My approach to therapy draws from a number of therapeutic models including some that are not typically considered “mindfulness-based.” Rather than hold allegiance to any particular style of therapy, my interest is in adapting to the individual needs and preferences of my clients. That being said, mindfulness is a core thread that runs through most of my approach. Following is a brief introduction to mindfulness and how it is incorporated into my practice.
Mindfulness has been a central feature of spiritual traditions for thousands of years and, recently, has become a subject of great interest to western medicine and psychology. A rapidly growing body of research links mindfulness to a range of beneficial psychological outcomes including: emotional balance, empathy, attuned communication, insight, and intuition. In addition, a number of specific mindfulness-based therapies have been shown effective in addressing a variety of conditions including anxiety, depression, chronic pain, addiction, and more.
Mindfulness holds potential value for anyone embarking on a journey of healing, growth, and/or spiritual development. But, what exactly is it?
Mindfulness can be thought of as a particular state of mind or consciousness that is characterized by an open and receptive attention to the unfolding of present-moment experience. It is being aware. But it is also being aware of being aware.
As simple as this idea may sound, our usual state of consciousness is seldom mindful. Rather than enjoying a sense of present, vital contact with our lives, we are often preoccupied with replays of the past or compulsive planning and worry about the future. We are often trapped in conditioned patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving but, with the patterns so close to us, so familiar, we often don’t even recognize them. Mindfulness has shown itself to be a powerful tool for helping us disentangle from these patterns. As we do so, new perspectives and fresh solutions often emerge.
Mindfulness is incorporated into my approach in four central ways. First, my own mindfulness practice supports my ability to be present with clients. Needless to say, being met in a full way is an important part of the therapeutic experience. Also, I have observed that when I am especially mindful, it helps my clients to become so and this can enhance their process. This isn’t surprising given what we know about how we tend to resonate with and mirror one another. Second, much of how I engage in therapy is informed by research that demonstrates the importance of mindfulness in achieving psychological flexibility. This flexibility can be understood as the ability to respond adaptively to the demands of the present without being overly hindered by our conditioned patterns. There are a number of interventions that can help cultivate the qualities of mindfulness and flexibility. Third, the core of my approach is aptly described by the phrase “mindfulness-based assisted self-discovery.” (I must credit Ron Kurtz, the originator of the Hakomi Method, for these words, although Hakomi is not the only approach I use that reflects the spirit of this phrase.) In essence, I help clients establish a mindful state of awareness and serve as a companion and guide as they explore the deeper truths of whatever issues they wish to address (more on this in a moment.) The fourth general way I incorporate mindfulness into my work is by teaching mindfulness practices. These include “formal” practices such as meditation and “informal practices” that can be used intermittently throughout one’s day. Some clients are extremely interested in these practices, others less so. They are valuable, but also completely optional and not necessary to benefit from the other forms of mindfulness therapy.
Over the years I have seen clients benefit from mindfulness in ways that might be generalized as follows:
- Mindfulness helps with managing difficult emotions. Sometimes emotions can feel unbearably intense. Sometimes, we can feel so consumed or taken over that we lose touch with the very sense of ourselves. Mindfulness cultivates an experience of space between the core of who we are and the emotions we experience. We come to realize, through our own direct experience (not just intellectually), that we are not our emotions. Instead, we begin to identify with a more calm and stable center.
- Mindfulness facilitates therapeutic self-exploration. During childhood, our innate temperament mixes with our early experiences and certain patterns of perceiving, thinking, feeling, and behaving are developed. During the processes of “assisted self-discovery” mentioned earlier, we intermittently suspend our usual modes of thinking and talking and turn inward with an open curiosity and acceptance which mindfulness helps to establish. This openness to ourselves relaxes the defenses that habitually guard access to the core material that supports our conditioned patterns. As defenses relax, we are able to contact parts of us that were previously hidden or otherwise unavailable. Once in contact, we can work in a variety of ways to help these aspects heal and/or shift to become more conscious, more flexible, and more responsive to present life demands. As more of who we are is accessed in this way and integrated into conscious awareness, the more whole we feel and the more fully and effectively we are able to show up in the world. Like most things, this process must be experienced in order to be fully understood.
- Mindfulness can become a practice, and over time a state of being, that deepens the experience of living. Many of us don’t realize how automatic and conditioned we tend to be. Mindfulness can help us bypass our thick conceptual filters and experience life more directly and, in a sense, more authentically. Also, a natural outcome of becoming more mindful is becoming more embodied. When living in an embodied way, we are more likely to experience the pleasure in a soft breeze touching our skin or in the music playing in the background. We can be more present during those precious moments with loved ones and more attuned to the stirrings of our intuition. Life can become more full and vibrant as we find ourselves fascinated with the intricate beauty of the world we live in and with that of our own inner being.
- Finally, mindfulness can be a doorway into transpersonal connection. These connections extend outside the realm of traditional western psychology but can include a sense of personal expansion, identification with the larger world, the experience of timeless existence, and a sense of openness and flow with life.
If you are new to the concept of mindfulness, what you have just read could be a lot to take in. But, hopefully it gives you some sense of why I find mindfulness to be such a powerful tool in therapeutic work and in our lives. I want to emphasize again, however, that my overall approach is quite flexible and adaptive. Transformative therapy is not a one size fits all endeavor, but is a result of respectful collaboration and open-minded consideration of the unique needs and preferences of each individual.