An Initiation into Mindfulness
Nearly 20 years ago I entered my yoga teacher training. During one of our lectures discussing the importance of mindfulness I was lying on my stomach on the floor, my legs outstretched behind me. All the while, my feet fidgeted and kicked the floor. Eventually, a woman sitting behind me reached down and firmly placed her hands on my feet. The contact between her hands and my feet resulted in a flood of self-awareness. I was embarrassed; I realized that I had been irritating the people around me. However; this invitation into stillness; stopped my “running” and I felt my experience. I began to cry. While I didn’t know it then, this moment served as my initiation into the power of mindfulness.
This experience influenced a personal quest towards self-awareness and embodiment. The process of becoming mindful is a lifelong journey; one that continues to involve humbling moments. I recognize how my auto-pilot can take over. Mindfulness has required a willingness to acknowledge my imperfections and has relied upon a foundation of self-compassion.
As a clinical psychologist, I have also engaged in a passionate inquiry into the benefits of mindfulness in mental health and well-being. My doctoral research explored the use of mind-body interventions in therapy. What I learned is that mindfulness meditation is one of the most researched and fastest growing approaches to mental health and that many professional psychologists are already integrating mindfulness and psychotherapy.
“Mindfulness starts by respecting ourselves and the people we are with. This process is not about pushing an agenda that forsakes connection. Being mindful is not about being smarter, better, or more enlightened. The foundation of mindfulness is acceptance; a practice which strengthens our capacity to honestly reflect upon our own humanness.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
What is Mindfulness?
Yoga studios are as common as Starbucks in my town and you can now purchase an app for your smart phone that reminds you to meditate. But, what is mindfulness really and how does it apply to psychotherapy?
Mindfulness within psychotherapy involves engaging in practices that encourage present-centered awareness, a mindset of non-judgment, awareness of a bodily felt sense, relaxation techniques, and awareness of breathing patterns. In many ways, the basic tenants of mindfulness seem to be quite parallel to the teachings of psychology.
Classic psychoanalysis has long provided opportunities for clients to free associate and therefore learn from the process of listening thoughts. Carl Rogers’ client-centered therapy has emphasized unconditional positive regard, an action requiring suspension of judgment so that the client may learn to be more self-accepting. More recently, cognitive behavioral strategies teach clients to manage anxiety or depression by working with the body and breath.
Perhaps, mindfulness is so well integrated into psychotherapy because we are simply reframing practices that have already been in use for many decades.
Within my doctoral research I explored the research discussing the benefits of mindfulness in psychotherapy. The science of the mind-body connection reveals that the body has more to do with thought, perception, memory, decision making, and emotion than previously suspected. There is an inseparable relationship between the psyche and soma. Here are some of the current perspectives of how mindfulness works:
- Increased Control—Mindfulness in psychotherapy is associated with decreased impulsivity as well as greater self-control over our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. However, a secondary and perhaps equally important benefit is the development of a “yielding mode of control” in which clients adopt a set of beliefs such as nonjudgment, curiosity that assist in developing greater acceptance of situations or oneself.
- Coping and Calming—Mindfulness emphasizes our moment-to-moment awareness of thoughts and emotions as they occur. This encourages early recognition of problems and can enable us to experience greater choice of available coping responses. When we calm down we have greater access to the parts of our brain that can reflect. In the pause, we can become curious about what best serves us right now; we may be more likely to reach out to a friend; to go for a walk, or to make a healthy meal.
- Self-Regulation— Emotional balance is an essential component of mental well-being. Dysregulation of our emotions can occur either through avoidance of situations that are uncomfortable or preoccupations such as excessive worries. Sustained, nonjudgmental self-observation has been shown to increase our ability to tolerate emotions and decreases symptoms of depression, anxiety, panic, and chronic pain. Practicing self-acceptance can help us understand that uncomfortable experiences do not necessitate escape or reactivity.
- Mind-Body Feedback—Research using neuro-imaging technology reveals that changes in our thoughts change our biology. In other words, changing beliefs influence the neural, electrical activity in the brain and lead to changes in the body’s biochemistry. Likewise, when we change our body by changing our posture or how we are breathing we influence patterns of thoughts. With mindfulness we can become increasingly aware of our habits and can consciously create changes in this feedback loop.
Mindfulness and Psychotherapy
The most important consideration to me when integrating mindfulness and psychotherapy is the relationship I have with the person sitting across from me. Mindfulness is not a religion and it is not necessary to sit and meditate with clients. In fact, it is imperative to start by respecting the world view of the people we are with. While I value the benefits of mindfulness, it is never worth pushing an agenda that forsakes connection. With this in mind, here are some gentle ways to offer mindfulness in psychotherapy:
- Encourage awareness—Statements such as “Take a moment to check in with your body,” and “What are you aware of right now” encourage present-centered experience of thoughts, emotions, and sensations. These are the central components of mindfulness and are often not threatening. If more structure is needed; teach clients how to do a body scan. If you are needing more guidance, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books or full training in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction are excellent resources.
- Slow down—When we get emotionally activated we tend to speed up. When a client is sharing a lot of information quickly I want to make sure that we are both able to process what is being shared. Gently asking a client to pause for a moment can give us both a chance to really hear and experience what is being said.
- Deepen the breath—Attention to the breath offers immediate changes to the body and mind. The breath is widely considered the fastest way to change our mental and emotional state. We can cultivate deep belly breathing when needing to slow the mind and emotions down. An excellent resource for clinicians and clients is Gay Hendricks book Conscious Breathing which offers several excellent breath-awareness practices.
- Know yourself—What helps you stay present? What increases your self-awareness? When we are engaged in our own mindfulness practice, whatever that may be, we are more likely to bring the gift of our presence to our work. When I am grounded in my practice I am more likely to be accepting of the humanness in me; therefore I am more likely to accept the humanness in another person.
Being mindful is not about being smarter, better or more enlightened. The foundation of mindfulness is acceptance; a practice that asks us to reflect honestly on ourselves, our choices, and our interactions. Such self-awareness includes a willingness to admit when we are wrong and a commitment to stay engaged until amends are made. Sometimes, mindfulness comes in the form of the hands that firmly touch your feet; inviting you stop running and simply be aware.
- Schwartz, A. (2014) Mind-body therapies: beliefs and practices of APA member professional psychologists. Fielding Monograph Series, Vol. 2
- Ray, O. (2004). How the mind hurts and heals the body. American Psychologist, 59(1), 29-40.
- Shapiro, D. H., Schwartz, C. E., & Astin, J. A. (1996) Controlling ourselves, controlling our world. American Psychologist, 51(12), 12-13-1230.
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole (Fall, 2016). She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.