Why do counsellors talk about mindfulness?
Counselling and psychotherapy are practised in many ways. You will come across, person centred therapy, solution focused therapy, cognitive behaviour therapy and many others and now mindfulness, as a term has become associated with counselling modalities and yet it is not one. It is not surprising, therefore that there might be confusion why this spiritual practice has become linked with counselling.
Mindfulness is a simple concept that can take a lifetime of ‘practice’ to master. Its traditions go back thousands of years, based on Buddhist meditation. It has more recently been defined by the founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Jon Kabat-Zinn as ‘paying attention, in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally’.
Mindfulness is a way of being; living one’s life, and there are aspects of mindfulness that have been shown, that when used in a therapeutic way, can modify the symptoms of some mental distress, for example anxiety and stress.
Psychotherapy has a long tradition of theorising how thoughts, feelings and behaviours relate to each other. One might argue which comes first, the thought the feeling or the behaviour. What often happens with those in a state of mental distress any clear relationship between one's thoughts, feelings and behaviours gets lost, confused or even misrepresented. The different counselling modalities each, in their own way aim to help clients understand these relationships and behaviour patterns so they, the clients, in time can then choose to be different and have greater self-awareness.
Mindfulness, emphasises that it is the thought that comes first. The thought potentially disrupts our reality, resulting in a made up story that causes us to feel and behave in a particular way. The practice is about noticing thoughts and not allowing them to become more meaningful than what they are, just a thought, by not interpreting them, not judging them and not letting them influence our feelings.
A simple example might be, you are at a bar waiting to be served. The barman serves someone else so when the barman attends to you, you are abrupt, don’t say please or thank you and walk away annoyed. It is likely that a thought entered your head, that made up a story, about how the barman was treating you, this story created the feeling of annoyance which, when acted out, became a behaviour which could be described as rude. I suspect that some of the readers think yes, he was rude, and I would have been annoyed.
The key in understanding how being mindful works, is in getting a sense of when your thoughts start, and current reality stops. In this scenario we have no knowledge of why the barman behaved as he did, yet we interpret or think about it and make an assumption and then have a reaction based on our thought, not the reality.
Alternatively a mindful approach would pay attention to experiences. Making use of all your senses; sight, smell, touch, noise and taste, all key to the experience. In effect paying attention, seeing the barman go elsewhere, noticing quietness when he has not spoken to you, noticing a thirst, then seeing him turn to you, noticing the recognition, hearing you say your order, experiencing the money leave your hand, holding the cold drink, experiencing the swallow and taste. You are in the moments, each as they occur, living them but not judging them.
This is an example of how a practitioner of mindfulness might experience a situation that a lot of us would find annoying. The mindfulness practitioner is not experiencing a feeling based on the actions of the barman. How mindfulness can work therapeutically is the same. The situations are usually more intense and the line between thought and reality might be harder to find, often the thought has been had so frequently that it feels like a truth (for example ‘he puts the forks in the dishwasher upside down to annoy me’). This is why it may take a structured strategy to help alleviate anxiety and stress, using ideas from mindfulness to help identify what is real and what is thought to be real.
Meditation provides an opportunity to experience being with, and gaining a greater knowledge of ourselves, listening to our thoughts as they pass by and strengthening our capacity not to be pre-occupied with them. It can take many forms, a counsellor who uses mindfulness might have some meditations scripts to use to facilitate the practice of mindfulness. These can be from 3-15 minutes long, there are many free examples on the internet. Some useful links include; oxford mindfulness (http://oxfordmindfulness.org/) is a well-recognised centre for mindfulness training mindfulnet (http://www.mindfulnet.org/) and nhs.uk mindfulness (http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/pages/mindfulness.aspx)
Mindfulness is a simple concept that needs a willingness and daily attentiveness; the rewards can be life changing.
Mental Health Awareness Week 11th – 17th May 2015. Focusing on mindfulness