So, What Is 'Lotus Therapy,' Anyway?
(Soundbite of people meditating)
MIKE PESCA, host:
Mindfulness meditation, closing your eyes, clearing your head of all thoughts, and only noticing how you feel as you breathe in and out. It's become a popular psychology tool. Talk therapists of all varieties are encouraging patients to try meditation to help them manage flash floods of emotions during a therapeutic process. The National Institutes of Health is financing about 50 studies to learn whether meditation techniques do, in fact, help things like stress, addiction, depression, hot flashes, and the propensity to buy Bowflex systems off the TV at night. I made that last one up.
So we learned all this stuff this week from a New York Times story we ripped from the headlines. It's a little easier than doing the work ourselves. We - I guess we outsourced it to New York Times reporter Ben Carey, who joins us now to talk about his story, "Lotus Therapy." Hey, Ben.
Mr. BEN CAREY (Reporter, New York Times): Hello.
PESCA: So, you know, was I practicing therapy there without a license there when I was describing how mindfulness meditation works? Just clearing your head and only noticing your breath? Is that about it?
Mr. CAREY: It's pretty bare-bones stuff, and I think that, of course, has been around a lot longer than therapy and pretty accessible to anyone. So I think it could be allowed to describe it in that way. It's pretty close.
PESCA: And how does it work as a therapeutic tool?
Mr. CAREY: Well, I mean, it's used in a whole different bunch of ways, like, for example, one of the most promising ways is to prevent relapse in depression for serious depression. And so what they try to do there is get the person to essentially practice, you know, the pretty basic meditative technique, and once they feel they've sort of mastered the basics then they encourage them to, in effect, sort of let themselves feel, you know, sort of troubling emotions or sort of look at a sort of a soured relationship. And the idea is when you're in this meditative state you kind of just observe this effect on you kind of without fighting it, without trying to, you know, rationalize it or change it or whatever, and you kind of let the feeling pass.
PESCA: Well, that's the idea. So what's the evidence that it works?
Mr. CAREY: Well, there's not a lot of evidence yet. There are a couple studies that have come out of a group that's centered in Toronto that show that, you know, if you incorporate this into some therapy for relapse prevention with people with depression, if they've had three or more, it does seem to cut the risk that they'll relapse again. However, for people who have only had one or two relapses, it's not clear that it's helping them. It might even be making them a little worse than what's happening there. But anyway - so that's still - but it's still early. You know, they're looking at this, and like you say, you know, the NIH is interested in this for a whole bunch of different things.
PESCA: Why would it be harmful? Why would it make it worse? Just that it's not - the underlying problem's not being treated in another way?
Mr. CAREY: Well, no. I mean, that's possible, because you're sitting there, you know, meditating and you're not getting any other kind of therapy, but you know, I mean, it's not always a good idea for people who, you know, have mental issues to have them sort of sit with their mental issues.
RACHEL MARTIN, host:
Sit with their thoughts.
PESCA: Yeah. Simmer.
Mr. CAREY: Yeah. So you simmer, or they call it rumination, you know, whatever. I mean, so, this might work for some people. You and I might be able to sit there sort of guru-like and watch, you know, our troubles pass before our eyes, but someone else, essentially, if they're in the middle of an acute problem, might just make it worse and they get nothing out of it.
PESCA: To try to understand what mindful meditation was I went to Wikipedia. First, I tried Googling it and other ways, but I guess my non Zen-like brain couldn't understand tons of these descriptions on these Zen sites and these meditation sites. It kind of seemed like gobbledygook to me. So I went to Wikipedia, not Buddhapedia (ph), and there's a description there, but tell me how well this nails it.
Mr. CAREY: OK.
PESCA: Quote, "One is free to release a thought, let it go. When one realizes that the thought may not be concrete reality or absolute truth, thus one is free to observe life without getting caught in the commentary." Is that about right?
Mr. CAREY: You know, you could...
PESCA: And that's the non-gobbledygook version.
Mr. CAREY: You know, you're just being so western about this, basically.
PESCA: Yeah, I know.
Mr. CAREY: It's pretty close. I mean, so...
MARTIN: Non-attachment. It's about non-attachment.
Mr. CAREY: I'm looking at this from the - it's pretty close. I mean, you really - that's it. They want you to sort of be in the moment. Now, just excuse that phrase and, you know, that's a phrase like "inner child," where people just sort of snort when they hear it.
PESCA: I snorted. I just snorted. I don't know if you could hear that. Sorry.
Mr. CAREY: Well, you did, anyways. So the idea is to, you know, relax, you know, sort of really concentrate on your sensations, your breathing, be in the moment, just sort of - and if you try this and you practice this, you do kind of get into a different kind of state, which I did, by the way, when I was doing this story.
PESCA: That's good reporting. And was that the first time you tried it?
Mr. CAREY: Oh, yeah. No. This is not - I have no cultural connection with this kind of stuff, but it was the first time I tried it. So you get into this, and then you're supposed to sort of just watch without judgment sort of what happens as you're sitting there, and so that's just it, really. There's not a lot more to say about it.
MARTIN: But the danger's that when you start thinking about nothing, and especially if you're a reporter, and then you're analyzing your non-thinking-ness.
PESCA: And the danger is you're paying a therapist how much money to do that?
Mr. CAREY: Well, you know, keep in mind a couple things. Number one, yes, thinking about not thinking, as a reporter, you're definitely wasting deadline time on something like this, but you know, usually it's incorporated into other therapy. Well, like, you know, therapies like cognitive therapies, for example, which is a very common sort of answer for depression, where they try to reshape people's assumptions and thoughts...
MARTIN: It can augment therapies. It's not a therapy in and of itself.
Mr. CAREY: No. It's usually part of - that's part of a therapy. Yeah. And so they would teach it to you as a technique, and in some cases, in some people who work with very troubled people, you know, I mean, they're just kicked around by, you know, their anxieties and their memories so much that - I mean, they can't sit still practically. And so, you need to figure out a way of getting them just to tolerate, you know, sort of what their internal psychology is turning.
Mr. CAREY: And so that just makes it a supplement to usually a broader approach to, you know, solving a problem.
PESCA: Got it. Ben Carey of the New York Times, thank you and thanks for that article.
Mr. CAREY: Sure.
MARTIN: Stay with us. Coming up, San Francisco dump, the artist in residence. Curious? Stay with us. We'll talk about it. This is the BPP from NPR News.
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