Lone Fjorback - Interview


Lone Fjorback – M.D., Ph.D., psychiatrist, yoga teacher, leader of  Danish Center for Mindfulness.

NV: There is a current strong interest in the relationship between mindfulness and psychoterapy. As a psychiatrist and leader of a mindfulness teacher training, you have a foot in each camp. Would you say that these two kinds of process work in the same direction, or two different directions? Can they replace or complement each others? Or is it even, as some people argue, that after some years of mindfulness practice one will NEED psychotherapy?

I don't have evidence or numbers, but generally I think many people can benefit a lot from psychotherapy. Some use a therapist, for others perhaps some of the same work can happen with a meditation teacher. But working directly with a person you trust, someone who can question your fixed attitudes and opinions, I think that can help a lot to escape from the cage you have caught yourself in. You can learn from your own meditation, from being in a group with others, and also from working in a more one-to-one process. In a personal teacher-disciple relation, the teacher can help you go more into a direct experience, to become more anchored in reality, and less in your own web of thoughts about what kind of thing or being you are. 

I've been through a somewhat hard process myself recently, in changing to a new workplace. It was almost like a divorce for me, because reality didn't match what I was ready for, inside my own head. I actually went to a fellow psychiatrist who took me through a sequence, psycho-dynamic short-term therapy. There was a simultaneous change in meditation and work, and I felt I could benefit a lot from some help to take the next step - someone I could sit and cry with, and talk with, but who could also sometimes provoke me and help me sidestep my own defenses. I am not quite sure what happened, exept that I cried a lot, and suddenly I was in touch with something traumatic and fearful in myself. So at one point I sat and cried, and then, suddenly, as a lightning striking from a clear sky, I could hear myself saying – I think I will leave my safe position here at the hospital and start in a project at the university. What had seemed overwhelming and and complicated was suddenly very easy. Sometimes things just grow huge inside your head because there is stuff that you keep avoiding…

NV – Does it make sense to ask when such processes have to do with spirituality and when they are more like, general mental clarification?

L – I believe everything we do is spiritual! I think we all think about how to have a good life - whether you go to a hairdresser, go shopping, or whatever you do. For me spirituality is being able to hold two things at once. I can hold a being-one with the entire world, and at the same time being completely solid and defined: Being Lone who wants this and that with my life, stepping forward, being me. Taking the next step in becoming this individual, and at the same time being connected to the rest of this huge body of seven billions or however many we are.

NV – But then what would you say to young people - like some of the participants at the Højskole - who would like to be involved in promoting and sharing that kind of existential wealth. How can they best train and prepare for that in their life and work?

I think they should their life very seriously! Wildly so! And know that they are extremely powerful – in their ability to learn and train some things that make them able to enjoy their own life, and to handle the suffering that will also come. And IF you are fortunate enough to be able to contribute to reducing suffering more generally, or stress - and this is something you can do in all kinds of jobs and professions. And in fact also even if you don't have a job but only yourself to relate to. The way you relate to yourself in everyday life - I am sure that even that has huge significance for how we are all going to be faring. So first of all I will say: take every moment wildly seriously.

And then, at the same time, there is a sense you souldn't take it serioudly at all. You need to understand that you are extremely small - a small step in an enormous process.

For me at least, it has also been essential to have a disciplined daily practice. But that's how I am, mega disciplined, so this has never really been my challenge. Back in the days when I started out as a yoga teacher, I remember my yoga teacher telling me things like, “if you want success in life, then practice Kriya Yoga”. I just thought that was silly - you know, I'm not even sure success is what I'm after, it was never on the top of my agenda. In fact I think it is important to take them very lightly, all the ideas of wrongness and rightness, failure and success - if you are too occupied with success this is already failure. So I don't think one should worry too much about that - but still, having a daily discipline means something.

Also, I believe it means a lot to have a group. And to keep studying. The style or practice of teaching and passing on is something you can always learn more about. E.g., here's an area or topic where I habitually step back but would like to come more forward, or here's a field where I tend to take more space and attention than I really need... So it's always a dance or a balance.

