How Mindfulness Complements Psychotherapy
When we practice mindfulness we bring a sense of curiosity to our experience as it unfolds, moment by moment. We observe and pay attention to what is happening in our minds and bodies, becoming more present and available to ourselves and to others.
The therapeutic process pays attention to the stories of peoples lives, often explored through verbal communication; the ‘felt sense’ of our life experiences however, is held in the body, often out of conscious awareness. As I work with a client, I will be listening and responding to what I hear being communicated both verbally and non-verbally. The focus of my attention will be with the client as I listen to and engage with them, but I will also be mindful of my own internal experience, noticing my thoughts and observing the sensations and emotions aroused in my body. This mindful self-awareness acts as a guide, informing and enriching my experience of being with the client. Noticing that the pace of my breath is quickening for example, will alert me to consider that perhaps my client is feeling anxious and uncertain. I will bring awareness to my breathing, allowing it to slow and soften, grounding myself, with the hope this will resonate with my clients body regulation - allowing perhaps a sense of easing and opening between us; creating a safe space in which it becomes possible to get closer to and explore what is happening. Moment by moment, this body/mind awareness within and between becomes part of the therapeutic conversation.
In therapy sessions, I may use mindfulness to inform interventions in a more explicit and openly collaborative way; attending to the breath and the body, and perhaps carry out a mindfulness practice in the session. I may also encourage the client to work with mindful practices outside of therapy, with the aim of making them part of their everyday life. When we bring awareness to our breath and body we connect more fully with our experience, develop the skill of tuning into the ‘felt’ sense in the body, and become more able to recognise familiar patterns of thinking and reacting. Mindfulness practice helps us develop tools for breaking the cycle of compulsive rumination, freeing us to explore alternative perspectives and possibilities.
When working mindfully in therapy, space is created for observing the way in which our bodies have learned to hold onto or resist emotion; patterns that will have been developed throughout our lives and shaped by our experiences. Our brains and bodies will have learned to react in particular ways, as our inbuilt survival system has been activated to safeguard us from perceived threat or danger. Although these patterns are designed to protect, the defensive avoidance and shutting-down strategies they often trigger can block and restrict rather than enable. The process of therapy can help us discover more about ourselves and the ways in which we engage with the world around us, with the potential of freeing ourselves from ‘old’ restrictive patterns of thinking and feeling so we can live our lives more fully. An important part of this process is being mindful to our internal and external experience, moment by moment; we are then more able to observe what is happening, to use breath and body awareness to soothe the nervous system and to calm reactive mental activity.
I believe therapy itself is an embodied and mindful process. This may be at an implicit level, helping both therapist and client attend to the ‘music’ that accompanies the words or more overtly, with mindful interventions playing a more explicit role in a session, bringing direct attention to mindful breathing and body connection, focussing and expanding awareness, attuning to sensory/feeling experience, slowing down, and observing the flow and interaction between thoughts and feelings.