My coauthor Jamie Marich and I came to collaborate on our book through a yin yang circle of EMDR therapy and mindfulness. While Jamie came to mindfulness through EMDR therapy, my journey started with mindfulness.

In 1989 my drinking and drug use had long been a problem. It had resulted in many losses in career, relationship and social bonds. As early as 1987, I began to try to stop that train, but didn’t have any clear path toward resources that might have helped, so I relapsed on a regular basis. Finally, my significant other at the time befriended someone with 3 years sobriety, and that friend began her project of trying to help me out. I was a hard case in many ways, and it took about 6 months of the occasional invitation for me to finally go to an AA meeting.

My first ad hoc mindfulness experience occurred at that first meeting. I had journaled the night before that if this program thing did not work that I might be forced to take matters into my own hands and find a way out of this life. Even so, I sat there absolutely sure that either this wouldn’t work, or that I would just refuse to participate. This had been my abiding thought, with many associated thoughts, for several years.

The mindfulness experience occurred as I looked up at the steps. I had a very profound breakup with anything spiritual when I was 13 years old. Here I was 13 years later, gazing up at 12 steps. The first one jolted me into the present moment. I indeed felt powerless over alcohol, and my life was visibly unmanageable. The 2nd step and its “Came to Believe” and its “Power Greater than Ourselves”… I felt myself tense up, and I felt myself simultaneously collapse. As I contemplated the 3rd step and its further elucidation of God’s role in this, I looked around the room. I saw myself surrounded by all the people I had been drinking with on the Lower East Side of NYC, lots of black leather jackets and people who were in punk bands. There was a lightning bolt of recognition and awareness — there might be a different way of approaching this material and this process. If this crowd had signed on...

I was sober 1 month after this experience. That initial mindfulness of the impermanence of thought, the possibility that all was not as it seemed in the opaque cloud of my addiction, this was the initial springboard. A new friend soon after invited me to an AA retreat at a Zen Buddhist monastery. The retreat sounded interesting regardless of the location, but the monastery seemed particularly exotic and worth at least a visit.

The drive up to the monastery from New York City was one of major highways north and west, and then slimmer and slimmer roads to more remote areas. Following a creek for many miles, we came to the turn off, and drove up a mountain for about 2 miles. We came to the top, and it crested... and what unfolded before us was a beautiful guest house on a lake, and a monastery building that looked like it had been helicoptered in from Kyoto. I had a second profound mindfulness experience. Something shook me then calmed me, and wordlessly said that I was home — not the place itself, but rather some intangible element that was there on the mountain.

The retreat leader stated that hanging out with the monks and nuns was optional. Several participants chose not to go that direction. I went to share a silent meal and then get a meditation lesson. I sat cross-legged on a cushion as I saw the other practitioners do. Almost immediately I felt cramped. I was not terribly flexible, nor was I in good shape. The monk who was to give us the lesson was very tall and intimidating. He got our attention and then gave his very brief lesson. “Zazen,” he intoned, using the word that literally means “sitting Zen.” He continued. “Sit down. Shut up. Don’t move.” End of lesson. He rang a bell.

For about 2 or 3 minutes I thought that I had the hang of this and I understood the great value of mindfulness. Then my knee began to throb. Then more minutes passed with no second bell to end it. And I began my mantra, “Ring the bell, ring the bell…” with the occasional expletive. Finally, probably 50 minutes later, the bell rang. There was a profound sense of relief, followed by a brief vow to never do it again, immediately followed by curiosity as to what might result from continuing on with the practice. I have never stopped sitting Buddhist meditation since that first lesson.

These three mindfulness experiences set the stage for a lifetime of mindfulness practice. First, mindfulness that there may be many perspectives from which to see any situation, and that the contours of my mind, heart and body are worthy of ongoing mindful investigation. Second, that there may be some sense of refuge or home to be found in the simple act of becoming mindful. And then third, pain is guaranteed in this life, but suffering can be optional as stated in the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha. As I sit through the pain and practice mindfulness, I may be able to cease (or at least let up on the accelerator pedal of) thoughts and opinions related to the pain that come from my taking it all so personally.

I brought the practice home with me. Besides not being flexible, I also had a wandering mind that was filled with the craving, clinging and aversion that the Buddha described. At one time in my training, I told my Zen teacher that I had a very, very bad case of delusion. He roared with laughter. Today I see the reason for that laughter and share it often with my clients. I basically told him that I had a terrible case of being a human being. How many times have I taught someone mindfulness for the first time and watched them finally relax when they see the normality of a wandering brain, and that we are only trying to become a little more friendly toward it.

These personal experiences with mindfulness have informed my professional life, and drew me toward EMDR therapy as my primary clinical practice. My years of agency work led me to formulate the MET(T)A Method and Protocol, a case conceptualization protocol that honors the integration of mindfulness and EMDR as a complete system of psychotherapy. More will be revealed as I continue working in this way, and with the help of Jamie, our book, and our colleagues and trainees along the way, perhaps much suffering will be eased, transformed, even ended.

About the Author

Photo of Stephen Dansiger, PsyD, MFTStephen Dansiger, PsyD, MFT is Clinical Director of Refuge Recovery Centers in Los Angeles, a cutting edge addictions treatment center, where he developed and implemented the MET(T)A Method (Mindfulness and EMDR Treatment Template for Addictions). The treatment utilizes Buddhist psychology and EMDR therapy as the theoretical orientation and primary clinical practice. He is an EMDRIA Approved Consultant and Certified Therapist, and provides EMDR Basic Training and workshops through Mindful Ohio & The Institute for Creative Mindfulness. He is the author of Clinical Dharma: A Path for Healers and Helpers (2016) and avidly blogs and podcasts on topics related to mental health, recovery, and mindfulness. Besides also maintaining a private practice in Los Angeles, he travels nationally and internationally speaking and teaching on Buddhist mindfulness, EMDR therapy, the MET(T)A Method, trauma, the Refuge Recovery treatment model, and clinician self-care. He has been practicing Buddhist mindfulness for almost 30 years, and teaches dharma classes regularly at Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society in Los Angeles, and at other centers nationally and internationally.