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Cognitive Fusion and Psychological Inflexibility at Spirit Rock Meditation Center

Psychological Inflexibility

I had an insight into my own psychological inflexibility at a workshop I attended at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in rural west Marin County, California. The room was quiet and all attention was focused on Dr. Paul Ekman’s presentation (upon whose work the Lie to Me TV series was based). Suddenly, someone’s cell phone rang. Because we were in a place that tries to maintain quiet, my immediate response was one of annoyance and judgment about the owner of that phone. I experienced some emotional distress as a result  of my limiting belief that people should be more aware and considerate. Dr. Ekman, however, had other ideas. He paused in his lecture and exclaimed, “Isn’t it wonderful that there’s such great reception out here in West Marin!” This incident is memorable for me because it so exemplifies the extent to which the rigidity and inflexibility of our beliefs and judgments creates our own suffering. I squirmed in discomfort even though the presenter wasn’t fazed at all.

Ekman had spent considerable time with the Dalai Lama

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

, and during his lecture, I was quite shocked when he told us that His Holiness makes an exception to the Buddhist practice of preserving all life when it comes to mosquitoes—carriers of disease. This was another lesson in psychological flexibility, this time on the part of a venerated leader of world peace. I reflected upon how the followers of such a person can create enormous suffering by developing literal interpretations of the metaphors he or she uses; meanwhile the leader lives with psychological flexibility and clarity and experiences far less suffering.

At the same lecture, Ekman made the point I’ve made in previous posts: that there are no constructive moods; all moods are destructive because they are fixed states. He described spending time with well-known monk Matthieu Ricard, the man referred to in Buddhist circles as “the happiest man on the planet.” Ricard is known to be able to spend most of his waking hours just watching his thoughts and emotions come and go like birds in flight.

Reining In the Mind to Reduce Suffering

Every thought or image, every product of the imagination we spin out as we move through the day, has physiological correlates and effects upon our state of health. When we are fused with these machinations of the mind, we are helpless to avoid being affected by them—psychologically, emotionally, and physiologically—and we allow them to rule our behavior. This is why mindfulness practice is so important. Through mindfulness practice, we are able to de-fuse and dis-identify from all these products of the mind, which is good for our health and allows us to make better decisions in our lives.

Much of our emotional distress is the result of our thoughts residing in the future or the past. For many of us, the majority of our thoughts have to do with worries about future events or replaying of past events, especially those about which we have regret. The fusion with those mental constructs leads to emotional distress. Emotional distress leads to physiological stress, and chronic physiological stress eventuates in disease. Mindfulness practice offers a powerful intervention in this vicious cycle. When we train ourselves to be aware of and fully present with what is, we do not have to live with the anxieties of past and future or their deleterious effects on our health.

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