How does Adaptation Practice relate to Mindfulness and CBT?
Over recent years a lot of people have asked me about Mindfulness, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). What do I think of them? Is Mindfulness good for depression? Isn’t Adaptation Practice the same? I tell them that Mindfulness is an excellent first step. But only a first step. If we really want to stop the suffering that afflicts us, we have to go far deeper and further.
After all, if mindfulness is only as effective as antidepressants and tranquillisers for depression and anxiety, as the experts say it is, then we definitely need to go deeper and further. These drugs might seem to help some people, but they are only about as effective as placebos.
A helpful analogy is to consider a class of schoolchildren looking out of the window. Mindfulness, in drawing our awareness to the present moment, is akin to alerting the children so they stop looking out of the window and pay attention to what the teacher is telling them. Paying attention is the prerequisite to learning. But alone, it is not enough.
Like Mindfulness, Adaptation Practice is derived from ancient Buddhist practice. But specifically from the basic training that a novice Zen monk undergoes before entering a Monastery. It is training intended to help him, or her, tame the emotional turmoil within, in order to acquire the necessary tranquillity for further religious devotion and to be able to function harmoniously and selflessly in society.
I hasten to add that Adaptation Practice is not religious – there is no God, no belief, no mysticism in it: it is entirely secular – and yet it can serve as the foundation for genuine spiritual or religious practice, just as learning a language can serve as the foundation for genuine communication.
Adaptation Practice entails a rigorous regime of training in how we behave, that affects how we feel. As with all Buddhist practice and meditation, Adaptation Practice is primarily training the heart – not the mind – and so making us less preoccupied with ourselves. ‘I’ only exist in thought. The ultimate aim is to relieve suffering and this is achieved through the paradox of not trying to get rid of our distress. Instead, we learn how to accept it.
Don’t give thoughts the time of day
Accepting how we feel is the opposite of our normal reaction and is certainly not easy to do. It requires practice and perseverance. But it recognises a simple truth: trying to get rid of the pain of emotional distress actually feeds and amplifies it.
This is a drawback of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which teaches us to challenge negative thoughts. In truth, we should not give them the time of day, because to do so feeds them: negative thoughts crave the spotlight and thrive on attention just as positive thoughts do.
AP recognises that our salvation lies not ‘upstairs’ in the head, but in leaving the head and returning to the grounds of our being, in our body and centred in the heart. The Chinese character for heart has been mistranslated as ‘Mind’ – and this has contributed more than anything else to the misunderstanding of Buddhism. Following which, psychology has focussed only on the mind and cognition instead of the heart and emotion.
Thus the Practice is not intellectual or cerebral, it focuses on the ‘doing’, physically in the body, especially when emotion is involved.
I discovered many years ago, while still practising psychiatry in the NHS in London and Oxford, that this was a far more effective method of helping the patients I was treating. And not only more effective but also safe.
Students not patients
(Note: If you do the Practice you will not be regarded as a patient, but as a student. Neither will you be regarded as mentally ill, because the emotions that trouble you – although they may be very unpleasant – are an entirely natural part of your being; not a defect needing to be treated.)
Anyone can do the Practice if they are willing and determined. I will not pretend that it is easy. Mindfulness seems to be utilised as a form of relaxation, whereas the Practice is not about relaxation: it is hard work, but can produce spectacular results if one perseveres.
The heart is drawn to the Practice
For two and a half thousand years in the East, men and women have made the Practice a fundamental part of their daily life, despite the fact that it is difficult. And this is testament to its effectiveness, because people generally do not devote a lifetime to something that is difficult unless it delivers some tangible reward. Neither would such a system endure for thousands of years if it did not contain something rich and valuable. As is frequently said in Zen circles, ‘The heart inclines to the Practice. It yearns for the Practice. It welcomes the Practice.’
Adaptation Practice is unique for all the reasons mentioned. The most important of these is the way it trains us to become less self-concerned, less preoccupied with ourselves and less worried about ourselves. In the process we become less afraid, less irritable and less resentful, while becoming more tolerant, more patient, more willing and more compassionate.
Be assured, this is no quick fix. But like most of my students, I imagine you have already tried the quick fixes.
Think of Adaptation Practice instead as more of a slow process of maturing. But a sure one.