Peter Cook once reflected: "I'm sure I've learned from my mistakes. I could repeat them exactly."
Most of us feel the same way. We see our emotional patterns but feel powerless to change them. Instead, we repeat our errors; our feelings loop into constant replays; we get stuck.
Tara Bennett-Goleman addresses this problem in her thoughtful treatise, Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart. In it, Bennett-Goleman proposes a new way to get unstuck. She explains: "I've found two methods to be especially potent for detecting and transforming emotional patterns: mindfulness meditation and a recent adaptation of cognitive therapy called schema therapy, which focuses on repairing maladaptive emotional habits." Through the conjunction of these two disciplines, ancient and modern, Bennett-Goleman promises that folks can learn from their mistakes -- and change.
Readers can begin, she suggests, by practicing mindfulness meditation to explore both thoughts and feelings. Bennett-Goleman hints: "Mindfulness lets us experience more directly, not through the clouded lens of assumptions and expectations but with an exploratory awareness." To achieve this delicate, clear gaze, Bennett-Goleman suggests: "Focus your attention on the place in your body where you experience your breath most clearly.... Use the breath as an anchor for your attention, a place to come home to whenever your mind wanders. Then gradually open your awareness to include your other senses, and finally, focus on whatever appears in your awareness." By practicing this technique over a long period, Bennett-Goleman assures us, we can become more conscious of our shifting patterns of thoughts and feelings. We can see thoughts and feelings dispassionately: not as parts of the self, but as habitual reactions.
Once we recognize our habitual reactions, we are able to challenge them. That's where schema therapy comes in. "A schema is a powerful set of negative thoughts and feelings," Bennett-Goleman explains. "Maladaptive schemas lead us to neurotic solutions." When people make the same mistakes time and again -- like quitting good jobs or pampering an unfaithful lover -- they may be unconsciously following the track of a bad schema. Many of us find ourselves repeatedly reacting to some emotional trigger: a fear of abandonment, perhaps, or a fear that we are unlovable at core. Bennett-Goleman summarizes the most common schemas for her readers and then suggests how mindfulness can help resolve them. "Mindfulness changes our relationship to the moments when we are most upset and distressed," Bennett-Goleman notes. "Mindfulness can be emotionally freeing: it brings an active awareness to our otherwise automatic emotional patterns, interposing a reflecting consciousness between emotional impulse and action. And that breaks the chain of emotional habit." By bringing mindfulness to our most frightening moments, she insists, we can quiet the fears that dog us.
Bennett-Goleman's process is not easy. But with time, she promises, mindfulness meditation can help us break emotional schemas. We can quit reacting to the same impulses and fears. We can learn from our mistakes -- and change.