An Introduction to Mindfulness in Psychotherapy

10/23/2017

The word mindfulness has become increasingly common over the last decade, especially in places like the Bay Area and in conversations about self-help and pop psychology. It’s tempting to dismiss mindfulness as a passing fad or to use the word automatically, without meaning anything special by it.

As a therapist, I see mindfulness as a foundation for each and every interaction with my clients. I also believe it plays a crucial role in the personal growth and transformation that so many people hope for in psychotherapy. I’m offering this post as an introduction to mindfulness for my current and prospective clients, and I hope that others might find it useful as well.

What is mindfulness?

Western psychologists adapted mindfulness from various Eastern religious and spiritual traditions – especially from Buddhist meditation, which has been passed down for more than 2,500 years. We often use the definition provided by John Kabat-Zinn, who created the popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program common in medical settings across the country.


Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way:
on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.

Wherever You Go, There You Are:
Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life

by John Kabat-Zinn


1. On purpose

Mindfulness invites us to be clear about our intentions. Instead of getting lost in our usual stream of consciousness, which can range from aimless drifting to obsessive ruminating, we make a concerted effort to focus our attention. We also need to be clear about why we’re doing this in the first place: to see reality more clearly, to accept what we find there, and to be kinder and more compassionate with ourselves and others.

2. In the present moment

Mindfulness invites us to focus on what is happening right now. Instead of getting lost in our usual modes of analyzing, problem solving, ruminating about the past, and worrying about the future, we focus on whatever presents itself to our awareness here and now. Focusing on the breath is an easy way to wake up from our thoughts because the breath is always happening in the present moment.

3. Nonjudgmentally

Mindfulness invites us to choose an attitude of receptivity and openness toward our experience. Instead of getting lost in our usual tendency to evaluate and criticize ourselves and everyone else, we focus on observing whatever presents itself to our awareness with curiosity and acceptance. That means that all of our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations are equally welcome. In fact, we want to go beyond non-evaluative curiosity to cultivate an attitude of compassion and lovingkindness toward ourselves and others. That can take some time.


This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality. It wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments. If we are not fully present for many of those moments, we may not only miss what is most valuable in our lives but also fail to realize the richness and the depth of our possibilities for growth and transformation.

Wherever You Go, There You Are:
Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life

by John Kabat-Zinn


Mindfulness in Therapy

Therapy will probably feel very different than the conversations you're used to having with friends, co-workers, and loved ones. You'll get the most out of our sessions if you're willing to look at things in a different way. The most important thing you can do is to bring an attitude of kindness and curiosity to your experience. Here’s a general rule you can keep in mind:


IF YOU ALWAYS HAVE A QUICK COMEBACK OR A STORY TO TELL
YOU’RE MISSING OPPORTUNITIES FOR INSIGHT AND GROWTH!


Here are some things you can do to cultivate mindfulness and get the most out of our sessions together:

Slow Down

Pay attention to your pace. If you’re racing through your thoughts and stories, jumping from one idea to the next, then we’re missing lots of therapeutic opportunities.

Take a Moment to Breathe

If you notice that you’re rushing, take a moment to stop talking and breathe. If you’re getting ready to change the topic, take a moment to stop talking and breathe. If I ask you a question and you have an automatic answer, take a moment to stop talking and breathe. If you notice that you feel angry or hurt, take a moment to stop talking and breathe. If you notice that you’re about to defend your point of view or rationalize your behavior, take a moment to stop talking and breathe.

Pay Close Attention to Your Body

See if you can notice small or subtle reactions throughout your body. Maybe some part of you tenses up or relaxes. Maybe you feel some warmth in your belly or heaviness in your hands, or maybe you can feel your heartbeat in your throat. Give yourself a moment to experience the sensation fully, and try to describe it to me.

Aim for Acceptance, Kindness, and Compassion

Try to notice when you're using critical, harsh, or judgmental language about yourself or others. You can even label it when you notice that it's happening – "That's the Critic talking." Try to notice it with curiosity, and don't use it as another opportunity to be hard on yourself.

Of course, your anger is still welcome too. Our goal isn't to make angry feelings go away by replacing them with nice feelings. Our goal also isn't to approve of everything everyone does all the time. Our goal is to aim for kindness, understanding, and compassion, even (and especially!) when it's difficult.

Practice at Home

In therapy, we sometimes talk about mindfulness as a tool or a skill for emotion regulation. It is important to understand, however, that mindfulness is much more than a thing you do to feel better: it is a way of relating to experience that can shift your perception of reality and bring your life more into alignment with your true nature. Although weekly therapy can help to address many issues in your life, it is not sufficient to bring about this kind of transformation. That's why I encourage all my clients to practice mindfulness daily between our sessions. Personal therapy combined with daily practice may open up whole new horizons.

You can apply all these practices in your daily life between sessions. Set 10 minutes aside each day to meditate. Notice your automatic thoughts and habitual actions throughout the week. Remind yourself to slow down, take a moment to breathe, pay attention to your body, and aim for kindness and compassion. Think of this as a complement to the therapy: you’ll get more out of our work together if you bring mindfulness to all aspects of your life.


Resources for Developing a Personal Practice

Below are some resources for learning more about mindfulness and for finding a community to practice with. First, here is a 10-minute guided meditation to introduce you to the practice and give you an idea of how I work:


No one else can do this job of waking up for us, although our family and friends do sometimes try desperately to get through to us, to help us see more clearly or break out of our own blindnesses. But waking up is ultimately something that each one of us can only do for ourselves. When it comes down to it, wherever you go, there you are. It’s your life that is unfolding.

Wherever You Go, There You Are:
Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life

by John Kabat-Zinn


Books on Mindfulness

These books are a great place to start if you'd like to learn more about mindfulness.

Meditation Instruction

Here are a few resources for learning how to meditate.

Podcasts and Dharma Talks

Each of these resources includes an archive of Dharma talks from the Insight Meditation tradition. The Dharma talks provide wisdom and guidance to help integrate mindfulness into your life and relationships. I highly recommend these talks as a complement to therapy. Just listening to them is a powerful act of self-care! Browse the archives and find a title that speaks to you.

  • Dharma Seed (talks from various teachers in the Insight Meditation tradition)

  • Audio Dharma (talks from the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, CA)

  • Talks by Tara Brach (a psychologist, meditation teacher, and author who is highly respected in the Insight Meditation community and the field of Clinical Psychology)

Finding a Local Community

The best way to practice and integrate mindfulness into your life is to find a local community. These resources are intended for people in the Bay Area.

The following communities offer instruction and teachings in the Insight Meditation tradition. I highly recommend the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland for its strong commitment to diversity and inclusiveness. They offer one weekly meditation group that is exclusive for people of color, and another group that is exclusive for people who identify as gender and sexual minorities.

These additional locations offer instruction and teachings in other traditions, such as Zen Buddhism.


Kip Williams is a Marriage & Family Therapist (#93170) with offices in SF and Oakland. He specializes in mindfulness-based psychotherapy for gender and sexual minorities. He is currently attending Saybrook University as a PhD student in Psychology with a specialization in Consciousness, Spirituality, and Integrative Health. He is also a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction provisionally qualified teacher-in-training with the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness.