Being a therapist is hard work that requires an incredible amount of mindfulness, whether you have a formal practice or not. We are trained to be good listeners, space holders, unconditional validators, growth-facilitators, case managers, and sometimes entire support systems, all at once.
For some of our patients, the time they spend with us is the only time they have ever been seen, heard, and validated for being exactly who they are. It’s a big responsibility.
But because our work is so demanding, it’s inevitable that we will occasionally zone out in the therapy room. It might be that the patient tells the same story over and over again, or that we’re simply tired or emotionally exhausted from whatever might be going on in our own lives. Either way, there will be times when we will be anything but present in the room.
Luckily, there are things we can do to improve our capacity to be more present in both our work with clients and our day-to-day lives. There are countless ways to practice mindfulness and present awareness that can be easily built-in to the things we do everyday, while strengthening our capacity for concentration and real-time connection with our patients. The following are just a few ideas, but they can each be easily adapted to fit your own needs.
Be an active listener.
One of the first things we learn as therapists is how to practice active listening. By its very nature, active listening requires that we pay attention to the client and be fully engaged. This process is a sort of mindfulness practice in itself, because we are paying attention on purpose, and if we’re any good at what we do, we’re doing so with an open mind and non-judgmental stance.
When you’re truly listening in an active way, there is so much to engage with that you may find it easier to stay in the moment. There is an incredible amount of information to take in at any given time—body language, facial expression, affect, and of course, the words that are being said.
If you focus on gathering as much data as possible, you’ll likely be so busy in the present moment that your mind won’t have time to wander.
Pay attention to what’s coming up inside you as you listen.
If listening actively to what the client is expressing isn’t quite enough to keep you engaged (and I’d suggest that if it’s not, you might be doing it wrong), you can turn your attention in on what’s happening inside of you as you listen to what is being shared.
Are you connecting with what the patient is saying on an emotional level? Do you feel it anywhere in your body? Do you notice any urges to lean in closer or pull away? All of this is present moment material that you can use to stay anchored in the moment. If it’s too distracting to focus on everything that’s happening for you as you listen, try choosing just one thing on which to focus. The breath and bodily sensations are two good options.
A regular meditation practice can look many different ways and is one of the best things you can do to foster the skills to stay present in your work and daily life. There are many guided meditations available for free online that can help you get started if you’re not sure where to begin.
You can also join a meditation group in your community, or try another mindfulness-based practice, like yoga or qigong. You might even try simply pausing for a minute or two each day and focusing on the breath. All of these are examples of practices that will foster your ability to focus and stay present in the moment with clients, and you’ll likely experience benefits in your personal relationships and daily activities as well.
If you do practice meditation, you may be familiar with the idea that not only is it okay for your mind to wander, it’s actually a natural and normal part of being human that is unavoidable for the vast majority of us—even seasoned meditators.
With brains that are constantly generating thoughts, it’s a noble undertaking to strive to be present for even the majority of the time. So go easy on yourself and aim to be present as often as you can rather than constantly. If the mind wanders, bring it back to the moment and if you notice judgmental or self-critical thoughts coming up, let them pass through without attaching meaning to them.
Remember: you are a human with a human brain doing the best you can.