Member spotlight: Dr. Patrick Thornton.
Article Type: Interview
Subject: Psychotherapists
Pub Date: 06/22/2010
Publication: Name: Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association Publisher: American Psychotherapy Association Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 American Psychotherapy Association ISSN: 1535-4075
Issue: Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 13 Source Issue: 2
Persons: Named Person: Thornton, Patrick
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 233501758


"Calming the busy mind and the troubled heart." Those eight words introducing his Web site provide a glimpse of what makes Dr. Patrick Thornton tick. Thornton, who lives and works in Sonoma County, California, has built his practice around mindfulness-based stress reduction and cognitive therapies--counseling those in crisis due to issues of separation, loss, illness, and depression.

Thornton has taught Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for patients and health care professionals since 1993. In recent years, he has also taught Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) intensives for mental health professionals. In September, he will give a presentation on MBCT at the 2010 National Conference of the American Psychotherapy Association in Orlando, Florida. The Annals recently caught up with Dr. Thornton.

Q. Could you define what you mean by mindfulness?

A: Mindfulness is a way of being consciously or deliberately aware, moment by moment, of four areas: what you're feeling physically, your feelings and emotions, the stories we tell ourselves, and whether we are conscious of them.

Q: What special projects are you working on now?

A: The first project, "Mindfulness & Divorce," is a revolutionary way of dealing with the grief and distress that accompanies the separation and loss of divorce through the psychology of mindfulness-based practices.

There are resources that support individuals through the process of working with divorce ranging from mediation to the collaborative. There are also resources on how individuals deal with their emotional and psychological needs. We do not know of anything in place that helps both parties (individual or as a couple) "uncouple" in a way that honors and heals the unresolved differences and disappointments, pain and anger, that most individuals end up carrying away with them.

The intent is to present a means by which this end may be accomplished without compromising the integrity and sovereignty of the parties involved, and to provide the optimum opportunity for the children to maintain a relationship with both parents.

My former wife--who is a psychotherapist and long-time "mindfulness: practitioner--and I intend to begin with workshops for mental health professionals. In reserve is the possibility of providing workshops and/ or one- to two-day retreats for individuals in the process of separation or divorce. We also feel there is the possibility of publishing the outcomes.

Second, I'm planning programs similar to the eight-week Mindfulness programs, but tailored specifically for cancer survivors. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is the only program exclusively endorsed in The Handbook of Cancer Survivorship for the management of (1) symptoms of distress; (2) problems related to sleep difficulties and persistent fatigue; (3) existential and spiritual issues (e.g. post-traumatic growth or PTG, relationship, quality of life, meaning-making, etc.); and (4) persistent underlying biological changes in increased risk for other diseases or cancer recurrence.

Third, I'm developing another program specific for the caregivers of individuals with chronic or life-threatening illnesses. We forget sometimes (even those in hospice) that an illness doesn't happen to the patient, it happens to the entire family.

And fourth, I'm developing at this very moment (along with the first project above), what I call "End-Of-Life Triage."

Q: What caused you to begin studying Vipassana Meditation?

A: Actually, I more or less fell into it. I was on a 28-day retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh at Plum Village in France. At tea, he asked me what brought me to this practice, and my response was that "I came home to it." And that's just about as precise an answer I can give.

I had read a biography of Thomas Merton in the late '70s, and fell in love. I then started reading his works and came across The Asian Journals of Thomas Merton. From that, I discovered a priest named William Johnston and a book he wrote titled Christian Zen.

I decided then that I wanted to learn more about contemplative practice, and happened to see a flier for a six-week Vipassana Meditation class. I took the class, and that was it.

One of the aspects of Vipassana (and mindfulness) is that the practice itself is not an "ism." One does not have to give up their own tradition of faith. In fact, it can enhance one's spiritual practice. I've been intrigued by the intersection of Vipassana (or Insight Meditation), Christianity and Judaism, Western medical science and mental health for many years. I'm intrigued and excited, and continually surprised.


Q: You have a private practice as well as teaching, conducting retreats, speaking engagements and more. What are your interests outside of your work? How do you balance a busy career with the rest of your life?

A: The fact that my children are grown and have children of their own gives me the advantage of more discretionary time than those who are still raising a family.

I'm nurtured by the work I do with clients. As I work with others, I encounter those places in myself that need attention and find a certain kind of reciprocity in the healing of others. When I can be an agent for healing, I am also healed. When I'm unable to be that healing agent, the client then--unbeknown--is helping me to recognize and honor my own limitations ... I can't leave my client's problems behind, nor can I carry their problems for them; instead, they inform and guide me much as I do them.

So paradoxically, I find that through my work there is also liberation and I bring more presence to other aspects of my life, and am enlivened.

Some of the specific ways I create balance are first, through my own mindfulness practice, which in itself is a source of refuge; and, I have a community of friends with whom I share that practice. I also enjoy the theatre, music, or a good book. I enjoy the outdoors, and fortunately live in an area that provides easy access to the mountains, the redwood forests, the ocean, and the deserts. I'm also only 45 minutes from a major metropolis--San Francisco--with its wonderful restaurants, museums, galleries, theatres, and neighborhoods.

Q: Do you have any thoughts of retiring or cutting back anytime soon?

A: I would like to do more writing and working in the garden, maybe teaching. The work that we do is so fulfilling. Especially in the mindfulness work, people are coming to therapy out of the courage of their own desperation--they really work.

Q: In general, how well do you think those in the mental health professions do at balancing the demands of work vs. family and other personal interests?

A: Frankly, I don't think those of us in the mental health field do a particularly good job at this. I think many of us practice what a colleague of mine often says: "Take my advice, because I'm not using it."

Q: you have been counseling people since 1963--nearly 50 years! How did you originally become interested in this field?

A: Having come from a clergy background, including being the son of a clergyman, human suffering and its cure was the focus of attention. In addition, I have a history of trauma and loss in my own life, including the fact that my father was an alcoholic and physically abusive ... My challenge early on was to try to make some sense out of the conundrum of human suffering and spirituality. I felt there was an inherent goodness in people and that we all essentially wanted the same thing: to be free of pain, both physical and psychological, and to have peace and happiness in our life. Not having that was a source of great anguish. And ... I not only did not want to go through any more suffering than necessary, I didn't want to see others go through what I'd experienced.

Q: What one thing do yon think mental health professionals should do to survive and thrive in the current challenging economy?

A: I'm finding that because mental health is often treated as a discretionary expenditure, it is often one of the first areas where people cut back. I have a lot of compassion for those individuals who are just now entering the field. It's not at all uncommon for me to receive e-mails from mental health professionals soliciting referrals, and I have a number of colleagues who have "closed shop," so to speak. My own practice has fallen sharply. My office is one of 10 in an old Victorian house, each of us independent practitioners. It wasn't at all uncommon to come to the office and find the staff parking lot full. Now it isn't uncommon to come to the office and find only a couple of cars.

If a person can find a niche for a specialized service within the field of mental health that they can provide, I believe they will have the best marketing potential. Even in my own practice, I'm focusing more on the "niche." Having been an executive director for two community based hospices, and a direct provider; and given I've been actively engaged with end-of-life care for over 30 years, I'm focusing on the mental health needs that are specific to this community that are not being met by hospice programs or other agencies providing such care.

Gale Copyright: Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.