Mental Health
Michael Discusses Therapy, Mindfulness, And Meaning-Making

Michael Discusses Therapy, Mindfulness, And Meaning-Making

7 min read


Michael Waldon

Hi, Michael! We'd love to learn a little more about your background. What inspired you to become a therapist?

Like a lot of therapists, I think I’ve always been a “people-person.” I have a lot of curiosity and compassion for others and people tend to feel comfortable talking to me. I think this is common in our field, and a good quality to bring to the work. It’s definitely the underlying factor that got me to where I am.

Professionally, I went down a winding road. I studied religion in undergrad, and later worked on construction crews, small farms, and commercial fishing boats. I eventually stumbled into a job doing education reform work in China. I helped develop a program where we used a working greenhouse garden to teach simple environmental science lessons at a rural grade school. I lived in the village, managed the garden, taught lessons a few days a week, and developed a curriculum around what was happening with the plants and soil.  

When I came back to the States, I did a little more work in education and school gardens before deciding I wanted to do something different. I found myself drawn to therapy, I think, because of that quality I mentioned above. I began to see connections between my experiences and what therapists do. Like education, therapy is direct service work. You get to work closely with people in a process of change. Like religious studies, you spend a lot of time thinking about people’s internal worlds — how we organize and understand the world we live in. I find these two things endlessly rewarding and fascinating. I imagine they’ll keep me here, in this work, for a long time.

Where is your practice and who do you work with?

I work in a small private practice right on Union Square, at 853 Broadway Ave. As a social worker working toward my clinical license, I feel fortunate to be supervised by a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) who I really trust and admire. We take CHP insurance, which is used by NYU and a couple other schools, so we see a lot of students. Our focus is on resolving trauma and supporting growth through a holistic and integrative approach to psychotherapy.

What is your favorite thing about being a therapist?

Therapy is a kind of storytelling project, and I love hearing and telling stories. It’s this wonderful and unique thing about being human that we have to have stories about ourselves to understand who we are and what’s important to us. The most enjoyable thing about therapy is helping people put the pieces of their lives together in a way that allows them to tell meaningful and empowering stories about themselves. I feel so lucky that my clients choose to share this process with me and I never get tired of it.

During your undergraduate studies, your thesis examined koan meditation practice in Song Dynasty Chinese Buddhism and contemporary western psychoanalysis. What did you find, and did those findings surprise you?

My undergraduate work focused on Buddhist “koans,” which are questions, or stories posed as questions, that don’t really have an answer. They’re often used as an exercise in meditation practice to help focus the mind.

Koans are notoriously mysterious and quirky things. It’s really hard to understand what they even are or do. I was looking at debates about koan practice in two different contexts: medieval China and the modern west.

By looking at these two different contexts and the diversity of ideas being exchanged in each, I was able to write about how religious ideas stay flexible and morph throughout history. We sometimes think about religion as fixed in time and place, tied to a particular culture or an authoritative source, but religion is actually really adaptive and always in open conversation with the changing world around it.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, Buddhist — or Buddhist-informed — ideas like meditation or “mindfulness practice” are everywhere now and they’ve made a meaningful impact on the way we engage in therapy and care for our mental health in the West. I’m still very interested in that intersection and all the exchanges that are happening there.

How do you apply your interest in religion during therapy?

In many traditions, religious leaders provide services to their communities that are similar to the work that therapists do. They help to process grief and loss; witness and honor joy, celebrations, and transitions; and also help their community members to make meaning and find purpose in their lives. It interests me that, in some spaces, this work is called “religion” and in others it’s called “therapy.”  

"My curiosity about intersections of religion and mental health always leads me to ask, how do my clients make meaning of their lives?"

In some ways, the intersection is unavoidable. There’s a lot of overlap between religious and therapeutic ways of thinking about who we are and what we’re doing in this world. Both have to do with people’s internal worlds, how we make meaning of our lives and understand who we are. Certain early Buddhist scriptures look like psychology texts. They include these amazingly elaborate maps of the mind. There’s been so much work done in Buddhism to understand how thinking happens and how it’s tied to memory, sense perception, and the experience of emotional suffering.

My curiosity about intersections of religion and mental health always leads me to ask, how do my clients make meaning of their lives? What are their most cherished values and beliefs that guide their thinking about behavior, relationships, feelings, and work? How do they tie these beliefs to history, identity and tradition, and also to figures that are contemporary or historical, real or mythical?

"...culture is like the water we swim in and we’re just barely aware of the practices that are most central to who we are."

Finally, I think my fascination with religion and mental health makes me more open to a kind of magic that can happen sometimes in the session. There’s a lot about experiences of psychotherapy that is almost impossible to describe and just has to be felt.

You write that you’re interested in ethnographic approaches to the study of mental health practice. How have other cultural practices informed your practice as a therapist?

In addition to their unique, internal, psychological experiences, my clients always bring their own cultural, religious, and social histories to the session -- and so do I. I try to create space for the client’s history and values to rise to the surface above mine, but the two are always, inevitably, in interaction. One aspect of the therapeutic work is to stay aware of this and find ways of making that interaction conscious and accessible. This can be really hard to do because culture is like the water we swim in and we’re just barely aware of the practices that are most central to who we are.

