Russell Kolts Compassion Focused Therapy Interview

This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview with author and professor Russell Kolts

Russell began with an intense study of Buddhism; reading, meditation, and doing retreats after three years, he realized that a compassionate, mindfulness practice had been life changing.

He says that it was the birth of his child about how he was motivated to start a a meditation mindfulness practice after his son was born. He taught compassionate therapy, and since he struggled with negative emotions in his own life such as anger, and irritability. He observed himself not following his own advice. So he deepened his practice.  He realized, “if you want your child to become a good parent, become the person you want your child to be”. What message do your children get from their parents? So he started doing meditation practices, and learning from Buddhist teachers like the Dalai Lama.

He was then later also more able to bring what he learned in his meditation practice  and into his psychotherapy work work, by focusing on, “Compassion  Focused Therapy”. He then had a scientific scaffolding for working with the mind.

Some examples of practices that would work for him in the moment during.

  • Mindfulness meditation helps notice what is moving in the mind, such as anger and irritation. This practice helped him recognize it earlier, so just by naming the emotion, it reduces it’s hold on the person.
  • Meditation and cultivation of compassion have  gradually transformed his experience so that the destructive emotions came up less, due to ongoing work with with deep awareness.
  • Switching out from “that’s a bad emotion” and judgments, looking more deeply, what’s going on here, and other habitual responses.
  • Working with close family members shows that it is not easy to not be reactive.

Insight is hugely trans-formative

From a scientific perspective, those destructive threat emotions such as anger and fear where designed by evolution, so we can make a rapid response.

The compassion work is by seeing how the threatening person also wants to be happy and maybe our goals conflict at that moment. And at that moment. Shifting from judging and labeling to understanding.

Things don’t always go your way. It takes practice to react with compassion and understanding.

He brings mindfulness and compassion into his classes. He has a course on Compassion Focused Therapy, which involves compassion meditation and mindfulness meditation. Students are meditating in the class, because there is just no other way to learn about it.

He sees how it affects the classroom, students feel safer, they can think better, and more reflectively, and they can have dialogue, since there is a container there. It helps the students with difficult course subjects, helps them to center themselves. They don’t necessarily struggle with the problem, but more with the idea, a self-limiting belief. “There’s something wrong with me” is the most threatening idea, very distracting. Meditation helps you recognize these experiences that come and go in the mind, and not necessarily see them as real or true. Notice them, and let them go.

Slowing down their breathing helps the students. They’re not just techniques on the pillow, but at some point it needs to come off the meditation cushion. At some point it has to come into our lives, and begin to transform. It begins to happen behaviorally, and neurologically.

Other Benefits of meditation practices

Russell thinks that because the world moves so quickly, we’re constantly connected. When he was growing up there were just 4 TV channels, now hundreds, tweeting etc, is all wonderful and convenient. But we’re training our brains and minds to expect a certain high level  of stimulation. And we’re not designed to function like this all the time. Just sitting and breathing is hard enough! We’ve trained our brains to expect this level of stimulation. To just sit and do only one thing. If you can’t even sit for 5 minutes, its a sign to learn to slow down and be here now, with full focus of one’s mind. And maybe that’s reading, listening, and be fully present is tremendously powerful. If you want to be really good at something, you can’t be dividing your attention. It’s too stressful to maintain that kind of fragmented attention.

We just need to learn to slow down. He orients students on the front end that this is going to be uncomfortable at first to meditate. Key is to start very small, may start with a minute or two minutes, and go up from there. One of the biggest impediments is expectations. Folks don’t realize that it is actually very difficult. So they get frustrated with themselves, and they give up. In the West particularly we move into this self-criticism.

1. One thing we’re doing is to stabilize our attention

2. Training ourselves to see mental experiences and feelings as mental events, and not necessarily the stuff of reality

3. Training ourselves to notice the movement in the mind. Mentions giving a ticker for a finger biter, which helps train themselves to notice when they start doing the biting. Same with mindfulness. From this perspective the distractions are not a problem at all. These are opportunities to notice movement in the mind.

Russell’s focus right now is Compassion Focused Therapy to help people with emotions like anger. He’s currently working on “CFT made simple”, to help clinicians help their clients. They’re doing more research to demonstrate it’s effectiveness. It really helps that the science is beginning to be there, they now have data to demonstrate it.

He’s starting to see increasing interest in institutions. Lots of misconceptions still about compassion, it’s not being “sweet and nice all the time”.

Compassion is really about developing the courage to come face to face with suffering. Click To Tweet

Being sensitive to suffering and help out in an enduring way. It is still hard to pursue compassionate agendas in politics, because the money is not yet going there. We can have both, compassion and a good bottom line.

If you’re interacting with compassion and mindfulness, you can spread that pro-social stuff.

Training ourselves to notice movement in the mind Click To Tweet

Russell Kolts one tip for dealing with an oncoming destructive emotion.

  • When we notice, “I’m getting angry, anxious, etc”. Take 30 seconds to a minute. Slowing down the in-breath (in CFT it is called “soothing rhythm breathing”) and the out-breath. And after that ask yourself the question, “what would be most helpful in this situation”? What would I want them to understand? Slowing down the breaths doesn’t make the problem go away, it just softens, gives “that thread stuff”, gives it some space.


Books by Russell Kolts

(A gorgeous sunset we had in Anza-Borrego a few days ago)