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Featured Therapist Interview
Jonathan Kaplan, Ph.D., received his doctoral degree in clinical psychology from UCLA in 2000. Personally and professionally, he has been interested in cross-cultural aspects of healing, and has developed expertise in mindfulness, meditation, the mind-body connection, and diversity issues. He has written articles and conducted presentations on these topics for professionals and the general public. Dr. Kaplan worked in university counseling for several years, and most recently served as Associate Director for Counseling at the Health and Counseling Center of Pratt Institute. In 2007, he received an Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association for his “innovations in helping students learn more about the mind-body connection”. In that same year, he joined the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy as the Director of the Stress Management Program. Last year, Dr. Kaplan founded an organization, UrbanMindfulness.org, to address the unique challenges and opportunities associated with practicing mindfulness and meditation while living in the city. He maintains blogs on this topic at PsychologyToday.com and UrbanMindfulness.org. At present, he is writing a book on the subject of urban mindfulness for New Harbinger, which will be published next year. Prior to graduate school, Dr. Kaplan earned a B.A. in Asian Studies from Tufts University, where he learned to speak Japanese. He has been involved in the Asian American Psychological Association for the past 15 years, where he serves as Secretary/Historian.
First, we would like to know a little about your practice. When did you start practicing CBT?
I initially learned CBT and evidence-based treatments as a graduate student at UCLA. My very first clinical experience was teaching coping skills to veterans with schizophrenia and crack cocaine addiction under the guidance of Thad Eckman and Robert Lieberman. I quickly realized the power of CBT, and experience helped me see patients as people, not just pathology. In school, I was very fortunate to have learned from outstanding scholars and masterful clinicians. I learned about depression from Connie Hammen, about schizophrenia from Mike Goldstein, about stress from Hector Myers, about ethnic issues from Stan Sue, about children from John Weisz, about anxiety from Michelle Craske, and couple therapy from Andy Christensen. How much better can it get?!
When did you start your private practice?
In 2007, I left Pratt Institute–where I was in charge of counseling services–and started
seeing patients as part of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy under the direction of Bob Leahy. Originally, I began working here part-time, but I liked it so much that I quickly came on board full-time. At AICT, we provide psychotherapy, supervision, and professional training. Our clinicians are all very highly skilled, and I am very grateful to be working with such a talented group of friends and colleagues.
Do you have a specialty?
Like most CBT clinicians, I see many patients who suffer from depression and anxiety. My own particular areas of expertise include stress management, couples therapy, cross-cultural issues, and the use of mindfulness and meditation in psychotherapy.
What are your personal strengths as a practitioner?
Drawing from Buddhist principles and scientific research, my approach to therapy involves both compassion and science. We all have wisdom and dignity — and the capacity for a peaceful existence — within us. However, as we experience pain in life, we typically react in ways that minimize our suffering in the short-term through avoidance, denial, or combativeness. Our rejection of painful experiences is akin to holding a beach ball underwater. We try to keep our negative feelings or issues under control or reject them or avoid them. Yet, it requires a lot of energy and effort. When we are tired or overwhelmed, they can unexpectedly bob up, creating waves of displaced emotion and turmoil. The way to resolve this dilemma is simply to recognize what we’re doing, and then with courage and curiosity, allow those painful emotions to surface. Only then can we see them for what they truly are, and begin the difficult work of deflating them of their power through change and acceptance. And thought records.
That doesn’t sound like typical CBT
Well, as you can see, I use a lot of metaphors and imagery in my work, which I think makes CBT even more accessible to people. I like to take our theories and research, and find ways to make it relevant and memorable to each patient. This idiographic approach probably developed from my experiences overseas and my work in ethnic minority communities. So, instead of talking about avoidance and its role in maintaining psychopathology, I might talk about beach balls or the scary monster under the bed. Don’t worry: I still get into schemas, collaborative empiricism, reinforcement, and everything else.
What are the methods you use to promote your practice?
For starters, I’m doing this interview. Actually, I find it difficult to promote my practice directly. I’ve never been a big self-promoter. Instead, I have been using web-based technology and new media to provide free information and resources to help people who can then contact me, if they wish.
Over the past year, I’ve become very active blogging for PsychologyToday.com and my own organization, UrbanMindfulness.org. For the blog posts, I write about how to practice mindfulness and meditation based on the challenges and opportunities associated with city living. For example, I’ve provided tips on how to meditate on the subway and how to “be” with homeless people compassionately. I also share reflections and observations on my efforts to apply mindfulness to the common experiences associated with living in New York City, like waiting in lines or dealing with litter. Recently, I wrote a post on my reactions to a recent conference on wisdom and compassion with the Dalai Lama. Titled, “What the Dalai Lama Doesn’t Know“, my post was selected as an “Essential Read” by PsychologyToday.com.
On UrbanMindfulness.org, I am fortunate to have other talented mental health professionals–including Irene Javors, Jennifer Egert, and Rob Handelman–contribute thoughtful posts regularly, too. Blogging can be demanding, given the fast turn-around nature of the medium. So, it’s very helpful to have these folks help keep the blog active and fresh. On the website, I also provide many other free resources, including downloadable handouts and a calendar of ongoing meditation events throughout New York City. If your readers are interested in writing a blog, then they should check out some of the major hosting sites, including Blogger, and TypePad. All of these sites allow you to blog for free, so why not give it a try?
What tips can you offer to colleagues just opening a practice?