"The reality is that there are a lot of different ways to understand emotional and psychological suffering and at least as many different ways to work through it. I do my best to offer a few possible solutions from my limited perspective, and to stay humble about the possibility of others. Ultimately, I want to collaborate with my clients to find the one that works best for them."

The other thing is that these parts of ourselves are often tied to issues of marginalization and oppression. Especially as a clinician who holds a lot of dominant identities, being a cis-gender, white male in America, it’s important that I stay humble about what cultural practices are guiding the therapy. I have to find ways of being honest and thoughtful about where my beliefs and expectations are coming from, so that they don’t eclipse the beliefs and expectations of the client.

For me, the thing that makes all of this possible, is to think of therapy itself as a kind of cultural practice. What I mean by this is that the practice of psychotherapy (whatever kind of psychotherapy we practice) always has a history and a cultural context. It’s important to remember this because there’s a kind of illusion of objective authority that sometimes infuses psychotherapy, as though the diagnosis given to the client and the therapy offered by the clinician are the only possible answers. The reality is that there are a lot of different ways to understand emotional and psychological suffering and at least as many different ways to work through it. I do my best to offer a few possible solutions from my limited perspective, and to stay humble about the possibility of others.

It sounds like conducting research is an important part of your identity as a social worker and as a therapist. What kind of research work are you doing now?

Right now, I’m working on a project that’s more of a public-health kind of thing. I’m helping a researcher from Smith College with a survey of HIV prevention ad campaigns targeting mostly gay and trans men. We’re looking at ads that were developed before and after the emergence of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medications as a prominent treatment strategy. It involves a lot of visual analysis and interview work with the people who designed these campaigns — learning how they came up with the ideas, how they produced the images, and why they chose to communicate their intended public health messages using those particular images. The goal is to better understand changing ideas about HIV, HIV treatment, and people who are at risk of or already living with HIV.

What sort of continuing education continues to guide and inspire you? What would you like to learn more about in the coming months and years?

Trauma, somatic (or body-oriented) approaches, and relational psychoanalysis, are areas I’m consistently learning more about.

Trauma theory and treatment is possibly the most important thing in the field today, and expanding quickly. Knowing what we know now, I think it would be irresponsible to do this work without a solid understanding of trauma and its effects on the body and mind. I have some background in this stuff already, but I’m excited to keep learning about it.

The body is a big part of that. I’m working on learning more somatic techniques for doing therapy that bring the body into the treatment - mindfulness practices, yoga, and other modalities that encourage sensory awareness, which helps to process traumatic experience.

Finally, I know it can be controversial, but I love psychoanalytic approaches and I’m excited to see these theories grow into a new century through more progressive thinkers. Psychoanalysis begins with Freud, but it doesn’t end there. It’s a vast lineage of ideas that encompasses ideas about how people are affected by their early development, significant relationships with partners and caregivers, experiences of fantasy and fear, desiring and suffering, passion and anger — and so much more. More recently, the turn in the field has been toward thinking about how we understand ourselves in relationship to other people and to the societies we live in. This is called relational psychoanalysis, and it’s very much still growing. I think relational psychoanalysis can help integrate all the best insights of earlier analytic thought, while also repairing the real historical problems that have sometimes earned it a bad reputation.

What about you? How do you stay focused? What does self care look like for you?

I eat well, cook a lot, meditate, and stay active as much as I can. The most restorative thing for me has always been time in the outdoors and there is a huge range of adventure sports and other activities I do that keep me feeling whole, which allows for focus. Right now, coming into warmer months, I’m looking forward to surfing in the Rockaways and fly-fishing in the Catskills. I’m terrible, but enthusiastic, and improving at both.

When those things fail, I drink coffee. I tell myself that I have an obligation to my patients to be appropriately caffeinated. It’s a delicate balance between calm, present, attentive therapist and jittery, anxious, fidgety therapist.

What advice would you give someone deciding whether going to therapy is for them?

There are as many different ways to do therapy as there are possible combinations of therapists and clients. If you feel like it might be beneficial for you, it’s worth trying, but know that it might take a little bit of work to find someone you can work well with.

"Don’t feel bad about asking for what you need, but don’t expect that every therapist will offer exactly what you need. Look for someone you feel comfortable talking to. Try to focus on developing trust and a sense of safety first. I find that therapy usually has an additive quality: it gets better as it goes along. Find someone you can sit with for a while, and see what happens."

Thank you, Michael, for taking the time to talk with us and share your perspective with our broader community. We are grateful to work with you and look forward to others growing from and with your healing nature.

Connect with Michael

If you'd like to explore working with Michael, please reach out by phone (929-262-0794), email ([email protected]), or through his website.

Stay tuned to meet more therapists we work with at My Wellbeing in the weeks to come. Questions, comments, or feedback? We'd love to hear from you. Reach our team any time at [email protected].

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About the author

Finding the right therapist for you can be a challenge. As part of our overall mission to ease this process for you, we are grateful to engage in conversations with therapists we work with and highlight one therapist per month so you can learn more about their perspective and work. You'll come to find therapists are as unique and diverse as therapy-seekers are. Perhaps, you'll stumble upon a therapist who resonates with you.

We are excited today to introduce you to Michael Waldon, a therapist working within a group practice in New York City. We're inspired by Michael's holistic approach, empathy for others, and foundation in research and spirituality. Read on to learn more about Michael and feel free to reach out to him directly (contact info at end of piece) to book an appointment.

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