So, Ok, much of our suffering is due to our very desire and endeavors to distance ourselves, avoid, and otherwise control our emotional pain and the so called “dark emotions” (fear, anger, shame, helplessness, despair, emptiness etc.). Buddha, being the great behavioral psychologist that he was, understood that much of these reactions are due to mental conditioning. So, much of our pain is not due to events per se but our conditioned responses to the world. The term “conditioned mind” is often used in Buddhism to describe this process and phenomenon. This stimulus -response learning, which in modern psychology is referred to as “associative learning” is a basic aspect of how our brain learns and responds to the world. It can be adaptive and in fact a critical tool for survival. However it is only a tool, and very often we fail to recognize its limitations and have lost sight of the natural or unconditioned mind. In associative learning, things that occur together in time (contiguity), become associated. So every time a given stimulus gets followed by a specific response, that stimulus is more likely to provoke that response in the future. So for example, if you get an urge to smoke a cigarette (stimulus) and then smoke (response), the likelihood grows that you will smoke the next time you encounter a cigarette. Conversely, if you choose to not smoke, the associational strength decreases and eventually the urge to smoke dissipates. Further, the addictive compounds are eventually cleared from the body.
Buddhism offers a tool which has been greatly seized upon by modern psychology. This practice is referred to as mindfulness. Mindfulness is an attentive awareness of the reality of things in the present moment. By paying attention to events in the mind, but not reacting to them, these associational links eventually diminish and we break our habitual patterns of reactivity. In learning theory circles, this process of non-reinforced exposure to stimuli is termed “exctinction” and “habituation”. Now, it is possible that other processes may be occurring at the neural and behavioral levels and much more research is needed to better understand the processes of mindfulness practice.
In behavioral psychology, drawing upon learning and conditioning theory and research, powerful therapeutic procedures have been developed to maximize the process of extinction and are used to address a wide array of symptomatic issues ranging from fears, phobias, social anxiety, panic disorder, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder and so on. Such behavior therapies are known as systematic desensitization, flooding, implosion, and response prevention. There are some important differences that delineate each of these techniques, but the common thread is that they employ the conditioned cues that are responsible for the provocation of the symptomatic response (e.g., anxiety, fear, avoidance etc.), in a manner that an avoidant or escape response is not produced, thereby facilitate the extinction of the conditioned cues such that the symptom the symptoms weaken and die.
Now, what if we integrated the powerful approaches of modern behaviorism with the ancient techniques of mindfulness? Well, that’s what I have attempted to achieve through the conceptual treatment model which I refer to as Integrative Mindful Exposure. But more on that later.