Remembering Alan Marlatt

Alan MarlattI got the news today that Dr. G. Alan Marlatt of the University of Washington in Seattle passed away this morning from complications of cancer. I was quite shocked because I hadn’t known he was ill, and saddened because of what his loss meant–not only because by all accounts including my own limited experience he was a great person, but because his death constitutes a great loss to the field of mindfulness-based clinical interventions.

To say that Alan Marlatt was a pioneer in mindfulness-based relapse prevention is akin to saying that Abraham Lincoln was a pioneer in stovepipe hats. Sure, it may be true but it hardly tells the whole of the story.

I started this blog last year in the interests of exploring mindfulness-based relapse prevention for an independent study in my last year of graduate school. When I began, the obvious person to go to for information was Dr. Marlatt.  Aside from the fact that he absolutely created the field when he began his research into mindfulness-based relapse prevention, and aside from the fact that his courage in taking this approach seriously when all his colleagues were staring at him befuddled is nothing short of remarkable, he’s just a cool guy. I got an academic crush on him from reading his great personal account of how he got started, Mindfulness Meditation: Reflections from a personal journey.

The article begins: “Having high blood pressure opened the door to meditation in my life.” It goes on to describe his experiments with meditation (not just Zen, which Dr. Marlatt did eventually practice) to reduce the blood pressure that had been high for him for so long, long enough to disqualify him for service in Vietnam. Because Dr. Marlatt was a psychologist who worshipped at the shrine of hard figures and scientific evidence,  his initial skepticism was morphed by the success of these experiences into an interest in taking it to the next level and attempting to use mindfulness as an effective, evidence-based clinical intervention for recidivism for those with chemical dependency.

Mindfulness is trendy in psychology right now, but this was not always the case.  Dr. Marlatt’s decision to follow this line of research initially resulted in funny looks and a general disparaging reception from many of the hard-core scientists.  The following is from my interview with Suzanne Cooper, PMHNP, posted earlier on this blog:

“I went to a conference two years ago—the ASAM conference in Seattle. Alan [Marlatt] was there, and he got up and started talking about walking meditation with Thích Nhất Hạnh and had talked to someone who went to Plum Village and took the Five Mindfulness Trainings. He was talking about his Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention [protocol] and kept bringing in Thích Nhất Hạnh. That was like….wow! It was a medical conference. It was about drugs for craving, Suboxone [a drug that treats opiate dependence], the effects of cocaine on the brain and amphetamines and PET scans and Nora Volkow (the head of NIDA) was there. It was very medically research-oriented. I was blown away. He talked about his grant and research, and just that it was being used. It just completely floored me.”
A few days before I interviewed Suzanne, I had the privilege of sitting down with Alan Marlatt who mentioned this same scene to me. He stated that many in attendance were very taken aback by his discussion of mindfulness at such a traditional, medical-model conference, and that there had been more than a few suggestions that he was misguided in talking and writing about mindfulness.

So in sum, I knew I wanted to meet the guy. Emailing Alan was pretty comical as I didn’t have a whole lot of juice behind my name, and he’s a busy, important personage in the field. Let’s be honest–when you have your own page on wikipedia, you’ve arrived. I was going to have to rely on his appreciation for the lowly, humble graduate students and his kindness toward fellow Buddhist practitioners.

I had very little experience working with chemical dependency and addiction, but rather a lot of experience in mindfulness as I’ve been practicing Zen for about ten years. I began my practice in my home state of Colorado at the Denver Zen Center under Danan Henry Roshi, a teacher in the Diamond Sangha. From there I moved to Eugene, Oregon and am now in Portland. My clinical supervisor, Scott Ruplin, has practiced in this tradition for about twenty years or so now. And in my professional work, I do use mindfulness-based interventions with clients (for example, I run a DBT group for teens). Thus have my professional practice and my spiritual practice intertwined. As Dr. Marlatt’s experiences have been similarly both personal and professional I hoped he’d at least consent to an email interview.

His response was warm and immediate. Yes, he’d like to meet with me, how about over lunch at a restaurant that he liked near the university? Could I arrange to come to Seattle?