NV – Yes! And in fact I think many of our participants may think or hope that one day they will be teachers or facilitators of some sort. Perhaps they consider different educations and trainings. How much difference does it make - is the shorter and cheaper program as good as the long and expensive one, etc. What does it really take for someone who offers a mindfulness course to be sufficiently qualified? This is a big question for many people  – and of course you play a role here, as one who works for securing and documenting a standard of mindfulness education…

Yes. But I think one can take my education and still not be a very good teacher, and you can meet me on a day when i am not a very good teacher. Or you, Niels Viggo. And some people can be outside the schools and never receive any education and be a better teacher. But yes, we have tried to establish some standards, some minimal requirements of training and experience that we must have in order to be able to call the teaching we offer MBSR ("Mindfulness-based Stress-Reduction", Jon Kabat-Zinn's meditation program)

One of the things required in the MBSR teacher training is that one has been to a number of retreats. The training has an openness builit in, and encourages retreats with different teachers, but at the same time it makes some minimal requirements - we say that there has to be an MBSR teacher as well as a dharma teachers who has a transmission from a tradition. Of course we know that many others offer fantastic retreats without having such a transmission or being MBSR teachers, but in any case  – we have tryed to build a combination with a certain standard, which also contains or reflects the hierarchical chain of transmission that has been - and still is - important in some dharma traditions. I don't know if this is ultimately the right form, but this is how we run things at this stage. We who are teachers in the MBSR teacher training also have something like classical dharma teacher-student relationships with the founders of the MBSR tradition as well as some other dharma teahcers. I think this kind of trust relationship can be a very good thing to have. But I am not sure this form is necessarily right for everybody. Perhaps for some people the same kind of processes can happen with a friend - or with a therapist.   

My daughter is in an ashram in France right now. She wanted to go, and of course I could suggest a few places, but I found it important that she make the choice herself. There is something important in choosing your own teacher. So she found this ashram a bit out of Paris, with a very strict classic style. The kind of place where people meditate four hours in the morning, eat twice a day, swamis are walking around – I think this place is really something of an experience. But whether or not this school is something my daughter holds on to in the long run, I think it is very good to try out a few different things, and then perhaps find something you can develop a deeper relationship to. Because, on the other hand I don’t believe it is good to be shopping around too much all the time. There is something in these traditions that can work with you over time, and if you shop around too much, always looking for bits to collect from here and there, or always trying to find the very best, then in fact you may miss the best part. For me it was the same, in the beginning. I really like that kind of monastic life, too – the kind of place where you hardly do anything but yoga, meditation and karma yoga. But after a while I experienced that this split my world into separate spheres. If you train that much, it can become difficult to be part of an ordinary society.

I experienced this when I was young. If you meditate, say 10 hours a day, even things like taking the bus can become overwhelming. It may be fine to be like that if you live far out in the woods, But inside society perhaps it is no harm if you are not quite so awake and sensitive on all channels all the time...

NV – But now, on the other hand, over the last few decades mindfulness has become very much a part of our society – in public sectors of health and education, in management and in a vast open market. Do you think this trend of worldly applications will continue, the further the better? Or do you think there are problems in it?

I think it is a wonderful opening AND that there are lots of pitfalls. It is really nice if as many as possible can be part of it. I often think of it as circles where we sit together - in meditation. Whether that is in hospitals, universities, schools, or wherever - just like bonfires where we can sit and get warm, with each others, and build good teams and communities. I think that more and more of those can grow, and become more and more accessible. Down at the grocery store, or anywhere. That is just great, I think. But then, at the same time - just as strong as it is, the attraction to community and connectedness, there is an equally strong instinctive pull towards thinking that the other communities and groups are doing everything wrong. The pitfall is that we think that only WE here are doing things really right, only this form will do. You may hear what the others are saying, but not really listen. But this may in fact prevent you from truly hearing the depth of any of the versions including your own. So perhaps you start thinking, “what the other group is doing over there is easy - they just sit here and breathe - we can easily do that too. I don’t really need to study or practice seriously, because nothing is really happening anyway. But in fact the real heart of the matter is to penetrate deeply enough into this “nothing” - I think this needs to be taken very seriously!

Once it has become a question of identifying with one group or the other, and position yourself there, meditation can be reduced to yet another kind of trophy or accomplishment - something you can be proud of and feel superior about. And that is dangerous, of course. Believing that you are the right kind of meditation person - or the wrong kind - is even more stupid, if possible, than thinking that you are superior or inferior in other respects.

NV – Yes, this is definitely something to stay clear of, as well as possible! But Lone, before we finish this interview there is one more aspect of the way meditation is becoming part of our society, that I would like to hear your take on - an aspect you are also involved in. What is interesting research and knowledge in this field? Do we need to document small positive effects of mindfulness in still more clinical contexts, or do you think the really interesting research is moving on to other kinds of questions and projects?