I have a few tips. First, create a vision of your ideal practice and work hard to make it a reality. Too often, I’ve seen practitioners who manage their practices reactively. Scared about the financial bottom line, they make accommodations in their fees and take on patients who are beyond their areas of expertise. This is a surefire recipe for burn-out and resentment. Second, recognize the inherent privilege and value in what we do as healing professionals. As therapists, we have a precious ability to help alleviate the suffering of others. As an almost sacred honor, this is something to be treasured. By getting in touch with this spirit, we are able to deal with day-to-day hassles and the monthly variability in our income. Third, start using new media and web-based technologies, perhaps by writing a blog on your own expertise. These media are integral to our society, and they will continue to revolutionize how we communicate and get information. It’s time to get on-board. Finally, get comfortable in promoting yourself and what you have to offer. I’m still working on this one…
What self-help books do you suggest to your clients?
I recommend Feeling Good by David Burns, The Worry Cure by Bob Leahy, and The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund Bourne. I also incorporate web-based technologies in my practice by recommending blogs, podcasts, and on-line videos, too. I like PsyBlog, Psychotherapy Brown Bag, and my own blogs, of course. Right now, I am really digging the the free videos available from TED.
You can hear some of the world’s most prominent researchers and academics talk about the latest research on happiness, depression, and other psychology-related topics. My patients have really liked these talks, and they often lead to an interesting discussion on how to apply some of the latest empirical findings to improve their lives.
What one book do you recommend as a must read to improve your practice?
I would recommend Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hahn. Written by a Zen monk, this book provides reflections on mindfulness and steps to cultivate a meditation practice. As therapists, we are the primary instrument of intervention. Medical doctors have scalpels and lasers, pharmocologists have medications, and we have…us! All that we know–techniques, conceptual models, evidence-based practices, patient history–comes through our ability to be present, focused, and engaged in sessions. Thus, it is important to cultivate the ability to really pay attention to our patients in ways that are empathic, supportive, and not mired in our own stuff.
Are you involved in other types of professional activities in addition to your private practice?
Yes. I teach, provide clinical supervision, and contribute to various professional organizations. Being involved in many activities keeps me engaged, interested, and connected with a diverse range of people. I also appreciate that I can make substantive contributions while continuing to learn and grow as a professional.
We would also like to know a little about you personally. What is the last book you’ve read?
Good Thing You’re Not an Octopus by Markes and Smith. My two-year-old son loves to read; he’s always chasing after me shouting, “Daddy, read books!” We have fun acting out the stories together with songs, funny faces, and silly voices. This particular book focuses on all of the annoying demands that we place upon our kids, like wearing pants and eating lunch.
In terms of more adult-oriented books, I alternate between reading nonfiction and fiction. After graduate school, I got into a rut of reading only nonfiction books. However, I found that I missed a lot of the creativity and novelty of fiction. So, to answer your question, the last adult book I read was Lowboy: A Novel by John Wray. It chronicles the day-long adventure of a young man with schizophrenia as he travels the New York City subway in an effort to evade the police and reconnect with a lost love. Interestingly, the author wrote most of the book while riding the subway himself, which I can appreciate as a time-strapped New Yorker.
How do you avoid burn out?
I try to maintain a balance in my personal, professional, and family lives. Sometimes, I joke that everything is more or less balanced, but the loads are really heavy! Seriously though, I’ve found it to be really important to pursue activities that are true to my own values. I might be stressed at times, but I never doubt what I’m doing because it all matters to me.
When not practicing CBT, what do you do for fun?
With two young kids at home and lots of professional responsibilities, my fun time looks a lot different nowadays! It sounds cliche, I know, but my sons are only going to be this young once, and I want to be present for it. So, I really try to prioritize the time I spend with my family because it’s so precious and short-lived. Nowadays, if you were to drop-in on me, you might find me playing trains or dancing with my older son, changing diapers, talking with my wife, or cooking for my family. As my sons get older, I hope to share my love for gardening, music, scuba diving, and exploring the neighbors and restaurants of New York, too.
Do you have any other “talents?”
I’m really good at Hide-and-Seek. Actually, I’m better at the hiding part. I kind of suck at seeking. I know rationally that my son is not hiding in the diaper pail, but I can’t help but look there, especially when he’s watching.
We are also interested in some of your views of CBT. What do you think is the single most important thing CBT can do for your clients?
It provides a very empowering and practical approach for symptom relief.
Where do you see the field of the behavioral therapies going over the next 3 to 5 years?
Mindfulness and acceptance-based therapies have been growing steadily, and I expect that they will continue to do so.
Finally, we would like to know your opinions about ABCT. How has ABCT helped you professionally?
I’ve had the opportunity to meet many knowledgeable and talented colleagues. Also, I’ve appreciated the trainings provided at the annual conference.
What services do you consider the most valuable from ABCT?
I really value the list serve, which provides a venue for engaging discussions of clinical issues. I also like that many big names in CBT provide input and consultation through the list serve.
What services are missing from ABCT in your role as a practitioner?
I’d like to see ABCT partner with companies to offer some insurance options, like malpractice and disability.
How do you see the future of ABCT?
I’m excited about ABCT’s adoption of new media and technologies, as shown by the recent revision of the website. Nowadays, the transmission of news and information is almost instantaneous, and the Recent Headlines section accommodates this new reality. Also, the website has some multimedia options, like the “Get Involved with ABCT” videos. As ABCT continues to expand these offerings, I’m sure the organization will continue to grow and attract new generations of members and leaders.
Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions.