by Bill Gayner
Emotion-Focused Mindfulness Therapy (EFMT) is a new psychological approach to addressing internal conflicts like harsh self-criticism and unfinished business with people who have hurt us. The approach emerged out of a dialogue between Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT), a neo-humanistic therapy developed by psychologists Les Greenberg, Jeanne Watson, Robert Elliott and others, and the secular and contemporary Buddhist perspectives of Stephen Batchelor, Winton Higgins and Jason Siff.
EMFT is different from another group of psychological approaches influenced by Buddhism, Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. While MBIs help individuals to decenter from difficult thoughts and feelings, that is, to recognize these are events in consciousness rather than direct truths about self, others and the world, they do not specify or encourage the emotional processing which is crucial to resolving our personal issues.
Decentering from and letting go of difficult thoughts and feelings is useful, but not always sufficient. For example, more than a decade ago, I was getting dressed for my father’s funeral. I do not wear a suit often, and I started worrying about whether the colours on my tie, shirt and blazer matched. I tried meditating and letting go of the worry, but it kept mounting. So, instead, I decided to deepen my experiencing of my anxious worrying, developing a deeper feel for what was happening. I realized underneath the worry, I was feeling sad. Allowing myself to experience the sadness helped me acknowledge how much I missed my father. This was what was really happening, and my worries about the colours matching blew away. The grief was adaptive, it helped me make deeper sense of my situation and oriented and motivated me to go to the funeral, treat my family and friends with kindness, and give my father’s eulogy in a confident loving way.
EFMT’s Buddhist roots
Integrating this kind of emotional processing into meditation emerged out of my search to find a way to adapt MBIs to better help HIV+ gay men cope with internalized stigma and the developmental traumas prevalent among them. A key step involved applying Stephen Batchelor’s and Winton Higgins’ secular Buddhist perspectives to Jason Siff’s Recollective Awareness Meditation (RAM).
On the one hand, Batchelor and Higgins share a broad humanistic, existentialist orientation with humanistic therapies such as Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT) and Carl Roger’s Person-Centred Therapy. In EFT, this involves six overarching humanistic principles: (1) the primacy of experiencing, (2) agency and self-determination, (3) differentiated wholeness that is more than the sum of its parts, (4) pluralism and equality, (5) presence and authenticity, and (6) growth. On the other hand, Batchelor’s re-interpretation of the Four Noble Truths as four tasks provided a prototypical example of navigating meditation oriented to key markers that encouraged me in adapting RAM for EFT-style emotional processing.
Processing emotions requires including all of the processes organized by emotions and that co-construct emotional experiencing, not only the bodily and sensory experience emphasized in mainstream mindfulness, but all of the processes that make us human, including the freedom to think, to reflect on experience, to remember, and to explore how we feel about the future.
The emphasis of Jason Siff’s Recollective Awareness Meditation (RAM) on gentle participatory curiosity towards whatever states are occurring and how they are co-constructed by processes within and around us, as well as RAM’s emphasis on waiting for states to release rather than attempting to let them go provided an expanded approach to meditation well-suited for emotional processing, even though RAM itself places a greater emphasis on cognition as central to consciousness that is different than EFT’s focus on emotion, which values cognition’s important role in reflecting on and making sense of emotion’s implicit information.
Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT) has a robust research program on emotional processes associated with effective therapy outcomes and has established markers to heighten therapists’ attunement to when clients are in specific emotional configurations such as harsh self-criticism, unfinished business with someone, or the need to talk about a trauma experience that can be helpfully processed using specific forms of emotional processing. While EFT emphasizes a variety of marker-oriented emotion tasks, Siff’s experience of classic, abhidhamma-oriented forms of Theravada vipassana meditation led him to be concerned about how pre-determined markers in meditation can interfere with cultivating an authentic relationship with experience and to him eschewing their use in meditation.
Batchelor’s take on Gotama’s four tasks, however, provides an ancient prototype for a helpful form of marker-oriented navigating in meditation and life. Batchelor writes:
“So how do the four [noble truths] become four tasks to be recognised, performed, and accomplished? This is what the (bare bone) text of The First Discourse says:
“Such is dukkha. It can be fully known. It has been fully known.
“Such is the arising. It can be let go of. It has been let go of.
“Such is the ceasing. It can be experienced. It has been experienced.
“Such is the path. It can be cultivated. It has been cultivated.”
“Each element of the four is (a) to be recognised as such, then (b) acted on in a certain way, until (c) that action is accomplished. Thus, each becomes a specific task to be performed in a certain way. While dukkha is to be fully known (pariñña), the arising (of craving) is to be let go of (pahana), its ceasing is to be experienced, literally: “seen with one’s own eyes” (sacchikata), and the path is to be cultivated, literally: “brought into being” (bhavana).”1
[Batchelor bolded the key words in each task: dukkha, arising, ceasing, path, which he says each Buddhist tradition interprets in their own way.]
A new theory of emotions
Batchelor often refers to the arising of craving (shorthand for grasping, aversion and confusion) as “emotional reactivity.” From an Emotion-Focused Mindfulness Therapy (EFMT) perspective, his interpretation of Gotama’s four tasks fits well with Emotion-Focused Therapy’s broad overarching humanistic principles. However, EFT emphasizes new, distinctive developments in the way emotions are understood and treated as adaptive resources that extend beyond this shared ground.