Yes! First, I think we need to start looking into implementation! If we extend mindfulness-based interventions on larger scales in various contexts, how does it function in practice? For example, can we get sufficiently many people to actually complete the course and do the daily meditations?

Second, a lot of research in mindfulness is being criticised for not properly taking “placebo” into account - but in a way I think this is a bit of a misunderstanding in this context. OK, the effct can be closely related to what is called placebo in some contexts, because it is broad, nonspecific, and not linked to a particular narrow intervention component, like e.g. a particular substance in a pill. But I really think that - if that kind of placebo works, I want it! And I want to offer it as well! I have no problems with that.

Research into mechanisms is interesting as well, in principle. A lot of people are interested in

It, and I think it is very good to find out more about it. But I am not in front of that kind of effort myself. For me it is actually not that important how it works, if it does. Even if we should become able to identify specific channels of action, I believe that the process that works through that channel is something much larger - I believe it is life itself. I am not sure we will ever be able to pin it down to a formula or that we should try to. It may still be important enough to develop some more or less exact models and charts of mechanisms of action, because it may be what motivates some people - for some people mindfulness seems more attractive and acceptable, the more research based it is. This is not really the case for me - but for some people this is the motivation that makes them come in and sit by the fireplace. So it is fine that this kind of knowledge exists, but in fact I don’t care what happens in the brain. Other people here at our center think that is mega interesting, and that’s great I think.

But then further, “mechanisms of action” is not just about brains of course. We also need to understand a great deal more about what happens on a group level, affecting the members. And on the level of embodiment, the world of active bodily experience - we need to study the way that plays along. In fact I think there’s been a change in my own meditation over the last half a year, so that even just the very sitting in meditation posture - no matter how I feel or how my body feels or how I feel in any number of other way - it just feels mega relaxing. I have discovered it’s as if the very posture alone makes a difference, so it is just fantastic to meditate - no matter if my brain is running full speed or it hurts everywhere.

And then I believe that the idea of “Effects of meditation” needs to be understood much more broadly. I am convinced, for instance, that mindfulness has made a difference in some of the most important things in my life generally - whether or not I have a marriage, for instance. I think there are many fields where it has changed my life to the better. And I hear a lot of other people saying similar things. It would be great to find ways to study that kind of thing - people basically experiencing life as more happy and rewarding - and being more grateful for being alive - a fantastic kind of intervention effect, isn’t it!

NV – OK, here you point to several interesting discussions we could have, about how this kind of thing can be delimited as an object of study at all - this kind of broad-spectrum effects that are somehow always open and unfinished, perhaps even in the process of being invented, aren’t they, let alone the criteria we would need to measure them. So we would need something qualitative and participatory, wouldn’t we?

Yes! And I also think mindfulness is an effective factor for going out and, at least not harming others. In fact I think that some of the lifestyle rules and ehtical precepts that exist in many of the classical schools are very helpful. As for instance when classical Buddhist training includes things like not speaking of others in a derogative manner - or of yourself for that matter - I think this is a wonderful element of practice....

NV – Yes, of course this would be an argument that we need to expand our ideas of what is included in mindfulness if we want to truly study its effects. That we can’t just define it as practicing a mental technique for some number of minutes per day?

No, it’s something very different from that! The benefit is something different and greater, I think, if you also commit to some of the rules of ethical and healthy conduct that surrounds the practice. This week, for instance, the news media have talked about mobbing and derogatory talk about one another, how this has become a widespread pattern in schools and workplaces. If we had a natural ethical codex instead, an understanding that if you have a conflict with someone, you take it directly to that person, and that here in our group we don’t speak negatively of each others. This kind of simple rules - which are a matter of course in Buddhism, for instance - could be useful for us to have a better life together.

I think we spend a lot of time practicing the wrong kind of thing inside our heads. For instance, we train and train in comparing ourselves with others, or in being the one who is right, in our own little head. Exactly the things that someone cut through and pointed out 2600 years ago: You know what, if you want to have a really bad time, you should do exactly as you are doing there. The thing that we all train and train. But the point is that we can train some very different things in our heads instead. This is what I want to go out and advertise and promote. If people discover this, and notice that it starts to actually happen, in a group with others, I think that is a wonderful thing. I have been allowed to see that a lot of times, and it really makes life worth living.