Reclaiming our missing experiences
It sometimes seems as if there isn’t a psychotherapy seminar or workshop anywhere in the country that doesn’t have “mindfulness” in the title, yet most therapists these days are still vague about how they can use mindfulness techniques, minute-by-minute, in sessions, and how guiding clients through mindfulness exercises can help resolve difficult, long-standing issues. So what follows is a brief primer on the specifics of incorporating mindfulness into therapeutic practice.
Let’s start with a basic question: what is mindfulness? According to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s pathbreaking 2005 book, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, mindfulness is awareness with intention and without judgment of what’s happening—as it’s happening—in the present moment. As with other forms of therapy, the application of this concept requires the structure of selected tools and techniques.
In my work, I draw on two body-oriented mindfulness methods, Hakomi and Somatic Experiencing: the Hakomi Method, originated by Ron Kurtz, helps clients tap into core beliefs held below the level of conscious awareness; Somatic Experiencing, developed by Peter Levine, focuses on resolving traumatic activation in the nervous system. Using these methods, I guide clients into deeper states of body awareness. In the moment-to-moment experience of sensation, movement, and images, clients learn how their nervous system organizes itself around old patterns, and how to experiment with new ways of being.
Through mindfulness-based therapy, my clients gain three essential skills: self-regulation (the ability to be self-aware and to self-soothe in situations of emotional intensity); self-state awareness (the ability to identify habitual coping strategies and step out of them); and self-compassion (the practice of diffusing shame and self-criticism through a deeper form of self-acceptance).
Introducing Mindfulness to Clients
My work with Suzanne began two years ago. At the time, she was in an emotionally abusive relationship with Ken, who raged at her regularly. Over and over again, she tried to walk away from his tirades, but panicked every time about losing him, caved in, and accepted the abuse. She came to therapy, in her words, “to learn to value myself.”
For about five months I worked with Suzanne using my own style of talk therapy, informed by my training in Self Psychology. Suzanne experienced me listening to her carefully and empathically, implicitly valuing her needs and feelings. Through this and other supports in her life, especially a group of devoted friends, she finally found the strength to leave Ken. “I really want to be happy,” she declared, “and I won’t let myself be squashed anymore.”
“Suzanne,” I said, “can I invite you to try something that may help you take in the words you just said much more deeply?” She looked at me curiously and nodded. I explained that certain experiences go deeper into the nervous system when we apply mindfulness. I invited her to close her eyes (assuring her she could open them anytime she needed to), and to feel her feet on the floor, her hands on her knees, and the breath entering and leaving her body.
After about five minutes of guiding her through the awareness of different bodily sensations, I said, “OK, Suzanne, I’m going to invite you to repeat the words you spoke earlier—‘I really want to be happy’—and to notice how you feel in your body as you say this.”