Mindfulness & Therapy
People come to therapy for all sorts of reasons. They want to move from stuckness to action, from difficulty to ease, from sorrow to happiness, or they come looking for a more meaningful life.
David Brazier, the author of Zen Therapy, once told me that:
“If you only learn how to do one thing in therapy, learn to ask: Is this true?’”
In therapy we are trying to become more honest, in order to get a clearer picture of what is true.
If someone comes to therapy because they are struggling with a relationship, the therapist will be interested in what is true in this situation. This will not only mean allowing any difficult emotions to be expressed, but it will also include looking at what each person in the relationship is bringing to the struggle. For example it is likely that both the client and their significant other are carrying old wounds and bringing these to the conflict. As the client sees and accepts more of what is true, they are less likely to turn so quickly to anger. It might be that they start to understand where the strength of their own emotion comes from, or are more able to understand how their partner’s anger is based on their own old wounds.
Sometimes just accepting a newly seen truth is enough to move the situation forward. It may be that when the client sees their partner’s suffering they are able to let go of a layer of blame, or it may be that understanding and accepting what is true can lead to a new conversation between the client and their partner. Either way there is a sense of moving forward.
Ideally we approach these new truths without judgment; we come with curiosity and interest. Of course we all fall into judging, but as we begin to understand the reasons for our own (and other people’s) feelings and behaviour it becomes easier to hold these judgments in a lighter way. Our sense of righteousness loses its edge as we begin to understand that suffering, and the ways in which we try to protect ourselves from suffering, is at the heart of all human dysfunction.
Mindfulness is the ancient practice of paying attention to something without judging it. It is formally practiced in meditation sessions where you sit and pay attention to your breath, body, or thoughts, whilst cultivating an interested, non-judgmental attitude.
In the example I described above the therapist is applying this attitude of being interested without being judgemental when they sit with their client, and they are also encouraging the client to develop an attitude of this kind.
If the therapist has a formal mindfulness practice, where they regularly sit in meditation, they can cultivate this state of mind (also known as the ‘curious observer’) and take it into their work with clients.
In their own meditation sessions the therapist might also notice what triggers their own emotional reactions, and where their psychological blind-spots are. They can then be particularly careful in sessions if their client begins to talk about any issues which are triggers for their own material.
In their own meditation the therapist will also get some sense of how their own dysfunctions stem from old wounds, and develop an awareness that this is true for all of us.
When the therapist brings the ‘curious observer’ to their client work, the client will usually come to understand that the therapist is not interested in judging them but just interested in what is true so that it can be accepted or dealt with. In this way the therapist creates a safe space and makes it possible for the client to expose layers of truth which they would usually keep covered.
In time the client will usually start to learn how to do this for themselves. The client experiences the attitude that the therapist brings to their sessions and sees how helpful it is. In time, some of that attitude rubs off on them.
I think this process occurs in all forms of therapy. Even if a therapist doesn’t sit and practice mindfulness meditation, they will be cultivating the kind of attitude described here in their therapy practice, and some of this attitude will be transmitted to the client.
A therapist that understands mindfulness also has the option of using some of the theory and practice more explicitly with clients.
If a client is looking for techniques to help reduce anxiety, the therapist might teach a simple breathing meditation that the client can practice when they notice their anxiety increasing. When the client puts their attention on their breath, they are taking their mind away from whatever is triggering the anxiety and this can bring some immediate relief. If the client is interested in practicing further the therapist might encourage them to develop a more regular mindfulness of breathing practice, where the client can develop some skills in managing their anxiety. If they practice regularly they will also begin to develop a gentle awareness which will be invaluable in the therapy process. When the client has some experience in this, the therapist might then encourage them to start practicing watching their thoughts – in this way they move towards uncovering the roots of their anxiety.
A mindfulness practice can help all kinds of clients. Learning to be with what is true instead of pushing it away (as we often do) is a crucial part of the therapy process for all clients, and a regular formal practice where the client practices these skills can be a great support to the therapy process.
For people who are already practicing meditation, having a therapist to support this practice can be helpful. When someone sits in meditation and allows their mind to become still, this often reveals unhealed wounds. Perhaps they notice that they are distracted by the same thought over and over again, or a particularly difficult memory keeps drawing their attention, or they are swept away by a wave of feeling that they don’t understand.
We are resistant to change; we don’t want to admit that there is anything wrong with us, or that we might be contributing to our own suffering. We hold onto our anger and grief and stop ourselves from moving forwards. If we are meditating and begin to notice something that is outside our comfort zone – an unpleasant thought, for example – it is tempting to shy away from it, or to push it back underneath the carpet.
Most people have a strong idea of who they are, and anything that challenges this idea is likely to get pushed away. If you believe you are strong you will ignore any sign of weakness in you. If you are lacking in self-belief, you will ignore any hint of evidence of your own power. This process happens almost completely unconsciously, but it is often what stands between us and a more fulfilling life.
Being able to talk to a therapist about what comes up in your meditation practice can be helpful because the therapist will be able to accept those parts of us that we cannot accept ourselves.
In doing this, they show us that those parts of ourselves are true and that we don’t need to push them away. They are acceptable just as they are.
There is something very powerful about being in a space in which another person lends you their attention; it is as if our own ‘curious observer’ leans on the therapist’s ‘curious observer’ and steadies itself.
Together with your therapist you can start to explore what thoughts and feelings are coming up in your meditation, and how that might be affecting your daily life. As you understand and accept what is happening – what is true – you can start to move forwards in your practice and in your life in a more wholehearted way.
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