Skip to Main Content

Contemplative Introspection and Neurotherapy

by Dr. Sal Barba, PhD., BCIA-BCN

As I have hinted at in the previous blogs on this website, largely, human suffering comes from destructive emotions and thoughts. It appears that the brain does not make clear distinctions between thought and emotion. Every region in the brain has been found to participate in the generation of emotions that are connected to cognition. The circuitry for cognition and emotion are intricately connected. Therefore, when we study the mind, we are brought right into the internal space of psycho-emotional states, and through the introspective process our brain lights up in numerous neuro-networks and pathways.

We are vulnerable to unwholesome states of mind, and the mind also has the potential to cultivate wholesome states of mind. One of the challenges with Western Psychology is the separation of emotion and cognition. Western thought, in general, doesn't particularly put emphasis upon understanding the nature of thought and emotion, or making the time to study and learn about what the relationship is between a felt sense, and cognition. This may have something to do with going back to the Enlightenment period, and perhaps further back to Aquinas, when there was an enormous priority focused upon reason and intelligence. However, the Contemplative approach in psychotherapy and neurotherapy, as a science and as a practice do not conflict in the perspectives they have upon the environment; they both have differing approaches in their attempts to arrive at the same end: seeking the truth and liberating others from suffering by studying what is happening internally in a moment of suffering. Therefore, both ways of seeking the truth can expand our knowledge, experience and understanding. For example, Contemplative Buddhism and Christian Contemplative practices are rich in their histories of inner science and have been of practical interest to many researchers studying cognition and neuroscience. Thus, offering significant contributions to their understanding, and to those of us who have integrated brain-based approaches into the context of neurotherapy.

I recall many years ago when his Holiness the Dalai Lama came to Seattle to talk, and to participate in the Science of Mind Conferences. He stated, "The more we pursue material improvement, ignoring the contentment that comes with inner growth, the faster ethical values will disappear from our communities. Then we will all experience unhappiness in the long run, for when there is no place for justice and honesty in people's hearts, the weak are the first to suffer. And the resentments resulting from such inequity ultimately affect everyone adversely." (2002.)

There is no doubt that scientific and technological innovations have helped to make our lives better, but the impact technology and science have on our lives, our spirituality, our mental health has an even greater responsibility in reminding us of our humanity. This point is particularly important to our younger generations, whom are already being negatively impacted by technology, alienating them from each other, and from their natural environment. Therefore, we must continue to take responsibility in our communities, academic institutions, and family systems to balance scientific and material progress with a greater sense of responsibility that comes along with encouraging and supporting introspective development into social action. That is, we must support and encourage skill development and understanding, on a fundamental level, engaging in the exploration of how destructive thoughts and emotions can chisel away at the human heart, mind and soul, and to learn how to navigate and counter this potentially dangerous trajectory in our collective nature. Furthermore, to meet this challenge, we require more competent clinicians and funding to provide more services to our communities. Our current level of mental health care is already overloaded without enough mental health providers to meet the demand of need. In fact, many clinicians have a long wait list, and often don't have time to return potential client inquiries. 

From the perspective of the Contemplative approach and of the science of the brain and mind, emotional states become a perplexing challenge in that these are brain responses that have, in part contribute to and shape the human mind, and presumably have performed a crucial role in our human survival. Currently, destructive emotions threaten our individual lives, our families, the communities that we live in, as well as our collective fate. The good news is that there is a growing sense of lassitude, where human beings collectively by and large are becoming completely tired of all of the violence, homelessness, lack of safety in our neighborhoods and academic institutions concomitant to the lack of action taken against these forms of suffering from our city councils to our state government and national government.

It is this kind of emotion that makes us have a strong desire to get out of our suffering by recognizing the source of our suffering. From this realization and acceptance comes the attitude of what is referred to as "emergence," which means to experience an arising aspiration for the freedom from our suffering! From a Contemplative perspective, emotions can also guide us to experience greater internal space that allows internal room for peace of mind, and what I refer to as a non-neurotic sense of silence, joy and serenity.

Serenity and silence do not prevent us from being active. They are different from passivity or indifference. Instead, they allow us to have greater compassion and awareness, and equanimity. It is with equanimity that our compassion for others is not mixed with an underlying attachment of self-interest. Therefore, with the additional support of the contemplative therapeutic process integrated with neurotherapy, the contemplative practitioner can hold in his or her presence, the client's suffering within an inquiring open and compassionate way. It is this even-mindedness that can counteract and neutralize an unwholesome state of mind by bringing a self-accepting attitude into the introspective process. Through this work, an attitude of curiosity, inquiry, patience and discernment can mindfully exam one's symptoms in depth without trying to get rid of them. Through this awakening attitude a person can find deeper understanding, insight and wisdom from the way their mind and body carries what lies beneath the symptoms they live with. 

I will continue to write more blogs regarding the contemplative approach integrated with neurotherapy. Until then, I would suggest reading Tara Brach's book, Radical Acceptance, The Psychology of Awakening by John Welwood, New Seeds of Contemplation, by Thomas Merton, The Eloquence of Silence, by Thomas Moore, Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, by Eugene T. Gendlin.