Slowly, she repeated the words and, after a pause, said, “I feel my shoulders just drop way down. My belly is breathing more fully. This feels good, like how I want to feel—solid. What is this called, what we’re doing now?”
“We’re using mindfulness to help you really take in this new possibility of solidity, to anchor this important way of experiencing yourself.”
“Great,” she said, opening her eyes and smiling. “Whatever it is, let’s do more of it.”
Why did I choose this particular moment to introduce mindfulness to Suzanne? First, I was looking for a moment that would likely yield a positive experience of mindfulness, so as to set the stage for future mindfulness-based work. Second, I was waiting for the therapeutic relationship to feel strong enough. In doing mindfulness-based work, the therapist is essentially inviting clients to explore a new way of experiencing themselves, so there must be sufficient trust and rapport.
For the next few months, we practiced mindfulness techniques, integrated into regular talk therapy, which taught Suzanne to “resource” positive experiences of herself. She began looking forward to the times she could close her eyes, go inward, and feel better about herself.
At this stage, for clients who like to understand what we’re doing, I explain how mindfulness works. I tell them that the part of the brain we use to think about our world, the prefrontal cortex, is only a recent evolutionary development. The thinking brain gets eclipsed by the limbic (“emotional”) brain, patterned by early experiences in relationships, and by the reptilian brain, concerned with basic survival. Then I translate for clients a simplified version of Daniel Siegel’s theory of the mindful brain, explaining that mindfulness allows access to parts of the limbic/emotional brain that aren’t engaged as effectively just by talking.
It wasn’t long before Suzanne’s enthusiasm for this first foray into mindfulness work began to wear thin. “I come in here, and have these great experiences, where I feel relaxed and clear,” she said one day, clearly frustrated. “But then I go out on a date with a guy, and I can’t find that calmness in myself anywhere.”
I acknowledged her frustration and suggested that we start to apply mindfulness in a new way that might help her in her dating life. She was skeptical, but curious.
“Suzanne, can you tell me what your experience is like when you’re waiting to hear from the man you’ve just had that first date with?”
“Oh, it’s like I can’t stop going. I get edgy and fidget and clean the house and just keep thinking, ‘If I don’t call, he’ll make plans with someone else.’ It’s terrible!”