A reflective piece on introducing mindfulness into counselling practice, with special attention given to the effect on the therapist. The writer explores his own experience of regular mindfulness practice and offers some introductory thoughts on the importance of counsellor embodiment in client work.
‘Wherever you go, there you are’ (Kabat-Zinn, 2004).
On a recent family visit to Spain we travelled up to Ronda to see the seventeenth century Roman viaduct. As we approached the viewing point a solitary violinist was playing for nobody in particular, and yet for everybody. In a moment the soaring melody, the presence of ancient history and the distant freshly growing fields all blended into one and time seemed to stop. I sensed the joy and reality of the moment in a visceral, embodied way as ‘deep calls to deep’ (Psalm 42:7). It was as if I myself became part of the scenery and everything seemed suddenly more alive as I perceived all before me as if for the first time.
Maybe you have felt something similar when all seems to become more real and you can only experience the moment? The birth of a child, the death of a loved one, moments of joy or when you receive painful news; times when all else fades into the background and you only experience what is happening in the present. These are moments when you are truly aware, vitally awake to your unique lived experience. You are being truly mindful and awake to the ‘full catastrophe’ (Kabat-Zinn, 2008). This is one of the aims of mindfulness – to foster a lived experience of the present moment in all its fulness. In mindfulness we learn to be fully present to all our senses in acceptance and kindness, as in loving presence we come home to who we really are.
Yet so often we are not mindful. Our minds rush forward to the next event, the next client; or we dwell on past experiences and in our minds seek to relive that conversation, and to somehow make sense of it. The problem is we almost always remember in part and our memories are filtered by our own personal bias and we live in a sort of virtual reality.
What is mindfulness?
‘by pausing, we relax into a natural wakefulness and inner freedom’ (Brach, 2003:60).
So, what exactly is ‘mindfulness’? Basically it can be described as the practice of being present with the immediate experience of our lives (Aggs and Bambling, 2010). It is the awareness that emerges when we pay attention to our experience in a particular way: on purpose (the attention is deliberately placed on particular aspects of experience); in the present moment (when the mind slips into the past or the future we bring it back to the present); and non-judgementally (the process is infused with a spirit of acceptance of whatever arises) (Kabat-Zinn, as cited in Crane, 2009).
Some Christians approach mindfulness with suspicion because of its stated Buddhist roots. Yet if we separate the practice from the provenance we can find stark similarities between the teaching of the early Christian saints and mindfulness theory. For example, Teresa of Avila, a Spanish sixteenth-century mystic, highlights one of the essential psychological qualities of Christian contemplation as its ‘centredness in the present moment.. . characterised by open, unfocused presence to what is” (May, 2005:109).
Just think of how such an ‘open, present-centred awareness’ (May, 2005:110) would help our therapeutic work. Tara Brach is a meditation teacher and doctor in psychology and considers that mindfulness is probably the most ideal training that exists for therapists (Brach, 2011). She believes mindfulness strengthens present-centred attention; arouses compassion and empathy; and enlarges affect tolerance of our own inner states, so in being fully present we are ready for whatever comes up in the counselling room.
In fact, there is a growing body of literature on using meditation and mindfulness in the therapeutic setting, giving ample evidence of its positive psychological effects on both counsellor and client (Neff & Germer, 2013). These include: increased subjective wellbeing; reduced negative symptomology and emotional reactivity; and improved behavioural regulation (Neff & Germer, 2013). But how can we best introduce mindfulness practices to the therapy room?
‘whatever else… the most important thing we offer is our true presence and our deep listening’ (Bien, 2006:vii).
The practitioner intending to introduce mindfulness interventions into client work needs a good working knowledge and understanding of the foundations underpinning mindfulness. However, for effective use of mindfulness with clients it must be more than a theory. Mindfulness teachers stress that in order to teach and use mindfulness effectively, we have to practice it ourselves (Bien, 2006). If we as practitioners are calm and aware, if we cultivate understanding, then caring will flow naturally from us to the people we work with (Bien, 2006). Mindfulness keeps us grounded in our own experience so that we are free to attend to another (Santorelli, 1999). It is an act of hospitality; a way of learning to treat ourselves with kindness and care that slowly begins to percolate into the deepest recesses of our being while gradually offering us the possibility of relating to others in the same manner (Santorelli, 1999). Many authors on the subject emphasise that the true meaning of mindfulness cannot be fully grasped without experiential practice on the part of the therapist (Andersson, King, & Lalande, 2010). Some leading writers initially thought they could teach mindfulness to clients without practising it themselves. But as they consulted with other mindfulness trainers and observed how they taught, they realised that their calm, mindful manner was as much a part of the teaching as the content (Segal, Williams & Teasdale, 2013). They realised that to teach mindfulness effectively they had to embody it (Bien, 2006).
