“Mindfulness is the practice of consciously choosing to focus on a single experience in the present moment . . . while quieting one’s inner thoughts”. —Jon Kabat-Zinn
Mindfulness is popular.
You likely have worksheets, lessons, techniques, and theories that help your clients understand mindfulness and its benefits.
You understand mindfulness and its benefits.
But, as we therapists know, sometimes understanding doesn’t foster motivation, or change. The fact is, therapists struggle to implement mindfulness, along with a “self-caring” lifestyle (Kissil and Niño, 2017).
The constant promotion of mindfulness, like self-care, can give the impression that something is lacking in your life. That you as a therapist aren’t being enough—mindful enough, or caring enough (to yourself or others).
Rather than simply encouraging mindfulness, which I believe creates a gap between knowledge and implementation, my aim with this post is to get into the details of what mindfulness looks like for therapists. Because, that’s where the gold is—the new idea, the recognition that I can do it, the simple step. That’s what I need. Not more information or understanding, but examples, clarity, and most of all, compassion for myself.
Mindfulness is the theme for the September/October issue of Family Therapy Magazine (from the AAMFT). The authors featured cover how to use mindfulness principles in systemic work, as well as in the therapist life. I include the main tips from the magazine, in this article.
Mindfulness Tips for Therapists
“One of the reasons self-care is so difficult to maintain is that we have a flawed view of what self-care should be. Going to the spa, getting a massage, or going on vacation are all really great ideas, but at their core, they help us escape our lives, rather than support us in living them. True self-care looks different” (MCCall, 2007; cited in Abdelsayed, 2018).
Structure Your Day Like Yoga
Using yoga practice as a metaphor, Abdelsayed (2018) recommends structuring your day with the progression of a yoga practice—from warm up, to active practice, to cool down, to rest. This intentional design incorporates the natural rhythm of the day, as well as our bodies. Further, it will keep you from skipping essential time periods necessary for ongoing self-care.
Put An End to “Thinkitis”
“Mindfulness is so much more than focusing on the breath. It is about being present and attentive to the unfolding of experience” (Beaudoin, 2018).
“Thinkits” is the term Beaudoin (2018) uses to describe the “narrowing of experience, where excessive thinking mobilizes too much mental space and time, at the expense of other dimenstions, which become stifled” (p. 38). Beaudoin asks: How often does your mind dwell at a difference place than your body?
A challenging question. I’m not sure that I can quantify it. Can you?
In order to end “thinkitis,” and become more being-oriented, Beaudoin suggests:
Noticing moments that could be enjoyable, or that fit with your preferred identity.
Choosing something you appreciate from a specific experience, such as an item from nature while you are taking a walk. But also going beyond noticing, by telling yourself to remember the item in detail.
Use reminders, such as alarms, to help you shift from thinking to noticing—noticing a feeling, sensation, or your surroundings.
Mindfulness Tips for Therapy
Mindfulness in Couple Therapy
Mindfulness requires presence, and presence is associated with increased acceptance, curiosity, non-judgment, and understanding. Moore (2018) explains that mindfulness can help couples “cultivate a sense of empathy toward partners,” and “improve physical intimacy,” among other benefits. She suggests inviting couples to incorporate rhythmic movement, such as joint exercise, or dance. If partners are able to be fully present through these activities, they lead to an increase in awareness of one another, as well as associated needs.
Mindfulness In Schools
Describing her experience offering a mindfulness meditation group at her son’s school, Gehart (2018) says, “I started the program to fulfill required parent volunteer time at my son’s school.” She explains her program as well as her process in her article, Mindfulness In Schools: Teaching Focus, Self-Regulation, and Kindness. Summarizing the personal impact of her program, Gehart concludes: “Conducting mindfulness groups has been one of the most rewarding activities of my professional career.”
Thankfully, she offers suggestions for therapists and counselors interested in creating a school mindfulness program:
Carefully assess the school’s culture and systemic dynamics to ensure the program is meaningful to the students, parents, teachers, and administrators.
Use existing resources to pull together your curriculum. (ie., Don’t reinvent the wheel!)
See Gehart’s resource hub for creating mindfulness programs in schools, at www.mindfulschool.net.
Mindfulness for Graduate Students
“Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” —Viktor Frankl
Wanting to redirect MFT graduate students’ desires for answers, Adams (2018) began using a training approach that would allow student therapists to be led more by curiosity than anxiety. Adams explains, “Students expect to learn the right questions to ask, to manage their own anxiety, more than anything else. While it is tempting to rescue them, it is far more valuable to invite them into a crucible that will contain their anxiety, allowing it to be observed, accepted, and transformed” (p. 28).
The path of a student, and the path of a therapist, is, at its core, about learning how to manage anxiety in order to create a safe space for clients and be effective as a holder of space. Adams offers a challenge to students, and indeed, to even the seasoned therapist: Practice not asking any questions in your sessions. Rather, pose your inquiry as a “wondering,” or “curiosity.”
For example, rather than ask, “How will you know if therapy will be helpful?,” offer, “I’m curious about what you’ll notice when therapy is helpful for you” (Adams, 2018, p. 29).
Making questions off-limits increases therapists’ anxiety (if they are in the habit of relying on questions) and forces therapists to use different therapeutic skills as well as anxiety-busting inner resources. These curiosity-infused “I” statements also “come from a place of conscious inner awareness,” allowing the therapist and client to experience relational curiosity.
Mindfulness in the Clinical (Therapy) Classroom
While preparing for her doctoral teaching internship, Bell decided to creatively, and mindfully, help her students take on “the challenges their training would present to them” (p. 33). She says, “I started to imagine ways in which my classroom could be more oriented toward the growth and wellness of my students.”
Bell incorporated mindfulness rituals, including reflection, journaling, deep breathing, meeting at Starbucks (for the sensory impact), among others, to invite students into presence and awareness. Additionally, the mindfulness practices allowed students to process their anxiety verbally, and set the stage for a decreased emphasis on grades and perfectionism.
Bell modeled self-care and mindfulness for budding therapists, rather than only talking about it. She gave students an experience.
“We seek not rest, but transformation.” —Marge Piercy
In presenting this information to you, my hope is that mindfulness and self care take on new meaning. That, perhaps, you see yourself--your clinical interest, or your personal goal--in one of these examples. And also, that you allow yourself to notice your thoughts, feelings, and attitudes about, as well as your connection or disconnection to, mindfulness.
Let me know, in the comments below:
What one thing are you taking away from this article?
What one word currently describes your relationship to mindfulness?