“Emotion-theorists (e.g. Frijda, 1986; Greenberg, 2015 ; Greenberg & Paivio, 1997; Greenberg & Safran, 1987, 1989; Lazarus, 1991; Tomkins, 1963) hold that emotion is fundamentally adaptive in nature, helping the organism to process complex situational information rapidly and automatically in order to produce actions appropriate for meeting important personal needs… Emotion identifies what is significant for well-being and prepares the person to take adaptive action. Emotion also coordinates experience, provides it with direction, and gives it a sense of unifying wholeness. In other words, emotion tells people what is important, and knowing what is important tells them what they need to do and who they are.
In therapy, this means that the therapist can use the client’s emotions as a kind of therapeutic compass, guiding therapist, and client to what is important and what the client needs to do about it.”2
EFT is guided by a metaphorical “pain compass” very much like the first task, i.e., if suffering arises, fully experience and come to understand it in a process that includes, as Batchelor puts it, “an openhearted embrace of the totality of one’s existential situation.”3
EFT responds differentially to different kinds of emotions. Primary emotions organize how we think and behave often without our even being aware of them. Typically, we react to primary emotions with secondary emotions that obscure primary emotions, patterns such as my anxious worrying about the colours of my clothes in the example above, or depressive rumination, or self-angry self-criticism.
The first two tasks
Interpreted from EFT emotion theory, Gotama’s first task involves approaching and deepening experiencing of whatever emotion is on board, cultivating a non-judgmental, decentered curiosity towards it in order to discern and arrive at the underlying primary emotion. In my example above, the primary emotion was grief.
The second task involves letting go of emotional reactivity driven by craving. In EFT, the first step of letting go of emotional reactivity is to arrive at underlying primary emotion. Secondary emotions are one form of emotional reactivity and arriving at the underlying primary emotion is a powerful way of letting go of them. In the example above, arriving at primary grief enabled me to release my secondary anxious worrying about the colours of my clothes.
In the terms of the four tasks, performing the first task (arriving at the grief) enabled me to perform the second (to let go of the anxious worrying). This is typical of many Buddhist lists, how each item telescopes out of the previous one.
EFT differentiates a second kind of emotional reactivity, primary maladaptive emotions. This kind of emotion tends to be too intense and often carries an edge of helpless and hopelessness that can be paralyzing. The good news is primary maladaptive emotions are not news about the present, they are modes we were conditioned into in toxic developmental situations or trauma. They are loaded with information about the past. As the Canadian singer/songwriter Feist puts it in her song “Past in Present:”
So much present inside my present
Inside my present, so, so much past
Inside my present, inside my present
Inside my present, so, so
In EFT, when we arrive at a primary emotion, we explore it to get a sense of whether it is adaptive or maladaptive. Adaptive emotions have lots of helpful implicit information about situations, they tell us what is important to us, our values, and they motivate us to act. If a primary emotion is adaptive, we make sense of it and carry it forward as I did with my grief for my father.
But let’s say I had arrived in an overwhelming, paralyzing grief, feeling like an orphan in a storm, small and alone in a big threatening world? We process primary maladaptive emotions by tuning into the negative voice inside it and the unmet needs it represents. This often involves doing a “floatback” and arriving at an early intense memory of when we felt that way and developing a deeper sense of what we were struggling with then and what we needed but did not receive, such as an adult who could provide safety, understanding, respect and love. This can evoke helpful emotions such as adaptive anger at abuse, adaptive sadness at what we lost, or compassion for what we suffered. These adaptive emotions can transform the primary maladaptive emotions, freeing us to construct a more helpful narrative about what happened and to experience fresh adaptive emotions when we return to reflect on the current stressor that triggered the primary maladaptive emotion.
From an EFMT perspective then, Gotama’s first and second tasks emphasize arriving at primary emotions and responding to them differentially. This enables us to let go of secondary emotions, transform primary maladaptive emotions, and frees us to experience adaptive emotions.
The third and fourth tasks
Gotama’s third task from an EFMT perspective involves experiencing the relief, differentiated wholeness and freedom that letting go of secondary emotions and primary maladaptive emotions (the second task) affords. This frees us to experience the deepening coherence of adaptive emotions that orient and motivate us to cultivate our own and others’ growth and flourishing, the fourth task.
Emotion-Focused Mindfulness Therapy emerged out of a deep dialogue between secular Buddhism and Emotion-Focused Therapy. Clearly, interpreting the four tasks in the light of contemporary emotion theory goes beyond how Batchelor interprets them. Fortunately, both Batchelor and Higgins cite Alasdair MacIntyre4 in describing how living fields, whether academic disciplines, professions, or religions, are intergenerational evolving debates alive to the founders’ generative questions and how each generation responded to them, and which value new, creative developments.
You can learn more about Emotion-Focused Mindfulness Therapy on my website mindfulfeeling.ca.
You can find the basic instructions for EFMT meditation here: https://mindfulfeeling.ca/about-emotion-focused-therapy/orientation-to-efmt-meditation/.
You can find a preprint of my recently published paper on EFMT here: https://mindfulfeeling.ca/my-paper-on-efmt-has-been-published/.
You can find my blog here: https://mindfulfeeling.ca/blog/
1 Batchelor, S. (2012). A secular Buddhism. Journal of Global Buddhism, 13, 87–107. Retrieved from http://www.globalbuddhism.org/jgb/index.php/jgb/issue/view/8.
2 Elliott, R., Watson, J. C., Goldman, R. N., & Greenberg, L. S. (2004). Learning emotion-focused therapy: The process-experiential approach to change. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
3 Batchelor, S. (2015). After Buddhism: Rethinking the dharma for a secular age. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Kindle edition, loc 3928.
4MacIntyre, A. (1985). After virtue. London: Duckworth.