If you practice psychotherapy, you know that mindfulness-based interventions have exploded across the clinical landscape and have been proven-effective in treating a range of mental health issues. The act of practicing present moment awareness in sessions not only improves treatment outcomes but also yields significant benefits for the overall well-being of therapists and clients alike.
Even if not for the sheer volume of empirical evidence that supports the clinical benefits of mindfulness, it may seem intuitive that practicing being in the present moment would be a good thing. But particularly for those who are newer to incorporating mindfulness in sessions, it can be tricky to explain to skeptical clients, supervisors and colleagues your precise reasons for wanting to do it.
The following, which has been adapted from the book Mindfulness Meditation in Psychotherapy: An Integrated Model for Clinicians (link) by psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher Steven Alper, LCSW, should give you a solid framework for discussing the benefits of doing mindfulness in psychotherapy.
- Instead of pathologizing people, mindfulness-based interventions focus on living a healthy, whole life.
One of the first things we learn as practitioners of mindfulness is that pain is inevitable. When we practice—whether it be individually, in groups, or in sessions—we focus on shifting our relationship to pain, rather than changing or getting rid of it.
Instead of focusing solely on symptom alleviation, mindfulness-based interventions are geared toward developing and building skills, cultivating healthy attitudes and establishing new perspectives. Such skills, attitudes, and perspectives are meant to not only boost “positive” emotions like happiness and joy, but also to increase our experience of peace and stability during challenging times when sadness, anger, or other hard feelings are present.
In fact, a recent study found that the ability to experience a broad range of emotions was a predictor in both emotional and physical health. This ability to experience the full spectrum of feelings that come with being a human—without turning to unhealthy or maladaptive coping behaviors—is one of the primary aims of mindfulness practice.
- Mindfulness is experientially-oriented, not intellectually- or language-oriented.
One of the great challenges of being human is that we must re-learn how to constantly keep turning back toward the present moment as a source of learning and knowing. There is a tremendous amount of important information available to us in each moment, but our tendency to stay stuck in our thoughts all too often prohibits us from accessing it.
Practicing mindfulness in psychotherapy reminds us and our clients of the wealth of insight that is available to us in each moment, and gives us a map of skills and insights that help us gain access to it. Even the simple act of being aware that we are observing our experience, rather than being fused with it, has the potential to significantly impact the way we behave in our lives and the choices we make.
- Mindfulness emphasizes the importance of the body in psychotherapy work.
The practices that form the foundation of mindfulness-based interventions emphasize awareness of sensory experience.
“These practices are profoundly helpful with reinhabiting our bodies and facilitating mind-body integration, in contrast to Western and Westernized cultures, which have encouraged alienation from the body,” writes Alper.
Focusing on the body in psychotherapy is certainly not a novel approach. Approaches based on sensory awareness and somatic experiencing have been available for those who believe in the significance of the mind-body link. But none of the somatic modalities of the past have permeated the academic institutions and progressional licensing boards at the level that mindfulness has.
- Mindfulness-based interventions emphasize the virtues of discipline and practice.
At its core, mindfulness is built upon discipline and practice. Just like learning a new skill or vocation, or taking on a challenging hobby, mindfulness requires the virtues of patience and commitment; two qualities that have been directly challenged by our culture’s dominant values of convenience and instant gratification.
But true discipline does not typically appear out of nowhere. There must be something that motivates us to stick with something that’s hard for us. Mindfulness practice asks that we get in touch with our values and what matters most to us. Once we do this, we are more likely to find the motivation to maintain our commitment when things get tough.
- Mindfulness softens fixed ideas about processes, issues, emotions, and things we struggle with, and lessens their power.
Consider the following statement: I want to be more social, but my depression gets in the way.
Have you ever heard a client say something like this? She relates to her feelings of sadness, hopelessness and lethargy as though they are a physical thing, a burden she hauls with her into each new day.
The problem with this way of relating to our emotional processes is that it sets us up for certain thoughts and behaviors. It begs the question of what she might do to “get rid of” her depression. It asks what she might do to escape from it. Perhaps she should go see a movie, talk on the phone with a friend, or go for a walk at the park to minimize direct contact with this burden she carries,or to forget about it, temporarily.
“Mindfulness practice offers an alternative mode of relating to experience, one based on understanding that we live in moment to moment increments—sensation moments, perception moments, emotion moments, thought moments, always the present moment, one after the next,” writes Alper.
Mindfulness reminds us that the fixed ideas we have about who we are or what our lives are like are not indeed fixed, after all.
“In the deepest sense, objects and things are actually ‘happenings’ (more like verbs than nouns), even you and me. Not even our bodies are solid. Something as fleeting as an emotion certainly isn’t,” writers Alper.
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