In the last decade, mindfulness has become one of the most popular word within the psychotherapeutic world. This is so not without good reason: Whilst it has only recently been embraced by Western psychology, it is an ancient practice found in a wide range of Eastern philosophies, including Buddhism, Taoism and Yoga. Evidence has mounted to support it as an effective way to reduce stress, increase joy and self-awareness, enhance emotional intelligence, and undo various unhelpful cognitive and behavioural patterns.
In addition to teaching clients about mindfulness, research has shown that there are tremendous amount of benefits to therapists practicing mindfulness themselves. With practise, a practitioner can begin to develop a heightened awareness of the subtle moment-by-moment information the client is communicating with them. The therapist can learn to not only hear the ‘content’ of what the client is saying, but also track the ‘process— the immediate experience and the relational pattern as they happen in the room. This level of attunement has been found to be deeply therapeutic and has the ability to heal attachment trauma, as it resembles what we get from our early caregivers.
Mindfulness can be defined in a variety of different ways, but they all basically come down to: paying attention to the present moment with an intention to cultivate curiosity and compassion. It offers a space that is outside of our usual autopilot way of thinking, feeling and behaving. It is a powerful tool because it offers an alternative to the many ‘stuck places’ experienced not only by clients, but also therapists.
We may define mindfulness as ‘a process of awareness’; it is a unique experience as it is about paying attention to the experience that comes up, rather than being caught up in them – akin to watching clouds pass in the sky. Instead of trying to intellectualise the problems or feelings, mindfulness offers the clients an experiential tool that they can practise and use in the daily life. The discovery of a new headspace often opens up possibilities – for more joy, more peace, more positive habits.
Another reason for the popularity of mindfulness is accessibility. Mindfulness skills can be learned and practiced by anyone, whatever their background. Although mindfulness practise finds its origin in Buddhism, therapeutic approaches such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) are completely secular in nature.
Sometimes, we may meet client who says: ’ But I cannot sit still, I am no good at meditating’; this anxiety is often based on misconceptions that can be debunked. It is not uncommon for people to assume someone who they see sitting on a mat has all reached a state of serenity, and that they will never reach that state.
It may be helpful for you and your clients to know that complete serenity is a far cry from what actually happens. Mindfulness teachers sometimes describe our mind as ‘monkey minds’ – It is constantly busy thinking, planning, reminiscing, and judging… this is completely natural. Our goal in practising mindfulness is not to get rid of all thoughts and feelings, but to create a space for them to come and go, so that we no longer feel trapped in them.
In contrary to the urban myth, mindfulness is not about sitting on an uncomfortable cushion for hours or chanting “omm”. It is about being ‘more awake’ in your daily life, tasting fully the wide palate of human emotions – without getting stuck in them. Mindfulness can be practised inside or outside of formal meditation. It can take a variety of forms, from ‘formal’ practices such as sitting breathing exercises, to other practices that aims at cultivating a continuity of awareness in your daily living.
The ultimate goal of mindfulness practices is to strengthen and deepen the human capacity to live more meaningful, balanced and peaceful lives. It serves as one of the most powerful tools in a therapist’s tool kit, allowing him or her to go where mere conversation cannot reach.
Imi Lo is a UKCP Registered Contemporary Psychotherapist. She has been teaching mindfulness and running groups for beginners in the last 4 years. Her qualifications in teaching mindfulness are gained in Oxford University and recognised by the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She regularly teaches other therapists and health professionals to use Mindfulness in clinical practice.
Imi is also a qualified and experienced Yoga teacher. The liberating power of combining scientific knowledge about human anatomy with our emotional and spiritual being never ceases to surprise us.