We met at the restaurant and were seated at a little table overlooking the water, where he was warmly greeted personally by each busser and waiter that passed by (have you ever heard to judge people by how kind they are to their waiter? By that assessment Alan can be judged very well indeed). We spoke about his field, why he got started, and his beliefs about the future over a lunch that stretched to over two hours. All this for a graduate student from Portland he didn’t know at all.

The cherry on top is that he gave me so much to think about at this interview that when I went home I didn’t even post it! It was so ominous, such a huge amount of information to organize, that I didn’t even know where to begin. I had brought a tape recorder to the interview, but the ambient noise in the restaurant made getting anything out of the recording an exercise in futility. I was left with scrambled notes that say ambiguous things such as “prisons Vipassana gender segregated” and “Kohlenberg mindfulness possible tx alternatives.”

The closest thing to a recognizable sentence is under the heading “academic reception,” where I have written: “beginning pretty negative. Positive additions–TM with frat boys, alternative to abstinence. discouraged to write the 2004 paper. Dalai Lama said they would change the philosophy the last five years mindfulness is acceptable–now with neuroscience.”  Although this seems ambiguous, it highlights to me what one of the defining points of the interview was: that mindfulness-based relapse prevention was viewed by Alan as one of many possible paths to healthy living and victory over addictions, not THE path.  He said: “For some, 12-step programs will be the right approach, but others may need something else. What I want to do is help people find a path that works for them.”

When I returned home with this tangled mass of information, my graduate school days coming to an end, and began the work of wrapping up one phase of my life and starting another as I had recently gotten a job, I filed the interview under the heading of “enriching meetings that may not have resulted in what I wanted them to” (the actual blog post) “but which will benefit me personally.” Nevertheless, I lived with the guilt that comes with knowing that you haven’t quite done all you can do with a certain experience.  I wanted to write about him, damn it. Oh well, life goes on.

Until it doesn’t. Death makes you think, doesn’t it? The majority of us live each day under the guise of invincibility.  Operating under a facade of permanency and immortality, we are able to face things such as crossing the street or saying goodbye to a sibling at the end of a conversation on the telephone.  But as we all know, as Zen knows perhaps best of all, permanency is the ultimate illusion, the ultimate in self-deception.  The only constant is change, and so on and so forth. The best we can hope for is that we make some kind of lasting impact on others in our sangha, our community, that contributes to positive change–am I successful in that? Are you?

Thanks for everything, Alan, and deep bows.

** UCSD Center for Mindfulness has posted a nice tribute to Dr. Marlatt on their blog, here.

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Remembering Alan Marlatt

  1. What a touching and heartfelt tribute to Alan. His kindness and generosity are legendary and I am honored to have had even the limited exposure I had to him and to his work. Your deeply moving and thorough commentary is a worthy tribute to a man whose work will continue to touch and inspire all of us who do this work (and by extension) the people we serve in our work. Thank you for this.

  2. scott ruplin

    Thanks for the beautiful and very well written tribute to Alan, Erin. While I continue to have very mixed feelings about the psychologizing of Buddhist practices, Marlatt’s dedication and integrity shine through in your essay.

    • Erin

      Thanks Scott. It’s a delicate dance to be sure. As you and I have discussed, meditation and similarly mindful, contemplative practices do have the potential to be triggering to clients struggling with anxiety, addiction or ANYTHING and this is why I believe mindfulness practice should be used in work with clients only by those with personal practices themselves.

  3. Sandra

    Your essay is touching, Erin, and so true to who Alan was. Thank you. I’d like to link to your post through fb…hope that is ok…I’ve never done.

  4. Pingback: Alan Marlatt, Vancouver-born expert on addiction, dies at 69 : Body Building Blog | Free Fitness Tips & Body Building…

  5. Suzanne Cooper

    Hi Erin,
    thank you for a touching, and humorous account of your meeting with Alan.
    I sat next to him at the first training he and his students gave for the Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention Program at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center in 2009. I was impressed by how down-to- earth he was and so non-assuming. His generosity to his students and others was quiet and understated, but very present. I am sending your blog to the OI list-serve, the Order of Interbeing, Thich Nhat Hahn’s core community, to mark his passing.

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