunately, it has grown worse since universities have discovered marketing. University psychology departments have become career driven as opposed to nourishing and training the art of operating psychologically in the world and operating with a deeply imbedded skill set as a therapist.

 It used to be that psychology was the art of cultivating the logos of the psyche, of self understanding. But it was kind of co-opted by the trill of science. I can recall this definition that was hammered into us, “The science of understanding, predicting and controlling behavior.” Not a very eloquent idea.

Q: Psychology has swung too far towards the “science” side and is less of an “art form?”

A: While nosological categories, such as depression or bipolar disorder, can be useful and deeply informative, sometimes the map gets mistaken for the actual territory. Therapists miss opportunities to see, for example, that depression is a message that needs to be decoded not a symptom that needs to be medicated.

 The symptom is a deep message not only from one’s unconscious but from one’s heart and brings forth the possibility of calling into question the values that one is living from, the script that one is operating from. So many lives are lived falsely according to scripts that are not originated within the being or the soul of the individual. I think it causes more suffering than war.

 Q: You preach “mindfulness” as a way to help people to find their way. Did you ever go to the grocery store for mustard and wind up coming back home with three bags of groceries and no mustard?

A: There is something about that story that speaks deeply. We came here for an adventure. We didn’t come here to prepare for retirement. Unfortunately, because of the obstacles in the way, many folks are like people who landed on planet Earth and never got more than 50 yards from their parachute.

 Living mindfully is a game changer. It changes one’s quality of life – it reduces the likelihood of unnecessary illness and a lot of misery – including anxiety, panic, depression an experience of general malaise and exhaustion.

 Q: You have said that many of us live according to a role that our families wrote for us and that we carry childhood hurts. Yet stress can have even deeper roots that tie us back to our ancestors?

A: We are hard wired for a time that is long gone. The evolutionary scientists refer to it as a mismatch problem: our hardwiring is meant for a different set of circumstances than we are living in. There is a tendency to be overworked, moving much too fast. As a consequence, the stress hormone faucet is turned on when the fight or flight response is triggered. Unfortunately, the speed, complexity and madness of contemporary life is such that this fight or flight response is chronically on. These stress hormones seep into our blood and tissues where they linger and set up conditions for the problems that we see: insomnia, anxiety, panic, depression.

 We have to train people how to handle this, to shut off the faucet and to flush out the hormones. Our job isn’t just to think of patients as having problems.

 You would think that psychologists would be at the forefront of filling this obligation to take this kind of knowledge and bring it into the public forum such that the public would get hold of it instead of listening to corporate driven garbage that just serves to hypnotize people more into buying things they don’t need or taking drugs they don’t need. Instead, psychologists just kind of keep writing articles to secure their positions and putting footnotes in so that the same people read these articles back and forth. We have an essentially suffering population who are begging for understandings that can only come about psychologically, including issues like stress.

 Q: What about all the self help books? Isn’t that a way to bring it to the public?

A: If your work is genuinely of value and you are passionate about it and you have been able to come across things that are of real value then you have a moral obligation to get it into the hands of others. And, this involves coming into the marketplace.

 Unfortunately, the marketplace can be filled with things of questionable value. It’s like this mindfulness trendiness that is going on. Too often some of these people teaching mindfulness to other therapists do not understand the tradition and body of knowledge and the training that is behind the idea of mindfulness.

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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