Mindfulness-based methods are both professionally and personally beneficial for counsellors as well as being efficacious for helping clients deal with their symptoms of mental and physical disorder (Stauffer & Pehrsson, 2012). Research has found that in addition to its role as a clinical intervention, mindfulness may have applications to increase both the wellbeing and effective practice of therapists (Aggs & Bambling, 2010) even though they do not explicitly teach patients how to practise mindfulness (Stauffer & Pehrsson, 2012). Higher levels of mindfulness have been found to be associated with increased work satisfaction, as well as decreased burnout among mental health professionals (Aggs & Bambling, 2010). Mindfulness is now being promoted as a means of enhancing both therapist self-care and therapeutic efficacy (Aggs & Bambling, 2010), as well as being used in supervision role-play with a view to enhancing counsellor empathy (Andersson et al., 2010). Research has shown that even a brief, standardised mindfulness training programme can achieve acceptable knowledge and skills outcome for therapists that can aid their therapeutic practice (Aggs & Bambling, 2010).
‘Keep looking at the bandaged place. That’s where the Light enters you’ (Rumi, in Santorelli, 1999:21).
This is an area I would like to engage in for further research, to consider to what extent the introduction of mindfulness into therapy has produced positive effects on relationship and process in client work. Our privilege and responsibility ‘as servants of the healing arts’ (Santorelli, 1999:120) is to create an environment, provide a method and inspire people to touch what we, beyond any evidence to the contrary, know is who they really are, because we have touched this within ourselves (Santorelli, 1999). Mindfulness meditation can help us do this.
Back to Rhonda: the violin player ended her piece and I approached to request a favourite by Massenet from the opera Thaïs. ‘Por supuesto’ (‘Of course!’) was her response, and once more the breath-taking scenery mingled with the soothing cadence and I was one with both music and moment. We turned to leave and unexpectedly the musician began playing Palladio by Karl Jenkins. A Welsh composition on a Spanish hilltop! How is that possible? And I could have missed it! In mindfulness let me always be open to the unexpected, the beautiful – because it’s never far away. It’s right before our eyes, in the present moment.
Aggs, C., & Bambling, M. (2010) ‘Teaching Mindfulness to psychotherapists in clinical practice: The Mindful Therapy Programme’, Counselling & Psychotherapy Research. 10(4) p. 278.
Andersson, L. King, R. & Lalande, L. (2010) ‘Dialogical mindfulness in supervision role-play‘, Counselling & Psychotherapy Research. 10(4) pp. 287-293.
Bien, T. (2006) Mindful Therapy. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Brach, T. (2003) Radical Acceptance: Embracing your life with the heart of a Buddha. New York, NY: Bantam Dell.
Brach, T. (2011) Meditation & Psychotherapy (CD Training Course). Available from: https://www.soundstrue.com
Chambers, J. & Maris, J. (2010) ‘Integrating Mindfulness as self-care into counselling and psychotherapy training’, Counselling & Psychotherapy Research. 10(2) pp. 114-125.
Crane, R. (2009) Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy – Distinctive Features. London: Routledge.
Germer, C.K., Siegel R.D. & Fulton P.R. (eds.) (2005) Mindfulness and Psychotherapy. New York, NY: Guildford Press.
Hanson, R. & Mendius, R. (2009) The Practical Neuroscience of Buddha’s Brain. Oakland CA: New Harbinger Publications Inc.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2008) Full Catastrophe Living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation. London: Piatkus.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2004) Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness Meditation for everyday life. London: Piatkus
May, G. (2005) The Dark Night of the Soul. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Neff, K. & Germer, C. (2013) ‘A Pilot Study and Randomised Control trial of the Mindful Self-Compassion Programme’, Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(1) pp. 28-44.
Santorelli, S. (1999) Heal Thy Self: Lessons on Mindfulness in Medicine. New York, NY: Random House.
Segal, Z, Williams, M & Teasdale, J. (2013) Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression. (2nd ed.) London: Guildford Press
Stauffer, M. & Pehrsson, D. (2012) ‘Mindful competencies for counsellors and psychotherapists’, Journal of Mental Health Counselling. 34(3) pp. 227-239.
Williams, M. Teasdale, J. Seagal, Z. & Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007) The Mindful Way Through Depression – Freeing yourself from Chronic Unhappiness. New York, NY: Guildford Press.
About the author
BSc (Hons); Adv Dip Counselling; ACC Accredited; MBACP (Registered) Cert Supervision
Phil was in pastoral ministry In North Wales before spending 18 years as missionary in southern Spain. Burnout led him to Waverley where, after graduation in 2007, he has stayed on as tutor. Until recently, he led the Spirituality module on the undergraduate course and the first year of the Masters Course, and is now occasional lecturer and supervisor. Mindfulness has been an integral part of his personal healing and approach to therapy. He works in private practice as well as accepting agency and EAP referrals.
Copyright 2022 Philip Shepherd